Putting Families First

In otherwise contentious and turbulent times, Congress is coming together to support a fundamental American value — family. The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 passed the House but now faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

It’s no surprise that research confirms what most people know – children fare better in families. This landmark child welfare legislation includes an array of services and policy changes, many of which are of critical importance to keeping children in families.

And those families are often grandfamilies (also known as families where grandparents and other relatives are raising children or kinship care).

If passed, it will be good news for the more than 2.5 million children currently being raised in grandfamilies. For the first time, this Act will allow major federal child welfare dollars to be used for services to prevent children from entering foster care.

Why does this matter? Let’s look at the numbers.

Of the 2.5 million children in grandfamilies, only 5 percent, or about 120,000, are in foster care and part of the child welfare system.

Historically, because they are not in the system, this has meant little to no support or services for the children, their caregivers or their parents.

Their needs vary. Some grandfamilies simply need short-term prevention services and support to keep children out of the formal foster care system.

For others, licensing relatives as foster parents of the child is the best solution. The decision about which option is right for each child is a complex one that needs to be made jointly by the family and child welfare agency.

Children shouldn’t have to come into the child welfare system to receive services that strengthen a family so they can stay together under one roof and thrive.

The Family First Preventions Services Act makes prevention services a real choice for grandfamilies struggling to get the support they need to keep children with family and out of foster care.

Does the Act include every provision we’d hoped?

No. But the foundation this bill will lay is bigger than the pieces.

Instead, it does the groundbreaking work of shifting how we fund and ultimately deliver on protecting and nurturing our children, building on the fundamental belief that children do best in family.

Among other things, the Family First Prevention Services Act will help families, including grandfamilies, succeed by:

  • Allowing for federal reimbursement for prevention services and programs for children at imminent risk of entering foster care, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, in-home training and support services, and kinship navigator programs
  • Addressing barriers to licensing relatives as foster parents
  • Putting policies in place to ensure every child in foster care gets a family
  • Reauthorizing programs that incentivize permanent families for children through adoption and legal guardianship

While a “do nothing” Congress is now poised to do something groundbreaking for children and families, the child advocacy community is proving to be its own worst enemy, expending so much energy battling to tweak each provision that we risk losing the war.

Seasoned child welfare advocates are legitimately concerned that if Families First isn’t passed, the bipartisan coalition that has come together in support of it will shatter. Jagged edges take years to heal.

The reality is no legislation is perfect. It’s rooted in compromise.

Policy change in Washington is made incrementally and we are fortunate to have committed champions in Congress who understand child welfare, care about it deeply and will go back to work as soon as this bill passes to keep making needed improvements for children.

This week close to 400 national and state groups are sending a letter to Congress supporting the Act and calling on Members to pass it now. The Senate needs to do the right thing and put families first.

And we advocates need to push them up the hill, not roll them back to the starting line.

Donna Butts is executive director of Generations United, an organization that aims to improve the lives of children, youth, and older adults through intergenerational collaboration. Jaia Peterson Lent is deputy executive director of Generations United. 

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