Don’t believe the hype. The Family First Act is a step backwards for child welfare finance reform

Perhaps you’ve heard. Tacked onto the bill that averted another government shutdown is a child welfare finance “reform” measure called the Family First Prevention Services Act.

The bill was thought to be dead. It was killed last year by what one reformer who transformed his own institution years ago called the group home industry – the collection of private agencies typically paid for every day they hold foster children in the worst form of care, group homes and institutions — and their public sector allies.

But it came back to life as part of the process of keeping the government open.  Now it’s law.

One might expect advocates of family preservation to celebrate, and some almost certainly will. The bill allows some federal money once restricted to funding foster care to be used for better alternatives.  And, in theory, it curbs federal funding for group homes and institutions.

Some very good child welfare reformers favor the bill. The best case for it was made by one of those reformers, Jeremy Kohomban. He transformed what was once one of the nation’s most regressive residential treatment centers, Children’s Village, in New York, into a leader in emphasizing trying to help children in their own homes or foster homes. Here’s his case for the bill.

Setting up prevention to fail

But I disagree.  In 2016, I wrote that the range of prevention services that could be funded under Family Frist was tiny, and there were absurd restrictions on which programs within that range could get federal aid. And instead of limiting group homes and institutions, I argued that the bill was so weak that it actually strengthened them, creating a whole category of institution that would be, in effect, sanctified in federal law.

So it’s no wonder that in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that only $130 million in additional federal funds would go to prevention each year – a drop in the bucket compared to the billions spent on foster care. CBO also estimated that the proportion of foster children in group homes and institutions would barely change – declining from 14 percent to 11 percent – over ten years.

So what the bill really does is set prevention up to fail.  When these minor changes don’t do much to curb needless foster care, those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach will say See? Changing financial incentives didn’t work, all those children must really need to be in foster care.  In fact, all those kids will still be in foster care because there was almost no real change in financial incentives.

A “presents for pimps” loophole

Nevertheless, the group home industry insisted that even the slightest restriction on their ability to warehouse children in the very worst form of “care” was more than they could handle.

Desperate to get something passed, supporters caved on issue after issue:

  • They weakened a provision requiring institutions that supposedly engage in residential treatment to have actual clinical staff on site.

That was in 2016.

The new law

In one respect, the version that just became law may be a little better: although the types of prevention that can be funded are as limited as ever, the standards for specific programs don’t seem to be as onerous.

But in at least one key respect, possibly two, the version that just became law is even worse.

  • There’s a provision (Section 2661) allowing funds from a much smaller existing “family support services” program to be diverted to “supporting and retaining foster families for children.” (I’m not sure if this is new, or if I’d simply overlooked it in previous versions.)
  • States can delay the minor restrictions on funds for group homes and institutions for two years (though if they did that, they’d also have to forego the limited new prevention funding).  In fact, this is closer to a four-year delay.  The bill’s provisions concerning group homes don’t take effect until October 1, 2019 – states opting to delay would not be affected until October 1, 2021.

This gives the group home industry lots and lots of time to weaken the law still further.

The group home industry’s most reliable servant

Of course, in its story about the new law, the so-called Chronicle of Social Changethe Fox News of child welfare continues to carry water for the group home industry.  Thus the Chronicle story claims that

Ten years ago, such restrictions on congregate care would have occurred as foster care numbers were ticking down across the country. Today, states will have to find more foster home capacity while some accommodate rapidly rising numbers of kids.

The second sentence is untrue. There is another alternative: Stop taking so many kids needlessly. But, as I’ve noted before, the Fox News of Child Welfare always frames any effort to curb the use of congregate care in terms of group homes vs. foster homes; family preservation is left off the table.

And that story comes on top of another story devoted entirely to California groups whining about the law.

Goldilocks is wrong

And finally, as I wrote last year: Please, spare us all the Goldilocks defense; the one that goes, if some people think the law is too tough and other people think it’s not tough enough, it must be juuuuuuuuust right.

No. The fact that some in the group home industry have the gall to claim this law is too tough just shows how spoiled they’ve gotten after all those years getting to eat all the porridge.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, This post also appears on the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog,

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