House Committee Approves Long-Sought Family First Act

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WASHINGTON — A bill that would give states more flexibility to use federal foster care funding to help families stay together cleared its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved by voice vote the bipartisan Family First Prevention Services Act (HR 5456). The bill would allow states to use federal child welfare funding to pay for family services such as mental health, substance abuse and parenting programing to prevent children from entering foster care.

Under current federal law, most child welfare funding can only be used to reimburse states after children are placed in foster care.

“The bill focuses on addressing problems in the home by delivering parents much-needed support, rather than sending a child straight into foster care. Most of all, it helps ensure our children grow up in strong communities and stable homes,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, when the bill was unveiled days before the markup.

A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers have been trying to reach a compromise on the prevention legislation for months, as the clock ticked on the year’s limited congressional calendar.

Lawmakers are expected to try to move the bill swiftly through the House and Senate, where Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Finance Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are championing it.

The bill’s sponsors also have tied the importance of preventive services to the opioid and heroin problems in many parts of the country.

“The nation is in the grip of opioid and heroin crisis, which — according to states — is responsible for the recent spikes in the need for out-of-home foster care placement,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., the lead House sponsor of the bill.

The bill has won the support of a broad range of children’s advocates but has encountered some skeptics who say it does not go far enough to address families’ problems with support, such as child care, housing and basic cash assistance.

The bill would allow states to use federal funding for prevention services for 12 months, and the services must be classified as “promising,” “supported,” or well-supported” by the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare.

The bill also seeks to limit states’ use of non-family settings, such as group homes or congregate care facilities, for children who are removed from their homes,.

States would have to demonstrate regularly that a non-family setting was most appropriate for each individual child. In addition, the bill sets new standards for non-family settings in areas such as trauma-informed care, staff requirements, family participation and accreditation.

Several Democrats said at the markup that while they support the bill in principle, they disagree with its approach to funding.

The bill’s preventive service provisions do not take effect until Oct. 2019, which Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said flies in the face of the idea that there is an out-of-home placement crisis fueled by opioid and heroin abuse.

“If there is an imminent danger, what does this bill do about it? It says we’re concerned about it and in three years we’ll act about it,” he said.

Some Democrats also said more money is needed to help states, not just a reshuffling of funding. The bill is funded largely by reducing “inappropriate” group home placements and reducing funding to states for adoption assistance, according to a committee summary.

“I think we could do better by these children,” Doggett said.

The bill also would:

  • update the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program to allow states to support former foster youth up to age 23; and
  • reauthorize the Regional Partnership Grant program, which provides grants for evidence-based services that aim to prevent child abuse and neglect related to substance abuse.