The federal government should expand a flexible funding program that helps states and counties reform their child welfare systems and keep more children out of foster care, a panel of experts told a congressional committee Thursday.
States participating in the demonstration program, known as the Title IV-E wavier, which allows federal funding to the state to be shifted into different services, have improved their child abuse and neglect prevention and family preservation, the witnesses told the House Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, under the Ways and Means Committee.
“The waiver has shown dramatic impacts,” said George Sheldon, secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families. For example, he said, the number of children in out-of-home care has dropped by 36 percent in the four years since his state was granted a waiver.
He and others told the subcommittee that expanding the waiver program to other states should be part of a larger reform of child welfare financing that would focus more on family preservation and permanency placement for youths removed from their homes.
Under the waiver program, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) allows specific states to spend funds they get under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act on efforts to keep children out of foster care. Normally, Title IV-E money is spent on services and administrative costs for youth in foster care.
Experiments began under the Clinton Administration in the late 1990s in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon, and have since expanded. The waivers vary by state and typically are not statewide. Studies have found some promising results in reducing out-of-home placements and the duration of placements that are made, and in increasing permanent placements for youths who had been removed from home.
Several child welfare advocates, such as Casey Family Programs, want Congress to give HHS authority to grant IV-E waivers to more states, which prompted yesterday’s hearing, chaired by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).
McDermott’s own state is trying to institute new reforms while facing a state budget crunch and cutbacks in federal funding. “We really feel this waiver would help us,” said Washington State Rep. Ruth Kagi (D), because it would allow the state to use some IV-E money for services to keep families together.
Another reason it might help: The waiver in Florida required the state to maintain the level of child welfare funding in effect at the time the waiver was granted, and provides for small annual increases. Those provisions keep the state from using the federal money to replace state expenditures. Casey CEO William Bell told the subcommittee that for future waivers, “I would suggested that we absolutely maintain the ‘maintenance of effort provision.’ ”
A recent report from Casey supports the waivers and reviews their impact in several states.
Fred Wulczyn, a research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, testified that the most consistent positive effects of the waivers involve using the money for subsidized guardianship, under which relatives are paid to help care for children who have been removed from their parents.
While the advocates focused on the cost-neutrality and potential savings of the waivers, because they allow existing funds to be shifted to different services, Rutledge Hutson of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) appealed for more funding.
“We’ve got to have a infusion of funds,” especially for preservation services, said Hutson, director of child welfare policy at CLASP. “The current financing structure is at odds with achieving the outcomes we want to achieve.”
“If we really want to improve the outcomes, we have to take on comprehensive finance reform,” Hutson said.
The witnesses’ prepared testimony and a link to the hearing are here.