In an important show of bipartisanship, Congress is on the cusp of an historic step to help many of the most vulnerable children in our nation who are abused and neglected and at risk of entering foster care and lingering in group care. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (H.R. 5456) on June 21st to help keep these children safely with their families and out of foster care. I hope the Senate will do the same this week before it leaves for summer recess and not keep vulnerable children waiting and waiting longer.
Alumni of foster care frequently say the most important step the state could have taken was to help their family early on to keep them out of foster care. They talk about what a difference it would have made if drug treatment or other supports were available to keep their families together and offer them needed stability in their lives.
We often overlook the trauma children experience when they are uprooted from their home, family, and school and are expected to adjust to new environments. My mother was a wonderful foster parent to nearly a dozen children, yet many of her foster children yearned for their birth families. This separation trauma can be intensified for children in group homes and lead to worse life outcomes than experienced by children in family foster homes. Many children who move frequently from family to family or one group setting to another and from school to school wish they could have a stable family all children need growing up. “You don’t age out of families,” they say, underscoring a fundamental problem with having only the state as a parent.
Passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, identical to the Senate bill introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR), will make historic and crucial investments in prevention for children and families. Currently major federal child welfare funding is available to states only after a child has been removed from their home and placed in foster care. This has created a disincentive to help families at the front-end. For many years state child welfare agencies and a range of other providers and advocates have challenged this misalignment in federal funding which undermines the best interests and outcomes for vulnerable children and urged federal investments in prevention. The Family First Prevention Services Act finally does that recognizing that mental health and substance abuse problems bring the majority of children into the child welfare system. It allows federal dollars to be used to prevent and treat such problems and to fund home-based programs to strengthen parenting skills for children in their own families. We know quality prevention programs work and are less costly than group and congregate care. So we urge the Senate to act now.
The Family First Prevention Services Act also redirects federal fiscal incentives to states to help children who must enter foster care be placed with families rather than in more expensive and less effective group care. Over the years foster care alumni have shared their experiences in group home settings with members of Congress and explained how they needed the love and support of their parents or extended families, not rotating shifts of staff in a place that felt more like a business than a home. So this long overdue bill acts to reduce the unnecessary funneling of children into group care settings. Federal dollars are available for family foster care or quality residential treatment programs for children with special emotional or behavioral needs — often the most expensive care. The bill includes enhanced protections to ensure children remain in residential programs no longer than treatment requires. States will continue to receive federal support for programs serving pregnant and parenting teens and youth 18 and older transitioning from foster care to adulthood. After more than 35 years of federal support, states and localities will now have to pick up the full tab for the care of children in other group settings to better align federal dollars with prevention and the most family-like foster care settings that offer better outcomes for children.
Recognizing that this is a big change, these new funds for prevention and restrictions on group care funding will not take effect until three years after the bill is enacted. This three year delay gives state and local agencies, private providers and child and family advocates ample time to prepare and work with the Department of Health and Human Services to build on the new law’s flexibility in defining who is eligible for prevention services, how the services are defined, and the definition, structure and eligibility for residential treatment programs. There is also initial funding to build on for recruiting and retaining quality foster homes.
Could some states get less federal money for group care than they have been receiving? Possibly, but only if they maintain the status quo rather than supporting more family-like settings and treatment for children with special needs. And now all states will be able to use federal dollars for services and treatment to help keep children safely in their families and out of more expensive foster care. The bottom line must be what’s best for children.
A number of states already have time-limited federal waivers allowing more flexible use of federal foster care dollars to show the benefits of investments in prevention. The new federal prevention funds in the Family First Prevention Services Act will become available in 2019 as those waivers end. The new federal reforms build on what Congress has learned from states’ efforts to increase prevention investments and move children in foster care to more family-like settings, steps that improve child outcomes.
The Senate should approve H.R. 5456 before summer recess in four days. Attempts to change the bill, even technical amendments, will kill it and send a hurtful message to vulnerable children across the country that continued reliance on foster care over prevention is acceptable. I urge passage of this crucial bill to ensure long awaited services and protections for abused and neglected children.
Every child deserves to grow up in a safe and loving family. The Family First Prevention Services Act is a critically important step toward this goal for hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable children.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.