Family First Act: House Might Have to Make First Move

The Family First Act has the support of the organizations representing state human services agencies and state advocacy groups. It is endorsed by the membership group representing many of the nation’s child welfare providers, many of which provide residential care.

It has earned sign-on letter campaigns organized by national groups, like First Focus, and state groups like Pennsylvania’s Center for Children’s Justice.

Passage of the bill was among the few specific recommendations made by a presidentially appointed commission convened to figure out how America can better prevent child abuse fatalities.

And last week, in an interview with this publication, one of President Obama’s top child welfare officials all but endorsed the bill.

“If, as the bill is currently proposed, we are able to use Title IV-E to fund prevention, that will be a game changer for the social sector in this country,” Rafael López, Health and Human Services’ commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, told The Imprint in an interview published last week.

So much love for a bill that, in actuality, is not even a bill yet. It’s a draft, shared with the sort of loose secretiveness afforded a hip-hop mixtape (back when there were, you know, tapes). The most official description one could apply to it would be a “chairman’s mark,” a term used to describe the detailed concept papers the Senate Finance Committee floats internally before drafting actual legislation.

It is not surprising that the Family First Act (FFA) has garnered so much support. It proposes to allow states to draw federal Title IV-E entitlement dollars to help on the front end of child welfare services, in hopes of preventing the need for foster care removals (at the moment, IV-E only supports foster care).

And it proposes to do so without much actual constraint of foster care; the bill would put a 14-day clock on federal support for group homes, and even that provision comes with plenty of exceptions.

But despite ever-bolstering support from the field, Family First has stagnated in the political process. The Senate Finance Committee – where FFA originated, a collaborative work of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) – has yet to schedule a hearing or markup on the matter.

Some close observers in the Beltway tell The Imprint that despite its origins in the Senate, the strategy may end up being to start Family First on the House side. That would mean the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources would have first crack at it.

Breanna Duetch, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Subcommittee member Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), said that Republicans were supportive of focusing more attention on prevention as Family First would, but that she was not sure if the subcommittee has taken a hard look at the proposal.

Emily Schillinger, communications director of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that the larger committee was indeed reviewing Family First.

“Child welfare reforms have traditionally been achieved on a bipartisan, bicameral basis,” Schillinger said in an email. “The Senate has developed a proposal and shared it with the Committee, and we are reviewing it now. We look forward to working with the Senate to reach agreement on a broad set of policies to improve the child welfare system.”

Another major political hurdle facing Family First is what’s known as a Congressional Budget Office “score,” an official estimate of the federal budget impact for proposed legislation.

We asked the Senate Finance Committee if there was any official CBO score or any other estimate about the cost of FFA.

“No, as no bill has been introduced,” said Aaron Fobes, press secretary for the Senate Finance Committee.

Sooner or later that score will be made, and it will undoubtedly project a sharp uptick in IV-E spending in the early years of proposed enactment. So FFA champions will really have to sell the angle that – over time – the IV-E dollars drawn for foster care will go down if systems can use the new aspects of the bill to improve maltreatment prevention.

Chronicle Publisher Daniel Heimpel contributed to this story.

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