The draft bill, the Families First Act, will likely come up early in the New Year rather than this month as had been originally hoped.  The legislation would allow Title IV-E funding on a limited category of substance abuse, mental health and in-home parent support 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.

The legislation, which is still in flux would actually spend new federal dollars although some of those cost calculations are still being made by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  If the bill can make it through committee with the required offsets, 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. 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.

In its current draft it would allow up to 12 months of access to mental health and substance use treatment funding and in-home services for children (and families of children) who are considered “candidates” for foster care.  That service could extend to children who have been reunified.  States would have to meet some challenging standards as far as the services that are provided.  The legislation would also narrow the current broad definitions of foster care as it is currently written under the Title IV-E law.  There would be new requirements and planning when a child is placed into residential care.

There is a way to go in the process including a final calculation or “score” of the bill by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). In addition, there are the challenges of any “offset” or ways to pay for the bill.  The bill needs a time for a debate and vote and days are running short especially as the Finance Committee is more consumed with tax issues in these final days of 2015. There is no need to reintroduce bills since this Congress continues through 2016.  Under any circumstance a vote in the House was always going to have to take place next year.