Child Welfare Advocates Must Unite in Push for More Federal Funds

While millions of Americans have found relief in Congress’ failure thus far to come to an agreement on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, this remains a perilous time at the federal level for children’s programs. In this environment, it is particularly important for advocates to be united around shared priorities and values in order to effectively defend key programs.

Unfortunately, recent history has demonstrated that our community is dangerously hesitant even over the most basic question of whether our advocacy should include calls for increased child welfare funding. This indecision undercuts our ability to secure additional dollars for our resource-starved systems and invites the attention of budget hawks that are looking to dismantle federal entitlements and cut spending while meeting minimal resistance.

We believe that a realistic appraisal of the current state of our country’s safety net for children and families – especially when placed in historical context – makes the urgency to advocate for new investments self-evident.

Across the continuum of care, we see funding shortfalls threatening child and family health and safety. There are inadequate resources available to prevent child abuse and neglect from occurring; to intervene early when problems in the home are identified; to support children in kinship and other out-of-home placements when they need the protections of foster care; and to provide post-permanency supports to ensure that reunifications and adoptions are successful long-term.

Any suggestion that comprehensive child welfare finance reform can be accomplished at no cost to the federal government is flawed and rooted in a misunderstanding about the diverse needs of children and families in our country.

Now is the time for the advocacy community to unite around a call for new resources. Furthermore, children that need the protections of foster care and vulnerable families at risk of child welfare system involvement have suffered from the steady erosion of our federal social safety net over the past two decades, and it is our duty as advocates to restore our government’s commitment to supporting both of these populations. We should not prioritize one over the other, and this cannot be a zero sum game.

Our Eroding Safety Net

The social safety net that protects children in and at risk of entering foster care consists of a patchwork of programs that, together, are meant to meet the full continuum of needs of a vulnerable child and his or her family. This safety net was pieced together by the federal government over time to protect vulnerable children from the devastating effects of poverty by providing nutritional support, health care, financial support, affordable housing and access to critical social services like child care, transportation and job training.

Within this patchwork of programs, the Title IV-E program is intended to protect children who cannot remain safely at home due to severe abuse, abandonment or neglect. In the broader context of the safety net, Title IV-E is a relatively small program. Still, it plays a critical role in ensuring that eligible children that need the protections of out-of-home care are provided with resources to meet their daily needs, whether they are in foster care, guardianship or adopted.

IV-E is designed to provide resources for the response to child maltreatment when all other prevention efforts fail, not to prevent maltreatment from occurring in the first place. A range of other federal programs are designed to support family health and child wellness and to prevent issues that might contribute to foster care entry, including: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), Medicaid, Title IV-B and home visitation. These programs collectively provide about half of federal child welfare spending.

Unfortunately, our nation’s at-risk child and family safety net has been under assault for the past two decades. Some entitlement programs, including TANF and SSBG, have already been converted to block grants and are supporting just a fraction of children and families as they were prior to being block granted. Others, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have been proposed for a similar transformation. And still others, including IV-E, are in jeopardy of being targeted.

At the same time, Congressionally-directed spending freezes and budget cuts have impacted key discretionary programs, such as federal housing assistance and IV-B. The Title IV-E Foster Care program also continues to be undermined by its outdated and illogical link to AFDC eligibility.

The Shortcomings of Our Current Advocacy

On the one hand, there is broad agreement among child welfare advocates about the problems associated with the continual federal disinvestment in programs aimed at keeping children safe and healthy. However, as noted earlier, the call for new resources from the advocacy community seems to be lacking. While many of us believe that it is our duty to push for new resources to restore the safety net for at-risk children and families, our message is undercut if other advocates are unwilling to push back against the notion that comprehensive finance reform can be undertaken without cost.

We should resist the notion that our goals for reform can be accomplished simply by reconstructing Title IV-E, either by enhancing the program’s “flexibility” or by reprogramming funds from existing covered services. Both of these approaches presume that IV-E’s current funding level can provide sufficient funding for children in need of the protections of foster care as well as children and families at risk of foster care.

Furthermore, the idea that reconstructing IV-E in a budget-neutral manner can address the needs of children in foster care as well as those at risk of foster care entry fails to account for the fact that IV-E covers fewer and fewer children in foster care each year, due to eligibility criteria linked to the 1996 welfare program which has never been adjusted for inflation. Today, only about half of children that come into foster care are eligible for federal support due to these eligibility rules, while state and local governments bear the full cost of care for the other half of children in foster care. Because IV-E’s entitlement status means that the program’s funding levels track the number of children eligible, this has resulted in reductions in IV-E spending over the years.

This means that IV-E’s current funding level is insufficient to effectively cover a broader range of programs and services and to fill the holes in the safety net that have developed. Furthermore, because of this resource scarcity, enhancing IV-E flexibility and/or reprogramming existing IV-E funds away from currently eligible services and toward new programs (like front-end prevention and early intervention) would result in a compromised continuum of care and could ultimately negatively impact the safety and care of children in need of the protections of foster care.

The reality is that the reforms we need – including the expansion of prevention and early intervention and post-permanency services, as well as improvements to the broader safety net supporting at-risk families – cannot responsibly be done in a budget-neutral manner without undermining the current support services available to children and families through the continuum of care. Under Title IV-E’s current funding level, it cannot serve the functions that other child and family safety net programs are intended to provide.

A Call to Action

Veteran Congressional staffers will tell you that child welfare advocates are perhaps the only group of federal advocates that consistently decline to even ask for new resources. This failed negotiating strategy makes it impossible to secure the new funding it will require to restore the robust safety net protections children and families need, and it must stop. We cannot continue to argue that this can be done for free.

It is true that the current fiscal and political climate makes it difficult to achieve our objectives now, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon aspirational advocacy. On the contrary, advocates need to begin building the argument for why our system is insufficiently funded and organizing around a call for new resources.

The tides of politics shift, and failing to prepare for the opportunities that may emerge in a friendlier climate will ensure that we are not in a position to seize that moment to meaningfully restore the safety net to keep children safe. It may take years, but we’ll never get there unless we come together and start demanding a better world for children and families.

Sean Hughes is a Congressional staff veteran who currently serves as a managing partner at the consultancy firm Social Change Partners. Angie Schwartz is policy director for the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children’s Rights.

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