Family First Act: Opportunities to Support Families, Children and Youth

Last week, as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act (HR. 1892), Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which marks a significant step forward for child welfare financing reform by breaking the block on using federal child welfare funding for the range of preventive and treatment supports needed by families who come to the attention of the child welfare system. 

The law finally allows states to claim federal Title IV-E reimbursement for time-limited mental health, substance abuse and in-home parenting skill-based programs which will keep more children safely in their own homes and out of foster care, regardless of a family’s income.  Previously, federal entitlement funding was only available for foster care or adoption and guardian support for children exiting foster care.  

I began working in public child welfare in Wisconsin in 1981, right after the establishment of the Title IV-E entitlement and the landmark Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (PL 96-272) which introduced into law the concept of “reasonable efforts” to prevent foster care placement as a required judicial finding in child welfare proceedings.  Although the concept was vague and is still not clearly defined, in order to access federal funding for out-of-home care the law required states to demonstrate, and courts to affirm, that they had made reasonable efforts to prevent placement of a child in foster care and to expedite reunification for children already removed from their families. However, the dollars to fund prevention and reunification services were missing from federal financing. It was also in 1980 that Congress turned the open-ended entitlement Title XX of the Social Security Act, which had funded states’ prevention efforts, into a block grant further limiting federal dollars for such services. 

For the next decade many of us working in child welfare turned to promoting family preservation and family support services as a way to prevent unnecessary foster care placements and strengthen families. Again, the challenge for states was how to finance these services in the absence of substantial and adequate federal financial support for prevention.  In 1985, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) wrote a seminal piece which laid out a strategy for states to maximize claiming open-ended Title IV-E funding for out-of-home care, thereby freeing up state and local dollars to be directed towards prevention and family preservation services.  It was an extremely important strategy for drawing down federal dollars but it was a work-around for a child welfare financing system that continued to pay for services once families were torn apart but didn’t support efforts to keep them together.  A glimmer of hope occurred with the passage of the Family Support and Preservation Act in 1992, which expanded Title IV-B resources available for prevention services. But still Title IV- B dollars were very limited and the federal incentives were skewed toward removal at the expense of prevention.  

Since then advocates, providers, foundations, coalitions, policymakers, public and private providers and commissions have debated, scrutinized and lobbied to change a longstanding child welfare financing system that doesn’t promote the values at the heart of child welfare practice: to keep families together whenever possible; to place children with families, preferably their extended ones, when safety requires that they be removed; to do everything possible to reunify children with families expeditiously; and, when that isn’t possible, to expediently move children to permanency. Over the years, significant federal legislation was passed shaping the system we have today but none was successful in attacking a basic problem facing child welfare: the way services are funded by the federal government.  

Until now.  

The opportunities presented by the Family First Prevention Services Act are many; but we have far to go to ensure that the promise of the new financing system delivers on our vision for a more research-informed and just child welfare system. One opportunity is the recognition in the law that we need to build our evidence base about what works to keep children safely at home.  The array of programs that fall into the bucket of recognized “evidence-based programs” supported by randomized controlled studies for child welfare services is pitifully small and often not tested on the populations most at risk of child welfare involvement.  Rather than restricting funding to only these services, 50 percent of the funding can support programs shown to be promising and supported by research.  This is a huge opportunity for the field, one that we cannot squander. We will need to be creative in applying rigorous and diverse methods to evaluate promising services, using our resources wisely to discover which types of service in which settings work best for which families. 

African American and Native American children are less likely to receive in-home services and more likely to enter foster care and, that once in care, they experience disparate outcomes. With this in mind, the law also provides a real opportunity for states to invest in services that are culturally specific and focus on reducing racial disparities in the demographics of children and youth who enter and remain in the foster care system.  Importantly, the law also specifically recognizes the additional needs and stressors facing expectant and parenting youth in foster care by allowing services for these youth to strengthen their parenting. But state and local child welfare systems will need to determine which programs are most effective; how to offer these services to youth in ways that do not conjure up increased surveillance and unintended consequences; and how to engage youth in developmentally appropriate, fun and effective ways. CSSP’s Youth Thrive Initiative is helping states reconfigure their services and policies for youth and expectant and parenting youth so that they are developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed and culturally relevant as well as based on the research identifying what youth need to thrive. 

By extending to age 23 (for states that have extended foster care to 21) the financial, housing, counseling, employment, education and other services that former foster youth can access through the Chafee Program and by extending eligibility to age 26 for Educational Training Vouchers, the law is catching up with adolescent brain science which recognizes that youth need supports for longer periods before they are more developmentally ready for adult responsibilities. But again, youth are very clear about what they want and what they don’t.  States will need to work with youth to help them design and identify an aftercare plan that includes the supports and services they want and need to thrive.  To be most effective states will need workers trained and proficient in knowing how to work with adolescents by using the research about brain development and the protective factors associated with healthy youth development and well-being.   

The bill further recognizes that institutions (including group homes, residential treatment centers and shelters) are no place for children to grow up by restricting federal dollars for congregate care. This will require that states re-examine their foster care and kinship policies, licensing requirements, recruitment strategies, supports and training so that a sufficient number of quality foster and kinship parents are available to meet the needs of children and youth in search of homes. The newly developed CHAMPS campaign identifies a range of steps that states can take to improve their foster care systems and the bill includes grant opportunities to support states in building out their foster family continuum as they move to reduce reliance on congregate care. 

Finally, while the law directs needed resources for services to families who come to the attention of the child welfare system it does not provide resources that help to prevent abuse and neglect in the first place. That still remains a new frontier for federal investment. Until we devote as many resources into strengthening families as we do to responding to problems after they have occurred, our system remains flawed. 

Notwithstanding this last point, there is no question that the Family First Act presents many opportunities and associated challenges, and it will be years before full implementation takes effect. But we can start now by focusing on what we know from practice, experience and research about what families, children and youth need in order to re-create a child welfare system that recognizes family preservation and child safety as sides of the same coin.

Read CSSP’s official statement on the Family First Prevention Services Act

Susan Notkin is a senior vice president at CSSP.