Late Friday afternoon a group of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats released the, Family First Prevention Act along with a summary.  The legislation includes three overarching pieces: a reauthorization of the Title IV-B programs (Promoting Safe and Stable Families, Child Welfare Services), new definitions of foster care including greater oversight and limitations of residential/institutional care, and opening up Title IV-E entitlement funds for mental health, substance abuse and in-home services for children at risk of foster care including children in families, kinship placements and adoptive families.

In a joint statement sponsors Congressman Kevin Brady (R-TX), Congressman Sander Levin (D-MI), Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) the four leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee described the bill as a proposal to keep more children safely at home and out of foster care. The bill will be introduced in the House by Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Vern Buchanan (R-FL) and in the Senate by Hatch and Wyden.

Chairman Brady said that, “The Family First Prevention Services Act does exactly what the title suggests — it puts families first. The bill focuses on addressing problems in the home by delivering parents much-needed support, rather than sending a child straight into foster care. Most of all, it helps ensure our children grow up in strong communities and stable homes.”

On the Senate side Democrat Wyden said, “This bill has the potential to improve the lives of millions of children, parents and kin caregivers. While key provisions were not included that I will continue to push for, I am proud to have worked with my bipartisan colleagues on this proposal to provide help for families before they get to a point where they have to be ripped apart.  Wyden’s bill, S 1964, released last year introduced the concept of tying access to Title IV-E funds to services based on the status of the child as “at-risk” of foster care.

The restriction on institutional care mirror much of what was in a draft document, the Families First draft released last fall.  It amends current definitions of foster care within Title IV-E that includes a definition for family foster care homes to homes of six or fewer children (with state ability to waive the definition for sibling placements, children with special relationships to the foster parent, and children with disabilities).  In addition, it includes a new definition of child care institutions of 25 or less to a definition of qualified residential treatment program (QRTP) that will come with specific requirements around screening, treatment and transition planning.  It also allows for certain exceptions for teen and parenting placement institutions and independent living placements.  The legislation also includes the requirements around the need for a licensed or registered nurse or clinical personal on site during business hours and available 24 hours 7 days a week.

In regard to the services it offers a potentially wide expansion and availability to Title IV-E entitlement funding that is not tied to the outdated link to the 1996 AFDC program but tied instead to whether or not the child is “at-risk” of a foster care placement.  In such a case a child and/or his/her parent/guardian/adoptive family would be eligible for services for up to 12 months in a spell for mental health, substance abuse or in-home services.  Services could also be available to a foster youth who is pregnant or parenting.  Such services would be limited to promising, supported and well-supported services initially eventually limited to supported and well-supported services.

A state would have to opt into such services through an amendment to their five-year state plan outlining services provided and workforce standards that would go along with it. New provisions would phase-in and start in three years.

Other pieces of the bill, since it does reauthorize the Title IV-B programs, include:

  • extends the adoption-kinship incentive fund
  • the Regional Partnership Grants with adjustments including mandated participation by state substance abuse agencies
  • continues the caseworker visit-workforce funds,
  • Title IV-E eligibility for evidence-based Kinship Navigator programs
  • Increases in the Chaffee Independent Living program to age 23,
  • Increase in student voucher eligibility to age 26
  • elimination of the 15-month time-limit on the use of PSSF funds for reunification services,
  • a small grant available to spread the use of the NEICE Interstate Compact expansion initiative
  • directs including evidence of being in foster care as part of the document package for youth that age out (to assist young people eligible for Medicaid to age 26 if they were in foster care)
  • Continues the Court funding which required an offset in funding

Finally, there is also a link back to the Commission To Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities by requiring states to coordinate data on child fatalities from sources such as child protection, law enforcement and child fatality review panels.  It also requires states to have a state plan on reducing such fatalities.

Perhaps the biggest heartburn for some members of Congress and advocates is the offset or the way it is paid for.  A portion comes from savings realized by the changes to institutional care.  A much small piece comes from non-controversial changes to the child support system and the most recent add on is a two-and-a-half-year delay on the last two years of the adoption assistance delink.

For the adoption community the tradeoff is that a temporary delay of the last two years of a ten-year repeal of the income eligibility link to AFDC is that the bill has the potential to provide some much-needed post adoption services for families that may face a need for future mental health, substance abuse and other services.  That section also sets up a GAO review of how states have currently re-invested any saving from the first 8 years of the adoption assistance de-link.

For others the offsets continue an unofficial congressional policy that once again re-shuffles child welfare spending and does not allow for offsets from other sources (such as revenue generated by tax policy changes).

The legislation is moving fast and so is the Congress.   There is barely a month left to the Congressional summer session and the hope is for House committee action this week.   .