Foster Youth and Advocates React to Proposed Families First Act

Foster Youth in Action, a national foster youth advocacy organization, hosted a webinar just before the holidays wherein youth and advocates shared their thoughts on the proposed Families First Act and other policy issues.* 

The act is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance by Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and is currently at the forefront of national conversation as the largest federal child welfare legislation package since 1980.

Matt Rosen, the executive director of Foster Youth in Action (FYA), moderated the policy discussion, with participants representing a range of organizations such as Social Change Partners, Youth Law Center, California Youth Connection and Florida Youth SHINE.

Webinar panelists provided an overview of group homes, explained changes to state and federal policy, provided advice on creating advocacy programs and on how to involve youth in related advocacy and discussions.

Sean Hughes of Social Change Partners, a consultancy firm focused on child welfare policy, led the discussion around emerging federal policy.

“Group homes are a hot topic right now in D.C.,” Hughes said.

According to Hughes, the Families First Act has two main goals, the first aimed at increasing early intervention to reduce foster care entry and the second focused on preventing prolonged stays in group homes for foster youth. The act intends to accomplish these goals by creating new funding streams and increasing group home oversight.

Group homes belong to one of two categories, Hughes said, therapeutic or non-therapeutic, both of which will be affected by the Families First Act.

The proposed legislation will cut off federal funding to non-therapeutic group homes after a youth is there for 14 days, except for those housing disabled youth, pregnant and parenting teens, siblings and those facilities designated as independent living programs. For group homes not providing one of the aforementioned services, these cuts in funding will essentially shut them down or force states to pay the full cost of sustained operations, Hughes said.

For therapeutic group homes—those meant to provide youth with mental and emotional help and regularly referred to as short-term residential treatment centers—the Families First Act will increase oversight to ensure proper use and mandate further evaluations as to the necessity of the placement.

The further evaluation proposed by the Families First Act takes the form of a “needs assessment” and court review. The needs assessment determines whether a residential treatment center is the right placement by evaluating the youth’s individual needs. Biannual permanency hearings are used to create plans for a youth’s permanent placement and will include a review of the assessments.

The act seemingly seeks to address a major complaint by advocates that therapeutic group homes are often used as long-term placement options for youth who don’t need them.

While the bill may have many potential benefits for youth, advocates are concerned that the bill is doing little to change the system itself. Advocates also point out that the act forces youth out of group homes while providing no alternatives or increased foster parent recruitment strategies to ensure former group home residents have stable places to live.

Group home reform is also in the works at the state level. Alice Bussiere, a staff attorney at Youth Law Center, based in San Francisco, Calif., outlined some of these state-based changes.

In reference to group home placement, Bussiere stated, “Many are there [in group homes] by default, just because nobody’s found another place,” which is a major point in most state-based changes. In Maine, for example, the state government partnered with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop more family-based care options and shift away from group homes.

Currently, Washington, Hawaii and Oregon have the highest rates of family-based care. According to Bussiere, the reason is, “Nothing really in specific, except they all really value families.”

Advocates and youth from Florida Youth SHINE (FYS) and California Youth Connection (CYC) discussed their approaches to creating policy agendas and proposing statewide changes. Both highly stressed the need to include youth voices.

FYS described some of the major concerns with group homes in its state, Florida, many of which were echoed by CYC in California. The issues mentioned included high crime and arrest rates, little to no privacy and extreme punishments for “things that normal youth do.”

Joy, a youth advocate from CYC, addressed how to involve youth in discussions around group homes, a need recognized by all of the panel’s participants. Joy said that professionals need to “make sure that the environment is youth-friendly, and that conversations aren’t going above youths’ heads.”

In strategizing to propose group home changes, advocates from FYS stressed the need to be “very intentional” with approaches, creating a strategic plan that is regularly re-examined. For example, FYS worked to increase the use of data-driven approaches that challenge subjective notions and assumptions gained from one-time visits to group homes, which are common among politicians creating legislation.

For future dialogue, panelists recognized the need to open up more conversations around alternatives to group home placements, stressing it as a major concern in group home reform.

A recording of the webinar and other resources are available on FYA’s website.

*This story has been updated. An earlier version of the story suggested that webinar participants felt youth voice had not been included in the development of the Families First Act, which was incorrect. 

Matt Hartman is a graduate of UCLA, a child welfare advocate, freelance writer and nonprofit consultant. Matt primarily writes about social justice and political issues, with a special interest in child welfare. Follow Matt on Twitter @mattbhartman.

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