The strings tying millions of federal dollars to foster care will be loosed in the coming months, allowing up to 10 states to spend money on services to keep families together, or other innovative programs designed to divert children from state custody.
Advocates say the waivers allow states to bypass federal funding rules that have pushed states toward faulty child welfare policies.
“The foster care matching dollars from the feds are huge, a huge piece of the state budget” for child welfare, said Charlotte Booth, executive director of the Institute for Family Development, a nonprofit that develops family preservation services.
The federal government appropriated some $5.5 billion among the states in fiscal year 2010 for foster care and permanency programs, with an emphasis on foster spending.
“That’s one of the reasons it’s been hard for states to put money into keeping families together because you don’t get any federal match for that,” said Booth. “It’s a terrible disincentive to keeping families together or it’s an incentive for removing children.”
Her organization developed a program used in several states called Homebuilders. It provides in-home counseling, education and crisis intervention to families that have children at risk of being taken away from home.
Homebuilders is one of the oldest of many such programs that aim to divert children away from state care, and works upwards of three-quarters of the time, according to numerous studies.
That’s the sort of outcome the federal Administration for Children and Families wants from the plans the states have outlined. The federal agency has published proposals from nine states. Three more proposals are still being fine-tuned before publication, according to a spokesman for the ACF.
By the end of September, the agency is scheduled to make the 10 awards. They will be judged on: increasing permanency for youth, keeping youth in their homes, preventing child abuse or neglect, or preventing re-entry of children into the system.
Foster care should indeed first be seen as a temporary system of care, according to Richard Klarberg, president and CEO of the Council on Accreditation, a New York-based nonprofit that develops and helps implement service delivery standards for family and children agencies. “Too often the foster care system is designed to replace the child’s family and energies go into that design instead of the temporary nature of the placement,” said Klarberg.
A good philosophy about service, he continued, considers that most parents want to be good parents but may need help and resources to handle their responsibilities.
“I believe the data suggest that many, many more families could keep their kids or could achieve prompt reunification if they were given a chance,” said Booth.
She cited a 2002 Michigan study that randomly assigned children who were on the verge of being removed from home either to Homebuilders or to foster care. About 90 percent of cases that went through Homebuilders had avoided placement 12 months later.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a network of welfare professionals, evaluated the nine state proposals and assigned them grades ranging from F to B-plus. He used several criteria, and said higher grades went to the most comprehensive proposals.
“I’ve never seen an A-plus because this is so new,” he admitted, but added that he gives credit to the B-plus states because it’s a difficult process.
Yet he will not give an A-plus until he sees a proposal for due process improvements, such as ensuring quality counsel to families in the court system on child welfare charges.
He also says that the evaluations required of each program are so complex, burdensome and subjective that it encourages “timid, small-scale proposals that will help relatively few children.”
Published proposals have come from Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
In each of the next two fiscal years, 2013 and 2014, the agency will also award 10 more waivers.