Fast Tracked Federal Overhaul of Child Welfare Financing Gets Mixed Reactions

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which offers a significant restructuring of the multi-billion dollar federal entitlement for child welfare, could not pass the Senate as a standalone bill in 2016. Attempts to attach it to drug abuse legislation, and a spending bill, failed as opponents to the legislation succeeded in having it pulled off of both.

But now, as part of a one-month spending agreement to prevent the government from shutting down again, the Family First Act could be the permanent law of the land by this weekend.

Family First Act hearing

As the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee discussed the impact of the opioid epidemic on families, a major overhaul of federal spending on the issue moved closer to passage this week.

There has been talk since last summer about the potential for a reintroduction of the Family First Act. But the inclusion of the bill in both the Senate and House iterations of a continuing resolution took many in the child welfare community by surprise this week and has set up a rather silent, last-minute policy battle between the bill’s champions and opponents working to remove it from the temporary spending plans.

The bill would open up the Title IV-E entitlement – traditionally reserved for foster care expenses – to help states pay for substance abuse, mental health and parenting skill programs aimed at intervening in more maltreatment cases without the use of foster care.

Family First would also limit federal spending on the use of congregate care settings for foster youth, with some notable and wide exceptions.

The states voicing opposition to the bill last time around – California and New York ­– have been mostly quiet in public, although Youth Services Insider has heard from multiple sources that the California Department of Social Services continues to oppose the legislation.

Several state organizations in California – including the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the County Welfare Directors Association, Los Angeles County and the California State Association of Counties – circulated an email urging people to call senators in opposition to Family First.

“Please call your senator tonight and tomorrow morning and ask them to stop FFPSA as part of the Continuing Resolution unless FFPSA is amended to address our concerns on behalf of vulnerable children and families.”

The group submitted a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in October, listing its concerns with the legislation.

One more recent addition to Family First protects relative caregivers from losing eligibility for foster care payments because of the new provisions. Angie Schwartz, policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, said it did not go far enough.

From Schwartz:

The language included in the CR does not fully resolve our concern for our kinship families.  The language they included ensures that if the state/county does end up filing a removal petition and placing a child into foster care, the child is not made ineligible for federal foster care benefits just because they were in the home of the relative (as opposed to the bio parent) before the removal happened.

But, benefiting from that language depends on a child welfare agency deciding – after a year of the child living outside the home of a parent – to file the removal petition and bring the child into foster care (which, after a year of diversion, is unlikely to happen).

New York’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) told The Imprint that it continues to have “significant concerns” with the bill, and estimates that it will have a negative fiscal impact of $200 million on the state and counties.

“This bill would impose significant unfunded mandates that would harm New York State and its counties,” said Monica Mahaffey, a spokesperson for OCFS, in an email to The Imprint.

“It would also create onerous requirements on our existing, robust standards of care and oversight for foster youth living in congregate care settings.”

Senate Committee Family First Act

Becky Savage, an Indiana nurse and mother of four who has lost two sons to overdoses, testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

OCFS, which alerted local New York child welfare agencies to the potential for Family First resurgence in early January, has asked for three amendments that would relax the bill’s restrictions on federal funds for congregate care placements.

Illinois, which publicly supported the Family First Act in the bill’s last push, is taking a more cautious position at the moment while it reviews the version included in the continuing resolutions.

“I can’t say what our position is yet,” said Neil Skene, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Children and Families. “We are very much in favor of having kids in the right place at the right time. We haven’t had chance to look at what’s in this bill.

Norah West, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, said in an e-mail to The Imprint that on first read, “we believe that much of what is proposed is very positive.”

West said the department had “some concerns related to the restrictions aimed at reducing the use of congregate care,” but that “Washington state’s use of congregate care is minimal compared to New York and California, for example.”

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) does not have an official position on the bill,  spokesperson Bob Wheaton said, “but I would say that we believe the general concepts included in the bill would be beneficial to our state in our efforts to preserve families while protecting the safety and well-being of children.”

Indiana, which has seen removals to foster care rise by 67 percent since 2012, did not respond to our request for a comment on the bill.

Ohio and Montana officials also told The Imprint that neither state will comment on the bill.

“We monitor all legislation related to our programs but typically don’t comment on pending legislation,” said Angela Terez, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The Imprint reached out to dozens of other states for reaction, but many, including Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and Montana, were reluctant to weigh in or did not respond to requests for comment.

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokesperson Patrick Crimmins said in an email, “We are monitoring the legislation.”

Arizona was the one state contacted by The Imprint that voiced uncouched support for Family First.

“Provisions in this bill will allow the Department to use federal funding to keep kids safely in homes, instead of only once a child is removed,” said Darren DaRonco, public information officer for the Department of Children’s Services, in an emailed statement.  “And it will allow DCS to fully continue providing our prevention programs and out-of-home services to Arizona’s children and families.”

The cost of the increased front-end services in Family First are balanced against savings realized by the limits on group care, but are also offset by a five-year delay on increased federal spending for adoption assistance. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed in 2008, set federal adoption assistance to “de-link” from income tests pegged to the income of the child’s birth family.

Adoption advocates supported Family First in early rounds despite the delayed adoption increases. Many continue to support the bill, but are somewhat chafed that a pay-for is needed in a bill that also lifts the cap on domestic spending that Congress set down in 2011 under sequestration.

The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) “strongly supports the Family First Prevention Services Act and its emphasis on preserving families … and reducing reliance on group care when there’s not a therapeutic reason for such care,” said Executive Director Mary Boo. “While we support the bill, we were not pleased to see that it would use funds from delaying the adoption assistance de-link provision of the Fostering Connections Act, particularly after the de-link already went into full effect last fall. It would be wonderful to see increased investment in necessary child welfare services, rather than finding savings within child welfare.”

Child welfare policy consultant Maureen Flatley, in an online conversation with child welfare advocates this week, was sharper in criticizing the offset.

“If Congress added nearly a half-trillion dollars in new spending this week, why did we give away Adoption Assistance payments for babies and toddlers as an offset?” Flatley wrote. “I realize this provision may have minimal consequences in reality but it sends the worst possible message and also establishes a precedent that we can ‘borrow’ from adoption, already tragically underfunded, to ensure child welfare spending.”

On Capitol Hill, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee convened a fortuitously scheduled hearing about the impact of the opioid crisis on children and families. Enabling states to tap into IV-E funds for substance abuse treatment is a central provision of the Family First Act.

That committee does not have jurisdiction over Family First; nominally that would be Senate Finance, although the bill was never marked up there. But in what might be considered a sign that the bill’s proponents wish to quietly move it along, the legislation was not mentioned once in a two-hour hearing about how to serve families struggling with drug use.

The Senate is slated to vote on its spending bill today. Assuming it passes, action will turn to the House, where approval will likely be contingent on support from both parties for the Senate’s plan.

Kim Hansel, Jeremy Loudenback, Christie Renick and Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this article.

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New York wants to use a fund for #FamilyFirst Act prep to prevent youth from aging out of #fostercare, but some counties say the money is already spent or earmarked #childwelfare