When Congress returns this week it will mark the beginning of a very short congressional calendar.  The President is scheduled to deliver his last State of the Union address on January12 which will unofficially begin the new budget debate for FY 2017.  The official budget will come a little more than four weeks later in early February.  Beyond that little is certain except that Congress will spend a great deal of time off due to the presidential campaign.

Congress will take off for the summer starting on July 16 and not return until after Labor Day on September 6.  The very long break is an effort to fit in the two political conventions in the summer.  When Congress returns they are scheduled to be in town for all of September but that could also be shortened depending on the status of the presidential campaign and how that race and congressional races are shaping up.  There will also be periodic breaks for the presidential primary elections which begin in February. By the late summer one side or the other may see an advantage in delaying everything until a new President and Congress take over in January 2017.  With that in mind here is a rundown of a few key issues in 2016:

2017 Budget

Congressional leaders hope to avoid what has become an annual end of the year ritual with another omnibus budget deal similar to what took place last month.  The final deal last year rolled the 12 appropriations into one 2016 budget that also included a large tax cut package.

An earlier negotiation allowed for a deal on spending ceilings for both FY 2016 and 2017 so congressional leaders will not have to fight over that part of the appropriations process and that should mean a budget resolution by April.  The resolution debate will be about how overall spending is allocated between the 12 appropriations subcommittees.  The President will highlight his priorities at the State of the Union address on January 12 and the budget should be released during the first week of February.  If Congress is to act on each of the 12 appropriations individually as is required (something that has not happened since 1994) then they will have to start voting and debating appropriations bills by very early spring.

The tax package agreed to, as part of the budget in December, affects over 50 tax credits, deductions and incentives, mainly for businesses.  The agreed-to package means that Congress can avoid that part of the budget debate because the deal extended permanently or for several years those expiring tax provisions.

Unless there are new initiatives by the Administration, child welfare programs will see little change in funding through the appropriations process.  If there are proposed changes, there could be some under title IV-B programs which are due for reauthorization.  In FY 2016 there were no increases in the two Title IV-B programs: Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF) at $335 million for the 4 core programs, Child Welfare Services (CWS) at $269 million, CAPTA state grants at $25 million, Adoption Opportunities at $39 million and Adoption Incentives at $38 million.

In regard to early childhood programs look for the new budget to included additional increases consistent with past President Obama budgets.  Child care funding, increased by over $300 in FY 2016, combined with Head Start increases ($570 million) and a continuation of pre-kindergarten grants ($250 million) will likely have significant increased funding requests to Congress.

A CWLA budget chart is available here.

Senate Action On a Child Welfare Reform Measure

The Senate Finance committee was not able to take up a draft bill called the Families First Act before leaving last December.  The hope is that it will come up soon.  The actual legislative language has not been released beyond the description linked here.  Some parts are still in flux but it generally would allow Title IV-E funding on a limited category of substance abuse, mental health and in-home parent support services and programs for up to 12-months contingent on a child being considered a “candidate” for foster care.  In addition, the bill would create new definitions of foster care and institutional care.  Foster care would be defined as a home of six or fewer children with exceptions for siblings, disabilities and other categories.  Title IV-E funding would be allowed for qualified residential treatment programs that meet certain conditions including eventual accreditation.  There would also be new oversight and care planning requirements for children in such facilities after a placement of two weeks.  The legislation would also allow for some expanded supports to kinship families as part of the treatment strategy.

CWLA has tentatively endorsed the draft pending final legislative language.

The draft legislation would actually spend new federal dollars although some of those cost calculations are still being made by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and will be influenced by some of the final provisions including how kinship care support is addressed.  That could influence the vote of some members of Congress.  The bill will require an offset to pay for the legislation’s expanded services.  The sponsors have an offset which has not been publically unveiled. Not a surprising strategy considering offsets can be hard to come by.

Hurdles that the bill can hopefully overcome include the limited time in session (only 6 more days of session this month after this week), the potential for concerns by some members of the Finance Committee once a full bill is finalized and how the offset is created. The plan is for the Senate Finance committee to take up the bill this month with fairly quick action by the full Senate and then later action by the House Human Resources Subcommittee after that.

The legislation may also offer CWLA members the opportunity to weigh-in on the bill during April 18-20, 2016 National Advocacy Summit, Washington DC: Investing in What It Takes: A Full Continuum of Care

The legislation would be a significant step away from previous child welfare bills and some child welfare reform proposals of recent years that have been cost neutral through proposals such as time-limits on care. The legislation is an outgrowth of earlier legislative proposals including the bill introduced this summer by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), S.1964, the Family Stability and Kinship Care Act.

CAPTA, CB-CAP, Adoption-Ops Reauthorization

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) expired last year and needs to be reauthorized along with several other related child welfare laws.  Last time (2010) it took two extra years to reauthorize the five-year law.  In addition to CAPTA other programs included in the reauthorization are the Community Based Child Abuse Prevention (CB-CAP) grants, the Adoption Opportunities Act and the Abandoned Infants Act.

This package will be effected by the release of recommendations by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.  The final report is due at least by March if not sooner.  The task is not easy since there are challenges on how to best prevent child deaths that officially totally approximately 1600 each year.  Those numbers, which many believe are a severe undercount, includes just those fatalities of children known to child protection and do not include some other systems such as hospital reports unconnected to child protection.  The Commission has issued a white paper, A Path Forward: Policy Options For Protecting Children From Child Abuse And Neglect Fatalities  which will help shape final recommendations.

