Family First: A “Reform” that Isn’t

Family FirstBy now most readers will know that Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) as part of the continuing resolution to fund the government until March 23. The passage of this major legislation as part of a continuing resolution marks the final victory of an ideological agenda that has taken over the child welfare advocacy community.

FFPSA was drafted in secret without feedback from stakeholders such as state and county child welfare administrators, many of whom expressed opposition to the bill or at least concern about its consequences.  After several failed attempts to pass the bill over a two-year period, it was finally passed as part of a continuing resolution that was urgently needed to fund the entire government and avert a shutdown.

If we had a more pluralistic intellectual landscape in child welfare, FFPSA might have looked very different. Any bill calling itself “child welfare finance reform” should have started by addressing the most egregious flaw in child welfare financing–the linkage between Title IV-E eligibility and eligibility for the long-defunct AFDC program, which was terminated in 1996.

As a result of this linkage, fewer children are eligible for Title IV-E assistance every year, and states spend millions of dollars on the useless exercise of verifying eligibility for every child entering the system, as described by Sean Hughes in the Chronicle of Social Change. Yet, the advocacy community, in its single-minded quest to reduce the foster care rolls, gave up the fight to de-link foster care from AFDC.

Instead, the goal of “finance reform” became expanding the use of Title IV-E funds to included what the Act calls “prevention services.” These are not services to prevent abuse and neglect, but rather to prevent a child’s entry into foster care once that abuse or neglect has already occurred. FFPSA allows the use of these funds to fund parenting education, drug treatment and mental health services for parents.

Most of these “prevention” services logically belong to other systems, such as drug treatment and mental health, and are also funded by Medicaid. But prevailing ideology favors diverting foster care funds to other purposes, ostensibly to encourage prevention. In the most recent display of this ideology, the President and CEO of Casey Family Programs testified last week that “for every $7 the Federal government spends on foster care, only $1 is spent on prevention.”

No footnote was provided, but it appears that Bell was restating a common refrain that compares Title IV-E foster care expenditures with spending under Title IV-B, that is used mostly for in-home services. This comparison fails to take into account all the services provided by other programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Social Services Block Grant, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Medicaid, the Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Most of these programs are insufficiently funded, but it makes sense to increase their funding rather than divert funds that were designed to help good Samaritans meet the needs of the children they have volunteered to care for temporarily.

This view that a foster home is always better than a congregate (non-family) placement is another part of the prevailing ideology in child welfare. Congregate placements also happen to be more expensive, making restrictions on congregate care a perfect offset to FFPSA’s increased costs. It’s very convenient when ideological correctness coincides with saving money! Unfortunately, restrictions on congregate care may be harmful to children when there is a foster home shortage and so many of today’s foster homes are inadequate, as I described in my last column.

The lack of robust conversation and debate in the child welfare advocacy community has resulted in a “reform” that will create more problems than it solves. Our most vulnerable children deserved a better outcome.







The Real Benefit of Child Welfare Waivers: Eliminating Title IV-E Eligibility Determination

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Title IV-E waivers that 28 jurisdictions have obtained from the federal government to allow states to develop innovative programs to address federal child welfare goals. Maybe it’s because the one in my own jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, is currently being redesigned because the services it funded were underutilized at the same time as many system-involved families received little help.

Around the country, most states are funding the same set of programs, few if any of which can document impressive effects despite being billed as “evidence-based.” Moreover, in its most recent report on child welfare financing, Child Trends found that only nine percent of waiver funds were used for purposes not traditionally reimbursable under Title IV-E.

But when reading an article about Florida I suddenly realized why the loss of the waivers could be disastrous for many child welfare systems and the children they serve. If Florida’s waiver expires, the Deputy Commissioner of Florida’s Department of Children and Families is worried about the state having to return to determining the Title IV-E eligibility of individual children.

For those who are not versed in the arcane details of child welfare finance, let me explain. States receive partial federal reimbursement for Title IV-E foster care expenditures only for children who would have been eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a welfare program which ended in 1996.  To obtain their share of federal funding, states are forced to devote considerable resources to determine this eligibility for every child–a calculation which serves no other purpose.

Of course there has been inflation since 1996, so the proportion of children eligible for Title IV-E funding decreased from 67% in 2000 to under 50% in 2017. This means that every year states and counties are paying a higher proportion of foster care costs compared to the federal government.

Determining eligibility for foster care based on income makes no sense. A state or county pays for foster care even for youths who are not eligible for financial assistance based on poverty. If a child of Donald Trump or Bill Gates came into foster care, the state would pay. So federal reimbursement should not depend on the income of the parents.

I have not seen any estimate of how many people perform the soul-deadening task of determining Title IV-E eligibility, or how much governments spend on this useless exercise. That money would be much better spent on services to children in a desperately underfunded child welfare system.

Most states with waivers have been exempted from Title IV-E eligibility determination. To ensure that the projects are cost-neutral, the federal government established a cap on federal funding for each jurisdiction rather than reimbursing them on a per-child basis. These jurisdictions have been able to stop determining Title IV-E eligibility for kids entering foster care.

States should not need a waiver in order to avoid wasting human and financial resources to determine foster children’s eligibility for a defunct welfare program. Yet, advocates have been silent on this issue. There are several child welfare bills awaiting consideration by the 115th Congress in 2018. Unfortunately, none of them would eliminate the criteria for Title IV-E eligibility, not even the “Family First Act,” which has been billed as child welfare finance reform.

In his brilliant column, The Two Billion Dollar Question: Why Haven’t We De-Linked?, Sean Hughes tried to explain the reasons for this silence. He argues that “the focus seems to have shifted almost exclusively toward preventing entry into foster care, with little advocacy being devoted to actually improving the continuum of care for children in out-of-home care.” Shockingly, he reports that advocates have often told him that they would not want more funding for foster care even if they could get it.

It is hard to believe that people calling themselves child advocates could turn their backs on the heartbreaking needs of children in foster care by staying silent on the Title IV-E eligibility limits. Children in foster care need great foster parents who live near their homes and schools of origin, and who might be attracted by the offer of housing in supportive communities of foster parents. They need caseworkers who have the time to assemble and coordinate the multiple services they require. They need cutting-edge trauma-informed mental health services from top providers, not the low-end providers who often choose to participate in Medicaid. They need music lessons, art and dance classes, and driver’s education.

In light of the dwindling supply of good foster parents and the recent increase in the foster care rolls, large sibling groups and harder-to-place foster youths need high-quality boarding schools where sibling can be kept together, needed services can be provided in one place and where behavioral challenges can be addressed in a safe and non-traumatizing way.

Eliminating Title IV-E eligibility determination would be a good first step to providing all the enhanced services that foster kids need and deserve, and stopping the waste of desperately needed resources on eligibility determination.