Biden has emergency power to allow Family First Act funding to prevent homelessness
The economic shutdowns, imposed by the government in an effort to keep Americans safe, have levied severe financial stress upon families. According to a study by Columbia University, an additional 8 million households have plunged into poverty. As problems accumulate, child welfare workers are likely to encounter families on the margins whose children are at risk of separation largely due to the fact that unlike many American households, have little in savings and assets to buffer their children from this great economic disruption.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a weapon it can deploy to arm child welfare first responders to fight poverty-related crises before children are sent to foster care. And it’s time to pull the trigger.
The Presidential Emergency Declaration, first issued on March 13, 2020, revealed a hidden gem in federal law referred to as “the Stafford Act,” which HHS can use to arm front-line child welfare workers, among our nation’s most valuable first responders, with economic resources to stabilize and preserve families. Under the previous administration, HHS used the Stafford Act authority to issue 87 flexibilities to ease administrative burdens on child welfare agencies, but stopped short of addressing pandemic-related economic problems of child welfare involved families.
The Biden administration should exercise this authority and start with the most pressing economic issue: housing.
According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), 25,658 children entered out-of-home care in 2019 because their families lacked adequate housing. This number is far too high and yet in the face of COVID-19, the figure is expected to double as eviction moratoria and landlords’ patience expire. In fact, just this week, the Washington Post Editorial Board reminded readers that in August 2020, the Aspen Institute warned that as many as 17 million households are at risk of eviction, nearly five times the average annual number of 3.6 million evictions.
For a variety of reasons almost entirely attributable to systemic racism, Black and Latino families are over-represented in eviction proceedings and on the caseloads of child welfare agencies. Thus, we predict that the longstanding interaction of eviction court and family court that leads to the disproportionate removal of minority children from their parents will be exacerbated by the pandemic. Foster care placement will be an undesirable and costly remedy to this imminent COVID-19 housing crisis – both in terms of the cost to the state and the emotional toll on the children and parents.
The Family First Prevention Services Act was passed precisely because there is widespread agreement that children must be kept with their parents whenever possible. The law emphasizes that evidence-based, in-home services are preferable to family separation. Obviously, with this impending pandemic-related eviction tsunami, Family First prevention funding must be available to preserve the actual home, literally, or the provision of in-home services will be impossible.
Meeting housing needs to prevent family separation is not only the right thing to do, it is the fiscally prudent approach to keeping children safe. If the number of children who enter care due to housing problems doubles due to the pandemic-related economic shutdown, then nearly 54,000 children would enter out-of-home care.
One will never be able to calculate the emotional toll, but the cost to the American taxpayer will be severe, and misplaced. With an average annual cost of $18,000 per child in out-of-home care the government will expend $972 million if 54,000 children are placed in foster care.
With an average child welfare family size of 2.7 children, assuming fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit ($1,149 per month or $13,788 per year), the cost of housing and providing Family First Act in-home services to keep our neighbors’ families together in the face of this pandemic would be $276 million.
Translation: A Stafford Act waiver to solve housing problems, could actually save American taxpayers of $696 million in unwarranted foster care expenditures.
HHS must use the Stafford Act to temporarily dispense with the cumbersome rating and ranking system regulated by the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse through which states must pass to access approval from the U.S. Children’s Bureau to use Family First funding. Instead, during the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, allow states that choose to do so to use the funds to pay rent and arrears to keep families housed for the purpose of facilitating in-home services to prevent “candidates for foster care” from entering out-of-home care.
Family First amends parts B and E of Title IV of the Social Security Act “to invest in funding prevention and family services to help keep children safe and supported at home.” But the approval process called for by Congress and put into place by the Children’s Bureau fails to offer the agility called for during a crisis. Taking advantage of this opportunity to inject flexible resources into the work of child welfare staff is aligned with the passionate appeal by former Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner to preserve families in the wake of COVID-19 published on April 6, 2020 “The Imprint.” Commissioner Milner called on child welfare professionals, and, indeed the nation, to “demand the flexibility in funding and the array of responses we need to serve children and families. This is a defining moment for us as a system; it has laid thread bare our lack of agility to meet family needs. We cannot allow our shortcomings to be held against families — to do so is the height of injustice and compromises the legitimacy of our system in our own eyes and those of the families we are privileged to serve.”
Allowing states access to Family First Act money for housing resources would not preclude child welfare agencies from tapping other COVID-19 resources such as the U.S. Department of Treasury’s $25 billion supplemental Emergency Rental Assistance Program. In fact, the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (NCHCW) staff spends a considerable amount of time training child welfare workers how to access these and other housing resources.
Child welfare workers may also help families access emergency shelter assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Emergency Solutions Grant and the Community Services Block Grant. However, it is important to understand that families are not prioritized for assistance under HUD’s Homeless Assistance Programs directed by local Continuum of Care (CoC) entities. It is also the case that the coordinated entry systems through which all community members in need must pass are overtaxed.
It would be irresponsible of me to fail to acknowledge that families should never be referred to child protective services (CPS) to access housing assistance or other poverty-related resources. NCHCW is committed to working with the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the coming year to reimagine the training of mandated reporters so that families in need are not referred to CPS for reasons of poverty and are instead served by Community Action Agencies and other appropriate human services organizations. Child welfare should be escorted out of the poverty conversation entirely so that workers can devote their time to rescuing children from abuse.
But at this time in American history, we must be honest and proactive on behalf of the children and families who are already entangled with child welfare and meet their housing needs accordingly. Together we can tap the Stafford Act to arm front-line child welfare workers, the unsung heroes of the pandemic, with what they need to truly keep families together and safe.