The Family First Act Offers Hope to Reduce Child Neglect & Abuse

Back • December 2, 2015 • Uncategorized

It’s no surprise that children do best when they have strong stable families.  But when children are at risk because of family dysfunction, our nation’s approach has long been to protect the child by removal rather than remediation.  Our federal financing reflects that: Title IV-E, the single largest federal funding stream for child welfare-involved youth, reimburses states for costs associated with placing children in out-of-home care, but cannot be drawn down for costs associated with strengthening families.

New proposed federal legislation, which will be introduced by the Finance Committee late next week, seeks to change that. The Family First Act would expand the permissible use of IV-E dollars to include services for families on the brink of entering the child welfare system.  In other words, federal funds could support state intervention at the front end, as well as the back. The idea behind it is simple: if we can prevent families from reaching the point where the state needs to intervene for the well-being of the child, everyone benefits: the state (from the long-term cost savings and efficiencies achieved), the family, and, most importantly, the child.

The bill builds off two bills introduced earlier this year: The Family Stability and Kinship Act, sponsored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, and the All Kids Matter Act, sponsored by Colorado Senator Michael Bennett and Idaho Senator Michael Crapo. “What this is all about is creating as many good choices as we possibly can for youngsters to grow up in  a safe, healthy environment. That means keeping families together,” Wyden said of his bill back in August.  Bennett’s words, in September, reinforced this: “Under the current system, we’re tying the hands of child welfare advocates in many states and only allowing them to help after a kid experiences abuse or neglect. [All Kids Matter] gives states more flexibility to prevent and intervene before the worst happens.”

Specifically, the Family First Act would allow IV-E funds to be used in the following ways for the families of children “at imminent risk” of being placed into foster care:

  • for children at home, costs associated with evidence-based mental health and substance abuse services, in-home parent training, and family counseling, for up to 12 months
  • for children in kinship care, costs associated with all of the above, as well as short-term financial support designed to pay for concrete goods and services that will facilitate kinship placement (such as transportation, clothing, rent and utility assistance, etc.)

Importantly, families do not have to meet any income-eligibility guidelines in order for states to be able to draw down dollars for these services (in contrast to IV-E guidelines for out-of-home cost reimbursement, which do have income-eligibility limits). This opens up these services to all families who may need them, not just the very poorest.

Though short-term financial assistance for children at home is not reimbursable via IV-E dollars under this proposal, the bill does create a capped mandatory funding allotment for short-term (three months) crisis assistance to these families under Title IV-B, a separate, non-entitlement, federal funding stream that supports the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program. Making this funding mandatory, rather than discretionary, as it is now, guarantees it will be there to support families, and will not be subject to political maneuvering.

The Family First Act has another significant component as well: incentivizing the use of family foster care over congregate care. It limits the situations in which IV-E dollars can be used to compensate states for the cost of congregate care to those in which residentially treatment is clinically mandated, and heightens accountability around this determination.  With this provision, as in those that seek to expand the use of preventative services, the Act recognizes that all children deserve to live with families, and are most likely to succeed when they do.

The bill’s passage is far from assured. Although it is likely to have bi-partisan support, it will also have a high fiscal note. But this is the kind of investment that makes sense. We believe that paying now means savings later – savings from fewer out-of-home placements, savings from less need down the line.

Over the last five years, Connecticut has already started moving in the direction of putting family first: reducing congregate care, expanding kinship care, and implementing Family Assessment Response, a program that connects low-to-moderate risk families to supports and services within their community. The federal government is finally catching on to what we in Connecticut already knew: we should support children in their families and communities and we shouldn’t wait to support them until we can’t wait any longer. The Family First Act would enable Connecticut to continue and expand this important work, and we will follow and report on its progress in the weeks and months to come.