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The many faces of federal child welfare reform

November 21, 2013

The Chronicle of Social Change
By John Kelly

The field of child welfare is brimming with policy proposals and legislation that could dramatically change the way the federal government invests in foster care and families on the brink. What’s more, some appear to have bipartisan support or the potential for it.

Following is a guide to the various reform-minded work happening on federal child welfare policy at the moment.

Family Preservation/Flexible Funding

Key players:

What’s going on:

CFP contracted with the Brookings Institute to host a series of meetings of child welfare advocates aimed at coalescing support for some sort of flexibility plan.

The most extreme reform on this front would be a widening of the Title IV-E entitlement so that states could be reimbursed for services related to keeping families together. As it is, the $6 billion IV-E program focuses entirely on foster care while the $600 million IV-B allotment supports family preservation.

No actual legislation has been introduced on this subject, but there is more interest now in flexibility than any time since the mid-2000s, when President George W. Bush and then Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) pushed legislation that would enable states to opt out of the entitlement in favor of flexible, capped allocations.

A key part of this discourse is the recent experience of Florida and Los Angeles. Both received waivers from the Department of Health and Human Services that allowed them to spend IV-E money on front-end services.

There is no doubt that the waiver had a profound impact: both places saw a dramatic decrease in the number of youths entering foster care. On the other hand, high-profile fatalities of children kept with their families, and an uptick in the recurrence of maltreatment in Los Angeles County, have prompted questions about whether those systems reversed course too much.

Meanwhile, a fresh round of nine IV-E waivers were accepted by HHS in 2012. While the plans for all nine have yet to be approved, many of the states proposed  “differential response” (DR) as a key component of their waiver process. In a nutshell, DR is a strategy where a child welfare agency can offer intervention services to a family without starting an official case based on abuse and neglect substantiation.

DR is an interesting aspect of this. Some champion the strategy as a critical piece to keeping families together; others are wary of the idea that a system would acknowledge cause for concern but not document it.

For his part, University of North Carolina professor and child welfare research leader Mark Testa bemoans DR’s prominence in the IV-E waiver program. Good idea or not, he said, it is a philosophy of service delivery and not an actual service to test the success of.

“Differential Response is pretty much a strategy to allow kids an alternative to coming in to the child welfare system,” said Testa, who helped establish the Wicked Problems Institute, a series of roundtable discussions focused on identifying persistent, heretofore unsolvable problems in child welfare. ”Beyond that, it’s not targeting anything around child well-being. Very little follow-through occurs.”

Restricting and Improving Foster Care

Key Players:

What’s going on:

While Casey Family Programs is leading the discussion on financial flexibility, two other members of the Casey funding tree are pushing a plan focused on reining in foster care usage.

Like their Casey brethren, AECF and Jim Casey express disdain for the status quo of federal financing. The paper version of its new proposal, “When Child Welfare Works,” bemoans the “arcane federal financing structure that fails to support or provide incentives for the best practices we now know are essential to improve the well-being of children.”

But the two foundations propose to keep IV-E focused on foster care services. There is little mention in the formal proposal of family preservation, and no mention of flexibility.

Instead, the thrust of the AECF and Jim Casey plan is to promote limitations that would keep federal reimbursements targeted at workforce improvement/training and short-term care in foster homes. Among the specific concepts:

  • Limiting federal foster care reimbursement under Title IV-E to 36 months per child (over the child’s lifetime).
  • Elimination of Title IV-E funding entirely for shelter care, as well as for group care for children younger than 13.
  • An increased tax credit for foster families caring for youth who are over age 12, are siblings, or are difficult to place.
  • Allowing child welfare workers to receive educational loan forgiveness after 4 years (instead of 10).
  • Allowing current funding streams to cover better training of child welfare investigative staff.

CFP’s call for flexibility and the other Caseys’ focus on foster care reform are not dueling notions, so it isn’t as if the groups are working against each other. But it is unclear whether they will work together.

The Chronicle asked if CFP was invited to join in the proposal with AECF and Jim Casey. AECF senior spokeswoman Kate Shatzkin did not answer that directly, but replied over e-mail that “CFP has partnered with Brookings to pull together key stakeholders to discuss options for federal financing reform, and we hope that our recommendations can spur more discussion about an actionable consensus proposal.”

Foundations are prohibited from supporting specific pieces of legislation, but AECF and Jim Casey appear to have a kindred spirit in Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Hatch has introduced a bill, crafted by child welfare policy veteran Becky Shipp, which would cut off federal match money after 15 days for children under 13 who are placed in congregate care.

The Hatch bill would also forbid federal reimbursement for any youth under the age of 16 whose placement status was Another Planned Permanency Living Arrangement (APPLA). An APPLA designation essentially concedes that a system expects the youth to age out of foster care.

Both the foundations and Hatch seem committed to the notion that congregate care and residential programs should be a smaller part of the child welfare milieu.

“Residential care must be the emergency room for effective intervention to help a child during extreme crisis that places the child or others at risk of harm,” said Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of New York City nonprofit Children’s Village. “As with a typical emergency room, treatment and discharge must be expedient.”

It is also worth noting that Hatch proposes to eliminate the $1.7 billion Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), a broader allocation that allows for regional decisions on social services.

Hatch would re-task all of that money toward child welfare-related spending. Some would head toward foster care services (promoting normalcy for children in care and preventing sexual exploitation) and some would go into the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program for family preservation efforts.

For more on the repeal of SSBG and the redirection of its funding, click here for an excellent breakdown of the Hatch bill by John Sciamanna of the National Foster Care Coalition.

The AECF/Jim Casey report is critical of SSBG’s innate lack of transparency and accountability.

From the report: “States do not report on how SSBG dollars are spent or the outcomes achieved through their investments, and annual negotiations within states about the use of SSBG dollars lead to uncertainty within child welfare agencies.”

The report only calls for Congress to “reconfigure” SSBG, without much in the way of specifics.

Incentivizing Adoptions

Key Players:

What’s going on:

If the push on front end and foster care funding amounts to remodeling the house, efforts to alter adoption financing are more like a fresh coat of paint.

HHS has for years used adoption incentive grants to states to spur efforts to finalize more adoptions for children in foster care for whom parental rights have been terminated.

Members in both houses of Congress are interested only in tweaking the priorities within the incentive scheme. The goal: more attention paid to adoption of older youths and more use of guardianship of arrangements.

A bipartisan bill that passed the House 402-0 in October would lower the basic adoption incentive grant from $4,000 to $2,000, and maintain the older youth award at $8,000.

It would then insert two new categories: a $4,000 award for “pre-adolescent” adoptions for youths between nine and 14, and a $1,000 award for guardianship arrangements.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana) recently floated a draft bill on adoption incentives. That bill would maintain the age awards as they are now, but create a $4,000 award for guardianship arrangements.

One big difference between the bills: Baucus would maintain and raise to $4,500 the incentive for adoptions of special needs children. The bill that passed unanimously in the house eliminates that award.

Aging Out

Key Players:

  • Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch and Becky Shipp

What’s going on:

Hatch’s bill would enable former foster youth between ages 23 and 26 receive college grants of up to $5,000 through the Chafee Educational Training Vouchers (ETV) program. Right now, the ceiling for the eligibility is 23.

For some states, where the ETV allotment exceeds the demand for it at the current age, this could be a relatively simple improvement. It could create headaches in states like California, where there is more demand than there is money at the moment.

The AECF/Jim Casey proposal suggests the creation of a ‘federally-funded Individual Development Account available to older youth in care that matches their savings at 100 percent up to the amount of the Adoption Tax Credit available for foster care adoptions.”

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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