On Senate Side, Child Welfare Finance Reform Talk Percolates

All’s been quiet on the finance front for a while now, but it looks like things are heating back up.

As we covered last week, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) circulated a draft bill on child welfare finance that would significantly change IV-E, the entitlement program now focused solely on foster care.

Next week, Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) scheduled a hearing called No Place to Grow Up: How to Safely Reduce Reliance on Foster Care Group Homes. That will take place on Tuesday at 10 am; click here for details.

Hatch is interested in limiting the federal role in funding foster care; he introduced legislation in 2013 that would have greatly limited the use of federal funds for group care.

In a way, the two men have the same agenda, and that is to steer child welfare systems toward greater investments in biological families and kin. And true to the parties from whence they came, one wants to spend more and the other wants to spend less.

Wyden’s plan is to officially inject flexibility into IV-E for the first time by permitting states to seek reimbursement for “time-limited family services” to help keep families together whenever possible. Right now, only states or counties with a IV-E waiver are permitted to use the funds for anything other than out-of-home placement.

Hatch told The Imprint in an email that he looks “forward to working with the Ranking Member…to examine what does and doesn’t work” in child welfare. “It is my hope after doing so, we can start exploring how to make real, bipartisan progress on child welfare reform.”

At least one person close to the federal finance discussion tells YSI that Wyden’s concept, as presently constituted, stands no chance of getting Republican support. The limits on the use of IV-E funds are not enough to save it from a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score in the billions.

Wyden’s draft does draw a hard line at one year for IV-E family services, so it isn’t as if the concept amounts to a full-on anti-poverty bill for parents. But there are a few sections where you could see how CBO might take the view that this could carry a high price tag.

For starters, the list of allowable services includes some big-ticket ideas like housing assistance and addiction services, and ends with “other family services or assistance approved by the Secretary.” That’s a big potential loophole.

Another potential loophole: the bill requires case plan documentation in order to turn on the services tap, “unless there are emergency or other exigent circumstances.”

Hatch wants to curb federal spending on foster care, or at least on congregate care. His last legislation on the subject would have cut federal spending on group care at 15 days for any child under age 13.

It will be interesting to see where Hatch goes legislatively with things after this hearing. If he wants to propose further limitations on foster care – along the lines of what the Annie E. Casey Foundation proposed in 2013 – he may have a Democrat kindred spirit in the other chamber. Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) introduced a bill one year ago today that would cut off federal support for foster care at three years.

YSI looks forward to hearing testimony from all four witnesses scheduled to appear at Tuesday’s hearing. Make sure to watch or read the testimony of Children’s Village CEO Jeremy Kohomban, who is a supporter of the Casey plan to limit foster care. He is also an influential member of the board at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, which has its own federal financing proposal in the works and vehemently opposes constraints on congregate care.

One committee aide told YSI that the witnesses for next week’s hearing were jointly selected by Hatch and Wyden, but that Wyden is unlikely to support anything that limits the use of IV-E funds for foster care.

We’ll see. It seems inevitable to YSI that reform is either going to include new flexible funds and limits on foster care, or it isn’t going to happen at all.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor John Kelly.

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