Leaders of the largest operating foundation in child welfare envision federal foster finance reform in as few as two to three years.
On May 28th, Casey Family Programs welcomed a powerful group of child welfare leaders to its Seattle headquarters during a meeting billed as part of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth’s National Listening Tour.
The unwavering message from Casey, which doles out $100 million a year to fund child welfare programs, was the need to change how the federal government funds foster care.
“Hope for us in the world of child welfare right now is comprehensive finance reform,” said Casey CEO William Bell, to an audience that included U.S. Congressmen, foundation leaders and representatives from Washington State’s legislature, child welfare and juvenile justice systems. “The federal government can no longer continue to spend six dollars on foster kids for every one dollar it spends on community services.”
The argument for finance reform, which is widely shared across the field, hinges on the fact that Title IV-E of the Social Security Act – which funds foster care – is a “dwindling entitlement:” hollowed by an arcane eligibility standard and reduced overall numbers of foster youth.
Further, Casey argues, current foster care funding is overly rigid, allowing the federal government to step in only after a child is taken into formal foster care, missing an opportunity to prevent children from entering the system in the first place.
The answer, the foundation contends, is to open the entitlement up, allowing more “flexibility” to state and county public child welfare administrations to spend money on front-end services.
This is not an entirely new concept. Retired Congressman Wally Herger (R-Calif.) and former President George W. Bush both made attempts at finance reform in the early 2000’s that would have converted Title IV-E from an open entitlement to a block grant. Funding would have been based on previous years’ allocations, alongside annual adjustments for inflation.
Advocates and service providers then mounted stiff opposition to both plans, fearing that trading the entitlement for a capped allocation would leave foster care open to budget cuts, and child welfare administrations high and dry in the event that overall numbers of children entering the system were to spike upward.
While federal finance reform was delayed, starting in 2004, some individual states and counties were granted Title IV-E Waivers which were meant to test the impact of more flexible usage of federal funds.
Today, more than 30 states and counties have signed up for waivers. This has created new momentum for an old idea: the $7.6 billion spent annually protecting children known to have been maltreated should go to preventing that maltreatment from happening at all.
A pamphlet that Casey Family Programs has been sharing with Hill staff and advocates reads: “Transforming child welfare to dramatically improve the opportunities and outcomes for children doesn’t need to begin with the appropriation of more money, but it must begin with states and local systems having the ability to make smarter and more effective investments in what works best.”
This budget neutral approach, and the fact that preventing child abuse is a universal ideal, has given the push for reform new traction with both parties in Congress.
“Comprehensive finance reform, yes,” said Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, at the Casey Family Programs meeting late in May. “I think it’s gonna happen.”
Earlier in the month, Casey leaders traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with Members of Congress. The trip left Bob Watt, chair of Casey’s board of directors, confident that finance reform is imminent.
“I do think something big will happen, and I think fairly quickly now,” Watt said. “At Casey Family Programs we were thinking three to five years. And now we are thinking two or three years before Congress will be ready to take up the issue in a fundamental way… We had members tell us while we were sitting in their offices that they are ready to introduce something this year.”
With the newly freed money that such a reform would bring, child welfare administrations would be able to direct resources into such ventures as differential response (DR), a strategy aimed at steering parents reported for neglect away from child protective services and towards community-based services.
Los Angeles County, the largest child welfare administration in the country, began implementing its waiver in 2007. While overall numbers of children in the system had been dropping, a 2011 evaluation of the waiver showed that the rates of children who re-entered the system after being re-unified with their families had been steadily increasing, albeit slowly.
From 2007 to 2011 re-entries climbed from 10.7 percent to 12.3 percent, a 15 percent jump. KidsData.Org, which derives its re-entry data from the Center for Social Services Research at UC Berkeley, puts the 2011 number at 13.3 percent.
In 2006 Florida launched its waiver and has since become an oft-celebrated example of the possible benefits of more flexible funding. Some safety measures have improved for Florida’s foster children, according to an evaluation submitted to the Children’s Bureau last year.The proportion of children who experienced abuse six months after a case was closed reduced from eight percent in 2002 to five percent in 2007, and continued to decrease after that.
Kevin Quigley, Secretary of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, is one of the leaders who has been charged with implementing that state’s newly minted waiver. A large part of that effort will be converting the current system to Family Assessment Response, Washington’s variant of DR.
At the Casey meeting, Secretary Quigley shared his concerns about funding levels in current legislation meant to move Washington’s waiver forward. “If you don’t properly fund DR, it just doesn’t work properly.”
Despite mounting efforts and confidence among proponents that finance reform will be enacted in the near term, obstacles remain. While there is consensus across the field that some parts of Title IV-E must be changed, there is, of yet, no unified vision of how that would look.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.