Time to Take Close Look at Family First Act

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richard wexlerTo read the rhetoric coming from the foster care-industrial complex lately, you’d think that the private child welfare agencies that need a steady supply of foster children to stay in business had undergone a conversion worthy of St. Paul.

Suddenly they’re all talking about “more should be done to keep kids in families” and how the federal government should be spending more on “prevention.” They’ve even created a website called Keeping Kids in Families, (run by a group that actually calls itself the “Triad” partnership) with infographics implying that they want to change funding priorities.

Don’t believe it.

They’ve stolen the rhetoric of reform, while getting rid of almost all of the substance.

Indeed, you have to spend a long, long time poking around the website to even find the specifics about the legislation they urge people to support. There’s a reason for that.

What these groups are really supporting is a plan for legislation (it’s not even a bill yet) called the Family First Act. (This analysis is based on this outline from Senate Finance Committee staff, and a similar memo circulating among some child welfare groups. So instead of referring to “the bill” I’ll be referring to “the outline.”)

Like so much in child welfare, the original proposal was born of good intentions — and it might have made a pretty good bill. But it was quickly watered down. In its present form, it opens up funding only to very limited forms of prevention. And it does nothing to curb the current huge, open-ended entitlement for foster care.

In its present form the Family First Act is a Trojan horse. It leaves the false impression that its passage would lead to fundamental child welfare finance reform — thereby removing the pressure to make real changes, and possibly setting the stage for efforts to funnel even more money into foster care.

Child welfare funding today

Foster care is funded through a large open-ended entitlement program known as Title IV-E. For every eligible child, the state picks up a large share of the tab — the share varies from state to state. Roughly 44 percent of foster care cases are eligible for this reimbursement, and that percentage declines ever so slightly every year. That’s because of something called “the lookback,” which I’ll get to below.

In contrast, a much smaller pot of money, called Title IV-B, is available for services to help keep children out of foster care — and that money is not an entitlement. (Details are in this NCCPR Issue Paper.)

What the Family First bill would do (as far as we can tell)

The Family First Act outline calls for allowing IV-E funding for some services to keep children out of foster care. However:

These could be almost exclusively “soft services” — the “counseling” and “parent education” that typically do nothing to actually keep children out of foster care, but make the helpers feel good. The one exception: Some forms of services might be available for “substance abuse prevention.” Whether that also includes drug treatment is not clear. In addition. when a child is placed with her or his parent in a residential substance abuse treatment program, federal foster care reimbursement could be used to pay for the child’s care.

Totally absent are what families so often really need: aid for child care, housing or simply basic cash assistance to ameliorate the worst aspects of the poverty that often is confused with “neglect.” This reportedly was in earlier proposals but was negotiated away early in the process.

The outline calls for allowing very limited aid of this sort under Title IV-B — but that’s the one that has almost no money in it and is not an entitlement, so this means almost nothing.

The outline does allow emergency cash assistance if the child is placed with a grandparent or other relative. In other words: In a case where the allegation is “lack of supervision” the new federal money could not be used to help the child’s parents pay for day care. But if the child were placed with grandparents, federal money could help them pay for day care.

The problem is compounded by the criteria any prevention program must meet to be eligible for funding. By the time the provisions in the outline are fully in effect the standard of proof would be so absurdly high that almost nothing would qualify.

That’s because the outline continues the profound double standard for what constitutes an “evidence-based” practice in child welfare: If it’s an alternative to foster care it must be able to dot every i and cross every t on the most rigorous form of evaluation.

Lisbeth Schorr, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, has several excellent articles on why this is an unwise approach in human services. And in child welfare, there is the additional problem of a profound bias among many of the “scholars.”

But the same standard does not apply to foster care — in fact, the outline contemplates continuing funding-as-usual for foster care despite the overwhelming evidence that, for most of the children placed there, it’s a far worse option than family preservation.

So state and local child welfare agencies would end up with the theoretical “right” to spend federal money on preventive services — but almost none of the services would actually qualify for funding.

A ceiling, not a floor

One could argue that the outline should be supported because at least it doesn’t make things worse — and there are some improvements around the edges. And one could argue that this at least would set a precedent for using Title IV-E funds for prevention — it could be said to be a floor on which more reform could be built.

But it’s more likely that this bill would be a ceiling, not a floor. Once the bill was passed, all the pressure for real reform — ending the foster care entitlement — would go away. Everyone could say: “See, we’ve now given child welfare agencies all the funding flexibility they need!” And if, by some chance, the number of children in foster care doesn’t drop, that will be cited as evidence that financial incentives were never the issue, and all those children really, truly need to be in foster care.

That’s when the foster care industrial complex will come charging back, seeking what they really want all along — an end to the “lookback.”

As I mentioned earlier, thanks to the lookback, the number of children eligible for federal foster care aid under Title IV-E decreases ever so slightly each year. As a result, the foster care industrial complex is finally feeling the heat — they know that if they don’t support some kind of change, federal foster care funding is going to dry up completely — though not for another 50 years or so.

So they want the fake reform of the Family First Act, followed by some form of end to the lookback. (Details on how the lookback works and why we need it are here.)

And that’s exactly why those of us who want real reform should not settle for the Family First Act. Rather, we should let the heat keep rising on the foster care industrial complex until they’re willing to support the real reform. That means ending the unlimited, open-ended entitlement for foster care and converting it into an inflation-indexed flat grant that could be used both on foster care and on all kinds of prevention and family preservation programs.

Similar problems with provisions on ‘congregate care’

The Family First Act also attempts to curb the use of the worst form of “care,” group homes and institutions, by putting some limits on when federal foster care money could be spent on such placements. One could argue, again, that this is better than the status quo, since currently there are no limits, even on paper.

But the outline has so many ifs, ands, buts and assorted other loopholes that the limit appears largely meaningless. And by actually creating a category of placement called “Qualified Residential Treatment Programs” (or worse, one summary of the bill says these would have the oxymoronic name Quality Residential Treatment Programs), the bill runs the risk of “institutionalizing” the idea that there is something acceptable about institutionalizing children.

Now, about the Triad

The people behind that Orwellian Keeping Kids in Families website are a who’s who of the foster care industrial complex. The group is calling itself “The Triad for Results-Based Funding for Safe Children and Stronger Families” (you’d think they would have at least run a basic Google search for “Triad” before coming up with that name).

Leading the Triad is the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a group that has little to do with either one. Rather, it is a trade association made up largely of private agencies that oversee foster homes and run group homes and institutions. These agencies typically are paid for each day they hold a child in foster care.

The Alliance is led by Susan Dreyfus, who came to the group after an undistinguished tenure running two child welfare systems. A good indication of where Dreyfus stands is the fact that, as a member of the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities she voted for the Commission’s awful recommendations.

Dreyfus’ group is joined by the National Organization for State Associations for Children, which is a collection of state federations dominated by foster care providers. So two-thirds of the Triad has a vested interest in opposing any reform that would actually curb the huge open-ended entitlement for foster care funding. And there’s no downside for the third member of the Triad, the American Public Human Services Association, since the outline offers more money for limited forms of prevention without touching foster care.

The fact that these groups are supporting the Family First Act is not a reason to oppose it. On the contrary, I’ve said repeatedly that child welfare is a field filled with good people who keep doing the wrong things for the right reasons. If someone wants to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, I’ll take it.

But the Family First Act is not the right thing.

It’s also often said that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. That’s true. But the Family First Act is not good. It is, at best, mediocre. And the good should be the enemy of the mediocre.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

  • Stacy Youst Sillen

    to the author; what do you propose?