Still a Window for Family First? Perhaps, Especially on Congregate Care Limits

Is the Family First Preservation Services Act back from the dead? Doubtful, but it does seem to Youth Services Insider that the push for and against it has not completely evaporated.

In a mass e-mail sent earlier this week, New York’s acting child welfare boss raised the prospect of Family First getting considered in the lame duck session, which will run from after the election until the recess for inauguration in January.

YSI-MB-PageFrom Sheila Poole, acting commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS):

“It is possible that the bill could be introduced following the election and in advance of the new administration. We will keep you apprised of developments as we continue to work on ensuring that [New York State’s] voice is heard. We at OCFS will continue to work for equitable legislation that benefits vulnerable children and families.”

News to YSI! Our understanding was that Family First, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office, relied on an offset of $500 million created by a delay in increased adoption subsidies paid for by the federal government. And that the majority of that offset vanished once the clock struck fiscal 2017 on October 1.

On the other side of the advocacy coin, a Family First advocate reached out to let YSI know that she was told by a legislative staffer in the office of Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-Texas) – one of three Senators with a hold on the bill – that an arrangement had been worked out to keep negotiations going in the lame duck session.

Kathleen Arthur, a grandparent from Washington State who visited D.C. to campaign for Family First, said she was in Cornyn’s office when she read The Imprint’s article stating that the bill was effectively dead.

Arthur said Cornyn’s staff told her that was not the case.

“The LA [legislative assistant] who sits behind the desk on the right looked it up, and read from the screen,” Arthur said. “He said the bill was going to be an extender bill.”

Cornyn’s communications staff did not return a request for clarification, and there was no indication from the staff of either of the lead senators on Family First – Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

“We haven’t heard anything like that,” said an e-mail from Sam Offerdahl, press secretary for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who along with Sen. Orrin Hatch drafted the Family First legislation. She also told YSI that “Sen. Wyden is continuing to work with his colleagues to try to find a way forward on the bill.”

Aaron Forbes, a spokesman for Sen. Hatch, said essentially the same thing last week after the Senate adjourned.

“Chairman Hatch remains committed to working with his colleagues in Congress to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families and ensure the provisions in the Families First Prevention Services Act,” Forbes said, in an e-mail to YSI.

We asked a former Capitol Hill chief of staff if such an extension agreement were possible; he suggested it was, and that “if it’s paid for, then anything is possible and death is never really dead.”

But the idea that such an agreement was done without the knowledge of Wyden seems ludicrous, so in all likelihood the Family First Act – as constituted on Sept. 30 – is in fact dead.

There is another lane open though, it seems, for part of the Family First package: the limitations on federal funds for congregate care. The time-limited services for families need to be paid for, now that the offset is screwed up, but the bill’s congregate care restrictions could move forward as part of another bill in the lame duck session.

The congregate care limits are expected to save $910 million in federal money between 2017 and 2026. That is an easy legislative list, compared to getting the $1.3 billion in increased funds for front-end services worked into another bill.

Hatch’s interest in curbing federal funds for congregate care predates his involvement with Family First. Before he and Wyden came together on this bill, his agenda on the matter was in line with a proposal made in 2013 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation: Elimination of Title IV-E funding entirely for congregate for children younger than 13.

If any segment of Family First is part of some bigger end-of-year bill, with a thousand other things before a new Congress and President are sworn in, it might be harder for opponents to secure holds.

This scenario could be what OCFS’s Poole was referring to in her e-mail. She did not return e-mails from YSI asking for clarification.

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