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A Funding Offer Wins Praise, but Few Takers

 

From a policy perspective, nary anyone says a bad word about the guardianship assistance payments (GAPs) established by the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, signed by President Bush in October. The program lets states use part of their federal Title IV-E money to help relatives become legal guardians of youths who would otherwise be destined for foster care.

So why have only six states submitted plans to opt in?

The idea seems perfect for cash-strapped public child welfare agencies: They would pay benefits to the kinship guardian that could be equal to or less than the state’s regular assistance to foster parents. Because kinship arrangements typically require less monitoring by social workers, staffers can focus their attention on fewer youths.

Representatives of child welfare systems and nonprofit providers like the program. Family preservation advocates like it. President Obama set aside about $50 million in his 2010 budget for it.

But so far, only Tennessee, Rhode Island, Maine, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Oregon have submitted plans to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to start guardianship assistance programs under GAP. States appear to be reticent for several reasons:

Legislation. The National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators (NAPCWA) is interviewing officials in every state about their efforts to implement Fostering Connections Act programs. Several states are interested in GAP, said NAPCWA Director Anita Light, but they believe they’ll need to pass state legislation in order to participate. She expects more states to submit plans to ACF by the fourth quarter of this fiscal year, which begins in July.

The economy. Just like regular IV-E funds for foster care, the GAP money under IV-E does not come free: States have to match the federal contribution, many at a rate of 50 percent. (Poor states contribute less than others.) You can’t use other federal dollars for the match.

So implementing GAP means ponying up for the payments and for the costs of creating a system to manage it. In the midst of a recession and even worse budget shortfalls projected for most states in 2010, the words “increase” and “spending” aren’t used consecutively in many state budget debates these days.

“In some cases, it’s the additional costs associated with implementing optional programs” that is keeping states away, Light said. “Maybe a year ago, we wouldn’t be having the issues.”

Ironically, in some ways this is the best year to implement GAP. The federal stimulus package increased the federal contribution in IV-E money for 2009, so states will pay a lower matching percentage than usual for IV-E funds.

That frustrates advocates like Terence Kane, public policy analyst for Generations United, who is preaching the potential cost savings to state officials. “States are going to be hesitant about new options in this economy,” he said. His job is “continuing to educate” states.

TANF. The 37 states that operate some form of guardianship assistance programs now use three basic options to fund them: state revenue; a Title IV-E waiver project arranged with ACF; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grants.

Continuing to operate kinship programs with TANF money might be more attractive than using GAP. Under TANF, a state can set its own rules for who is eligible and how the program works. And states don’t have to match the TANF money.

Impact on Adoption. John Mattingly, the commissioner of New York City’s child welfare system, is well-regarded for his efforts at child welfare reform. But even he is approaching the idea of a subsidized guardianship program with caution, because of its implications for adoption. The worry is that relatives who would otherwise adopt might like the benefits of the guardianship better than any help they’d get for adopting.

In an e-mail to the Center for New York City Affairs in April, Mattingly wrote, “Most times, relatives will adopt if reunification is not a live option, if the agency supports them in their decision, and if it will achieve permanence for the child. In sum, kinship guardianship can be the best option for a small percentage of children, but the State of New York needs to be careful to craft regulations for its use that will continue the emphasis on adoption for most children who cannot return home.”

Still to be determined: What kind of regulations can allay that concern? And is that concern worth not implementing GAP?

Eligibility. Once a state opts in to IV-E GAP, “it is obligated to provide such assistance to any child who is eligible for title IV-E kinship guardianship assistance payments,” according to ACF’s program instructions. In other words, once you’re in, you cannot pick and choose whom to include.

If a child meets the criteria for reimbursement through IV-E foster care funds, he or she is eligible for GAP as well. However, several determinants are decided by local agencies, such as: Are reunification or adoption not appropriate permanency options? Does the child demonstrate a strong attachment to the prospective guardian? Does the guardian demonstrate a strong commitment?

State and local agencies will need to train staff members to recognize who qualifies, and how to start the process.

The agencies also will need to develop a standard agreement for guardians that spells out what would void the guardianship. Early signs are that the agreements could vary considerably among states. Oregon’s agreement stipulates that if a child covered under GAP is incarcerated for 30 days, the agreement is terminated. California, which runs its own program and has not opted into the federal GAP, extended its guardianship program a couple of years ago to include youths coming home from incarceration.

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