New York officials are planning to tap newly available federal funds to prevent children from entering foster care — as dozens of other states nationwide have already done — ushering in a far broader approach to avoiding family separation than has ever been attempted.
Under the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, states can receive federal matching funds for providing early interventions such as family therapy or home-visiting programs, before there is any immediate danger to a child. In New York, where the law took effect this fall, the change has the potential to unlock tens of millions of dollars for prevention services. Previously, those entitlement funds were only available to states once they removed children from their homes and placed them in foster care.
To date, 36 states have submitted plans to the federal government detailing the foster care prevention methods they will deploy, and plans in 18 have been approved, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families.
The 89-page draft plan prepared by New York’s Office of Children and Family Services identifies 10 “evidence-based” prevention programs that counties may choose from, as well as new state support to help smaller, more rural counties launch the initiatives. The agency is now reviewing comments from over 400 stakeholders, including preventive service agencies and advocacy groups, and is making some amendments to the plan. A spokesperson said the majority of comments were “very favorable” but did not say when the final version will be complete.
In the coming years, the programs under the plan would also become available to families who have sought help from other state agencies for concerns about mental health, unstable housing and substance abuse. Ultimately, the agency aims to build out much more robust “primary prevention” services aimed at meeting families’ basic needs, including through direct cash assistance. Those efforts could help prevent many foster care entries involving allegations of poverty-related neglect.
In addition, a new Center of Excellence will offer counties hands-on assistance and training as they roll out the new programs. The center will support and study counties’ use of different prevention programs to determine which are best suited to different types of communities.
Such ongoing support will be essential, said Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of Children’s Village, a New York City-based foster care agency that began operating two of the selected prevention services years ago. While he supports the plan, Kohomban also cautioned that realizing its full potential will require buy-in from state and local leaders.
“The challenge with ‘preventive’ is it takes time to build it out, and you have to also build a political culture and a competence about caring for children within the context of families,” Kohomban said. “The political culture is the biggest challenge.”
Data from existing prevention programs across the state suggests they have helped families stabilize and avoid the trauma of foster care removal. Of the more than 40,000 children receiving preventive services annually, just 6% were removed from their homes within the following year, according to the draft plan.
New York established itself as a national leader in investing in preventive supports long before the advent of the law known as Family First. In 2002, it began offering counties an uncapped state match of 65% for preventive programs, which was cut to 62% following the financial crisis of 2008. This reliable stream of funding has enabled some counties to get a head start on adopting the evidence-based preventive approaches now eligible for federal funding.
From 2002 to 2019, state data shows the annual number of children taken into foster care declined by nearly half — from 15,000 to 8,000 children — despite the fact that reports to New York’s child abuse and maltreatment hotline increased by 6% in the same time period. In the state’s foster care prevention plan, the decline is described by officials as “a direct result of our prevention investments and the family-centered ways in which we operationalize and deliver these services.”
Yet the impact to date has been uneven. According to a survey by the state child welfare agency, families only have access to evidence-based programs in “pockets” of the state, primarily in New York City and other larger metro areas.
Many smaller and rural counties have struggled to muster the resources to build out intensive, expensive clinical services that may be needed by relatively few families. Finding and retaining staff who are qualified to deliver such programs in these parts of the state has also been a challenge, according to the state document reviewed by The Imprint. In these areas, county child welfare agencies consider services such as multisystemic therapy and functional family therapy “potentially beneficial but too expensive to support in areas with lower caseloads,” the plan states.
To help close some of the existing service gaps, the state child welfare agency pledges to take a more active role in helping smaller counties adopt federally approved preventive services. In addition to the Center for Excellence, it plans to develop an accessible, state-funded curriculum that counties can use to train child welfare workers on the “motivational interviewing” technique, a practice already being used by the Office of Addiction and Substance Abuse Services.
State child welfare leaders are also encouraging neighboring counties to pool their resources to attract qualified clinicians. The state agency will dedicate $10 million toward funding the regional contracts.
A home-visiting program for parents with infants aged 3 months and younger, currently in use in 36 counties, would also be expanded under the proposed plan. Under the proposed expansion of Healthy Families America, households could receive home-based assistance throughout the first two years of a child’s life.
Not all of the best methods for keeping children and families safely together will come from outside the state. The approaches of local agencies already working in New York communities will also be considered, particularly those designed to support families from diverse backgrounds.
The services envisioned could soon be available to other groups of New Yorkers who are not in the child welfare system, including parents undergoing drug treatment. The plan makes prevention programs available to any family with a child who is a “candidate for foster care” — a broad designation that includes families where either the parent or child has a “service need.”
State child welfare leaders see expanding prevention as a holistic approach to meeting the full range of families’ needs. Yet many parent advocates are adamant that almost all contact with child welfare is harmful to families, counteracting any potential benefits of preventive services. And too often, they say, parents are coerced into agreeing to services under threat of a child abuse investigation if they decline.
“Anything that ACS touches, there are strings attached, there is long and lasting trauma,” said parent Naashia Bettis as she described her own experience with the city Administration for Children’s Services at an October Assembly hearing. “We can’t look to ACS to be the solution.”
In a September report, the New York City-based advocacy group Rise called for the city to fully separate family support programs from the child welfare system — and to shift funds to community organizations that offer peer support, concrete resources, voluntary parenting classes and culturally responsive therapy. Such a change, the group said, would allow parents to find help “without being subject to the trauma, fear, coercion, surveillance and control of the family policing system.”
At the public hearing, Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D) gave a blunt assessment of the possibility of defunding child welfare agencies next year: “It’s not going to happen.”
But he also pledged to push for more funding for the types of community-based services that parents — especially those that have already been impacted by child welfare agencies — are often more willing to trust.
“The only way I believe we can get it done is to do a mass infusion of money into the system for both programs,” he said, “the ones that, sorry, are run by ACS, and then new ones that are not.”