Thirteen years ago, Congress passed a law that included an enticement to states to spend more money on the front and back end of child welfare. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office finds a mixed result in that effort, caused in part by confusion around the rules.
The GAO report found that the state reinvestment plan, part of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act that was passed in 2008, should have yielded hundreds of millions more in new state spending on the prevention of maltreatment, family preservation and post-permanency efforts to support adoptions or guardianships.
When the Fostering Connections Act was signed into law by former President George W. Bush, the most heralded changes it made to the Title IV-E entitlement were optional extensions of foster care to age 21, and the addition of a guardianship assistance payment program for relatives and family friends who wanted to serve as a forever home, but not formally adopt children.
But there was another significant IV-E shift in the bill that was meant to entice more state spending on child welfare. The federal government would steadily increase its share of adoption subsidies, which are paid to parents who adopt children from foster care. This would be accomplished by gradually removing means testing around which children were eligible for a federal adoption subsidy, starting with the higher age brackets in foster care and moving downward until all children in foster care are eligible for the IV-E adoption support.
As the phasing out of means testing progressed, more adopted children became eligible for federal subsidies, which meant that states would not have to pony up their own money to help. Thus: the same amount of adoptions from foster care, or more, with less state spending.
There was a catch, though. States had to take the savings captured from this — essentially the money they would have spent on adoption subsidies without new federal help — and reinvest that amount in other parts of the child welfare continuum. And a subsequent law passed in 2014 put an additional requirement in place: 30% of the savings has to be spent on prevention services or on post-permanency, with at least 20% in the post-permanency category.
The GAO report looked at spending between 2015 and 2019 to see if the general reinvestment rules, the 30-20 requirement added in 2014, were being lived up to. It found quite a mixed bag.
It determined that states had saved a cumulative $843 million through the new federal support between 2015 and 2019. Of that, GAO could only identify $516 million that was reinvested in child welfare, meaning more than a third of the money had not been plowed back into child welfare-related efforts.
There wasn’t a neat throughline in state behavior according to the report. Ten states spent 100% of their savings as required; nine states actually spent none of the savings on child welfare. Twenty-three states that spent less than half.
The GAO’s interviews with state officials surfaced two recommendations to increase the amount of money getting reinvested. First, it said, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) should tie up what appears to be a loose end on tracking this. Right now, states are required to maintain data on savings and reinvestment, but are not required to submit that information to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the wing of ACF that manages child welfare funding and policy.
“Collecting these data would improve the Children’s Bureau’s ability to definitively determine whether states are complying with the adoption savings reinvestment requirements,” the report said.
Second, the report recommends increased training and technical assistance to states, along with guidance that spells out more clearly what types of programs and services are appropriate and allowable as a reinvestment in child welfare. ACF has accepted the recommendation around more training and technical assistance, but disagreed with the call for state reporting of the data to the Children’s Bureau.
The report also notes an issue that seems to Youth Services Insider to be a chicken-egg conundrum when it comes to the rules around spending a portion of state savings on post-permanency. The GAO relays in the report that among the 22 states that reported challenges in meeting this requirement, many said that the main problem was “a lack of services on which to spend,” which “may have been the result of a limited number of service providers available to provide services that counted toward these requirements.”
In other words: These states have money through the reinvestment rule to spend on building post-permanency services, but cannot do so because they lack existing services to build.
To read the full report, click here. While ACF seems to think collecting the spending data is not necessary, there is a different set of new federal adoption data on that way soon that Youth Services Insider could see making the underinvestment in post-permanency a more hot-button issue. New rules on national foster care and adoption collection are currently tied up in a lawsuit that started during the Trump administration, but when the dust settles, states will have to report the number of children who are entering foster care after having been adopted.
It will not be a perfect measure of how frequently adoptions fall apart in America, but it will be the most complete picture we have ever had.