On Thursday, May 23, AEI hosted, “After the fanfare: Family First one year later,” to discuss the challenges and opportunities of implementing the historic legislation – the Family First Prevention Services Act by October 1, 2019. Panel of experts included Naomi Schaefer Riley from AEI, Sean Hughes from Social Change Partners, Mark Mecum from Ohio Children’s Alliance, Eric Bjorklund from Utah Youth Villages, Marie Cohen from Child Welfare Monitor, and Christine Calpin from Casey Family Programs.

Hughes set the stage for discussing the prevention services and congregate care provisions of the legislation and discussed how the definition of candidacy is problematic and the lack of evidence-based programs in child welfare. Many of the panelist alluded that Family First is not the end of child welfare as we know it, for example no one looked at the IV-E demonstration projects before enacting the legislation, emphasized Cohen. Calpin countered that the IV-E waivers were a tool to help drive state innovation and it did. The impact to help families would be huge underscored Hughes and Mecum and for in-home services this could be powerful stated Bjorklund.

Most of the panel was not in favor of the legislation and focused on the challenges rather the intentions of Family First. However, Calpin shared the intentions of Family First was to make sure that children are placed in the less restrictive settings as possible and the spirit of the prevention services were grounded in the conversations that many birth parents and alumni of foster care have discussed, “we want states to help our parents.” Ohio is taking the two-year delay, stated Mecum, but this has produced the Governor and state to double state funding in the child welfare system to rewrite licensure standards, assist group homes with national accreditation, and prepare for transforming child welfare. For states that are planning to move forward with Family First this year, Mecum wishes that the federal government would give states a viable path for implementing Family First. Alternatively, Utah plans to move forward with Family First in October even though Bjorklund believes that Congress and the Administration purpose was to change the national child welfare policy by eliminating funding on congregate care.

Youth Village in Utah utilizes the teaching-family model in their residential settings and the group home structure should meet the definition of a foster family home as proscribed in Family First. Bjorklund shared how since 1993, Utah has been implementing the Families First Service, a hybrid in-home program that is cost-effective and top rated but because it is impossible to do a randomized controlled trial (RCT) with in-home services and he worries that the IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse academic interpretation may be aggressive. Some recommendations that were mentioned are included in the Family First Transition and Support Act including the delay of the fifty percent requirement on well-supported program, leveraging IV-B funding for kinship families, and increasing foster parent recruitment and retention to meet the needs of moving kids from congregate care. Recommendations for the Children’s Bureau included more guidance around the candidacy definition and broadly construe the language of Family First to promote flexibility and implementation of practices in the states specifically around the preventive services.

Federal policy for child welfare should be to meet the needs of the child and for the Family First legislation we must reframe how we think about families. Family First is a tool for the child welfare system to be transformative and to ensure that families come first. We would be mistaken if states focus was to build twelve month prevention services program to be in compliance with Family First, stated Calpin. The Administration is driven on two purposes –prevention and families and that both Lynn Johnson and Jerry Milner are committed to this as the focus for the nation.