Senate Bill Would Send Billions to States for Child Welfare Services

In an attempt to steer dollars to state child welfare agencies before coronavirus-fueled budget tightening, a group of Democratic senators have introduced a massive assistance package with the likely aim of inclusion in further stimulus legislation. 

The full bill has not been published yet, but the proposed relief includes billions for support to relative caregivers, $500 million to help older foster youth, and a suspension of age limits on federal funds to serve youth in extended foster care.

“Youth and families in the child welfare system are experiencing unprecedented financial stress, social isolation, and abrupt changes to daily life,” said Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), in a statement announcing the Child Welfare Emergency Assistance Act. “Local child protective services will need additional support to continue meeting the needs of their communities.”

The largest portion of the bill sends $2 billion out to states to help “provide families, kinship caregivers, and young people with a broad range of support services, including assistance for transportation, housing, and utility payments.” In addition to an increased reliance on kin to serve as foster homes, many states informally divert children to the physical custody of relatives while working with parents on safety plans. 

In addition to the $2 billion, the bill temporarily makes federal support for kinship guardianship (kin-GAP) agreements more generous. Support for those arrangements, meant to facilitate permanency for children without the pain of people adopting the children of their kin, would be fully paid for with federal funds rather than through a match, and the eligibility of relatives for kin-GAP would be expedited.

While aid to relatives is emphasized in this provision, states would also be able to use it for family support services, adoption promotion, and training and personal protective gear for child welfare caseworkers. 

Another $500 million is added for the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which includes annual grants to states for independent living programs and for college aid. This ask has been the focus of an #UpChafee campaign on social media pushed by several national child welfare advocacy groups. 

The bill would also temporarily suspend the age limit of 21 on federal support for extended foster care. Since 2008, when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act became law, states have been able to draw money from the Title IV-E child welfare entitlement to keep young adults in care from age 18 until their 21st birthday. 

At least nine states have placed a moratorium on aging out of foster care during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some with legislation but most with executive orders on policy. More would likely follow if there was assurance that the federal match on those supports was guaranteed. 

In the other chamber, members of the House Caucus on Foster Youth have already introduced legislation to add $500 million to Chafee and pause the upper age limit on extended care. 

Among the other smaller provisions in the Senate bill:

  • $30 million for kinship navigator programs, which serve as one-stop sources for referrals and services to relative caregivers.
  • $50 million to ensure foster youth are up to date on vaccinations. 
  • $30 million for training and equipment to help facilitate more remote hearings and proceedings in dependency courts. 

The bill has been endorsed by several national child welfare groups including the Children’s Defense Fund, Generations United and the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. The center’s executive director, Ruth Anne White, called it a “realistic and restrained” request in an email to The Imprint.

“Every provision within this comprehensive bill relates directly to the economic disruption and terrifying pandemic facing the nation – threats that will only increase as eviction moratoria expire and many businesses struggle to reopen,” White said. 

The bill is co-sponsored by Brown and three other Democrats: Kamala Harris (Calif.), Catherine Cortz Masto (Nevada) and Bob Casey (Penn.).

John Kelly can be reached at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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