CAPTA is the main vehicle for action since it provides the data reporting requirements and child fatality information are generated through the provisions of this 1974 act.  The challenge under CAPTA is that as requirements under the law have multiplied on states the funding provided through appropriations is so small that denying states CAPTA funding has limited impact and HHS has limited leverage over states. (Currently 13 states receive less in annual state grants than members of Congress are paid in salary).

The CB-CAP and Adoption Opportunities programs generally do not undergo big changes and funding has remained low and stable ($40 and $39 million respectively with sequestration cuts).  The program that is challenged is the Abandoned Infants program.  The $11 million for the 1988 program was eliminated with a justification by Senate appropriators that the Administration had proposed refinements or re-targeting of funds as part of the reauthorization.  Since it didn’t get reauthorized they took the money.  The program has targeted efforts to address infants who are abandoned for a variety of reasons including (originally) those infants that had been negatively affected by the Aids and crack use epidemics of the 1980s.  Some of these needs may be resurfacing because of the increased use of opioids including heroine that is having an impact on foster care numbers in recent years.

The CAPTA package is the responsibility of the HELP Committee in the Senate and the Education and Workforce in the House.  Both committees are likely to focus much of their attention on a reauthorization of the higher education act in 2016.

Title IV-B Reauthorization

Two relatively big child welfare block grants are also due for reauthorization in 2016: Title IV-B part 1, Child Welfare Services ($269 million) and Title IV-B part 2, Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF).

The two funding sources provide flexible funds to state child welfare agencies but both have been shrinking in the past ten years.  CWS peaked in the early 1990s when it was at just under $300 million.  It can be used for just about any child welfare services and is likely a bigger funder of child protection than CAPTA.  For some states that have been grandfathered in since the late 1970s, it also provides some adoption assistance and foster care maintenance funding.  Funding is appropriated annually and it has taken several hits during the recent sequestration cuts with those reductions made permanent as part of the annual funding level.

PSSF started out as family preservation funding under President Bill Clinton in 1993 and was expanded under ASFA (Adoption and safe Families Act) to fund family preservation, family support, reunification and adoption support.  It was originally all mandatory funding set at $305 million post-ASFA.

President George W Bush originally proposed an increase to $505 million in mandatory funds but settled for an additional appropriation/authorization of $200 million more.   It never received that full $200 million. Today the block grant includes a combination of $345 in mandatory funds with an appropriation of $69 million.  That appropriated amount has also been cut due to the sequestrations of the recent past.  The mandatory funding also designates or sets aside $20 million for drug treatment, $20 million to promote caseworker visits/workforce development and funding for court improvement programs.

The reauthorization could offer opportunities to better address the need for substance use treatment and strategies to strengthen the child welfare workforce.  The last reauthorization five years earlier saw a reduction of $10 million in funding because of the way that court improvement funding was projected by the Congressional Budget Office.   To continue funding at that previous level would have cost $10 million a year, instead Congress passed the reduction and reallocated $10 million of funding from the 4 service categories to court improvement programs.  This same problem could reoccur this year due to budget scoring.

The Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means committee are the key committees of reauthorization. It is possible the Senate Finance Committee effort on passing their finance bill could eventually roll that final bill with the reauthorizations of the IV-B programs.

Those Other Key Reauthorizations: Juvenile Justice-JJDPA, Higher Ed, CACFP–Nutrition Reauthorization

The JJDPA, the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevent Act, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in July of last year.  S 1169 was approved in a bipartisan effort.  It was introduced by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) last year. The law, first enacted in 1974 was last reauthorized in 2002 and this year seems to be one of the better opportunities for action.

CWLA has supported the bipartisan efforts in the Senate.

One area of concern regarding juvenile justice issues is the need to address the overuse of the valid court orders (VCO). The VCO has been a tool for courts to make exceptions to the current JJDPA provisions by allowing the incarceration of juveniles for status offenses. Status offenses are those crimes that are charged against juveniles relating to their age, violations that would not be illegal if the young person was an adult.  Examples of status offenses include running away, skipping school or violating curfew laws.

While there are 28 states that reported using zero VCO incarcerations in 2012 there were another 11 states that used it between one and 100 times that year while another 16 states reported using it more than 100 times.

The bill represents a growing bipartisan consensus behind some reforms. A growing body of research better explains brain development for adolescence and young people. In recent months there has also been a turn away from the get tough on crime approaches that were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There was an attempt to pass the Senate bill by voice vote before the December departure but that was blocked.  The House committee with jurisdiction is Education and Workforce Committee.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is overdue for reauthorization. The CACFP is crucial to many child care programs which tend to be on very tight budgets.  The program subsidizes the cost of meals in a child care setting.  Through CACFP, more than 3.3 million children and 120,000 adults receive nutritious meals and snacks each day as part of the day care.  The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) scheduled for a debate and vote to reauthorize the program last fall but was delayed.

In the Senate the Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction while the House the key committee is the Education and Workforce Committee.

The Higher Education Reauthorization offers some child welfare related issues for homeless youth, youth in foster care and children who have been adopted at older ages.

Youth in transition may not be able to navigate or qualify for higher education support due questions around eligibility such as independent student status, access to applications and being able to navigate a complex process.  Efforts are underway through organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) and through bills such as The Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act of 2015, S. 2267/H.R. 4043,  that would simplify and expand access for these kids.

CWLA has endorsed the legislation and expects to lend its support to this effort at reauthorization.

The Higher Education Act is under the jurisdiction of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Senate HELP Committee.  It has been understood since early last year that the first priority of these two committees was the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and that once that was done (passed end of last year) the next up priority is the Higher Ed Act.