In a panel reflecting on the first five years of implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, experts said the next phase of preventing foster care entries will rely on safety net services outside of the child welfare system.
While she extolled the progress made since the transformational law’s 2018 passage, Administration on Children and Families Commissioner Rebecca Jones Gaston described “scope creep” within child welfare and called for “right-sizing” in the system. She noted that many services proven to help families avoid foster care are ineligible for Family First prevention funding.
“There are so many things that aren’t ever really going to fall into an evidence-based clearinghouse that’s supportive to families being able to have their needs met and care for their children,” she said, listing housing, transportation and “concrete economic supports” as prime examples.
The virtual panel was hosted by Clare Anderson, a senior policy fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a pillar of child welfare research. The Biden administration’s top child welfare official was joined by Jaia Lent, deputy director of the kinship care advocacy group Generations United, and Andrew Russo, co-founder and director of the National Family Support Network.
The experts convened to discuss the progress and impact made in the five years since Family First became law and areas where additional support for families can be developed.
Family First aimed to reduce foster care entries by making certain prevention services eligible for federal child welfare funding. States can only spend this money on evidence-based programs in three categories: parenting skills, mental health support and substance abuse treatment. The law is also designed to decrease reliance on congregate care and strengthen states’ capacities to meet children’s needs in their homes and communities.
The law required states and tribal organizations who receive Title IV-E funding to seek federal approval on a prevention spending plan. So far, 42 plans have been approved — in 38 states, three tribes and the District of Columbia — and nine more are in the process.
A number of states have delayed implementation, limiting the availability of data that could identify Family First’s impact.
Since the law took effect, the number of children entering foster care has dropped by 30%, Jones Gaston said. The decrease is “not based solely on Family First by any means,” she added, but noted that it indicates a new willingness to serve children in their own homes.
To that end, the panel focused on the value of expanding the nation’s network of family resource centers.
Russo touted the significant impact such centers have had in jurisdictions that have invested in them as an alternative to a child welfare response for families in crisis.
He shared the example of Teller County, Colorado, which in 2016 began referring families to the county resource center rather than opening a case. The result has been a 63% drop in the number of children in the child welfare system, Russo said.
Research published in 2018 by Chapin Hall found that in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, neighborhoods that had a family resource center had a 26% lower rate of abuse and neglect investigations than similar neighborhoods without a center. The Vermont Parent Child Center Network estimated that in 2010 the state saved an average of $210,000 per family that received assistance from its resource centers. Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C. have family resource centers locally, but there is no dedicated source of federal funding for them.
Building synergy between community-based centers and child welfare systems is an area ripe for improvement, Russo said. Even though the parenting classes offered at the centers are often evidence-based programs approved by the clearinghouse, child welfare systems aren’t taking advantage of them when choosing where to refer clients for services.
Referring prevention cases to parenting programs at family resource centers has the added benefit of sending those parents to a hub where they can be connected to the other material resources they may need to care for their children.
Russo mentioned that West Virginia is working on a plan to formalize this point of connection between the child welfare system and family resource centers, and said they’d be the first in the nation to do so.
“We’re talking five years in about a state being the first in the nation to make a connect with programs that FRCs are already offering on a daily basis that are well attended. So there’s more for us to do here,” Russo said. “It’s an obvious missed opportunity.”
Lent said that the clearinghouse approval process — necessary for programs to become eligible for the funding opened up by Family First — has been slower than envisioned and created barriers to services. She noted a lack of clearinghouse-approved services directed at supporting kinship families so far, and said she hopes to see programs adapted for more different types of families and communities approved as implementation progresses.
Jones Gaston said making the clearinghouse “as broad and open as possible” is one of her priorities in pushing along Family First implementation.
Another area of improvement needed to realize the goals of Family First is to de-silo child welfare prevention work from other safety net services, the panelists said.
“When we are looking forward, Family First really is not envisioned to be everything from one place,” Lent with Generations United said. “I often see a willingness to talk to the child welfare space about the need to invest upstream, but then when you enter the conversations around housing or the conversations around TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and all of those upstream services, there isn’t the willingness to invest — there isn’t the recognition that those are the systems that keep (families)out of child welfare.”
A recording of the discussion is available on Chapin Hall’s YouTube page.