Senate Finance Investigation A Possible Precursor to Renewed Family First Push

The Senate Finance Committee quickly followed the release of its report on privatization of foster care on Wednesday with legislation that tracked many of the recommendations made in the report. You can read all about the report here, and the bill here.

Youth Services Insider senses that the real legislation that this report is meant to support was introduced long ago.

One of the report recommendations that is not addressed in the new legislation introduced this week: “Allow States and Tribes to use title IV–E funds to support evidence-based services aimed at safely preventing foster care entries.”

If that language sounds familiar, it’s because this is one of the two central provisions of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which was authored and championed by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for the past two years. Hatch and Wyden also presided over this report.

Family First sailed through the House last summer, but was stalled in the Senate over the objections of senators from a few states.

The other central provision of the Family First Act? Limiting federal funds for congregate care, a section of the child welfare spectrum that is largely carried out by private providers. The committee report isn’t really the takedown of private providers one might expect, but it did conclude that states are  not monitoring the performance of these providers closely enough.

It is quite evident from Wyden’s statement about the report that he is still seething from the failure of Family First last year. Said Wyden:

The ultimate indictment of this system is there is so little oversight that the government can’t even confirm the gaps that caring advocates tell us are getting worse. What’s even more outrageous is that efforts to fix flaws in the system have been held up by stonewalling in the United States Senate.

YSI inquired of Wyden’s staff as to whether the stonewalling to which he referred was the block of Family First?

The one-word response, from spokeswoman Samantha Offerdahl: “Yes.”

The committee’s report is nominally about privatization, but it really doesn’t pass much judgment on private providers. It certainly slays the record of The MENTOR Network, shows disdain for any profit motive in child welfare services and tangentially questions the vigilance of state monitoring.

But the report begins by surmising that the growing reliance on private providers is rooted in panic, not reason:

The need for specialized foster care services and a shortage of foster care homes in recent years has led to the privatization of many core foster care services.

That statement isn’t really backed up with any evidence or a footnote. But it sends a clear message about the sense of the committee: There are more kids in foster care than states can handle without acting out of desperation. And the whole report uses MENTOR to strongly associate privatization with this atmosphere.

The leap from this to Family First is not tough to make. The new front-end services are meant to allow systems to address more abuse and neglect without using foster care. The back-end limitations propose federal regulation to the segment of child welfare most dominated by private providers.

Neither provision prevents a public agency or a private provider from delivering shoddy, sometimes fatal foster care operations. Those are the transgressions that made MENTOR the deserved punching bag of this report.

But the shock value of this report might kickstart the conversation about Family First anyway. Because while it does nothing to inherently ensure the quality of foster care, it does propose a plan to keep more kids out of it.

If you are interested in reading more about federal juvenile justice and child welfare policy, read our special issue “Kids on the Hill” absolutely free. Just hit this LINK

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