On Thursday, June 26, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee announced an agreement on legislation to reauthorize the adoption incentives fund, the Family Connections grants, and to provide changes in state requirements regarding youth in foster care. This includes new requirements to screen child victims of sex trafficking. The legislation, “the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act” is actually a combination of a few Senate and House bills dealing with the reauthorization of the Adoption Incentive Fund and bills dealing with youth in care and needed changes to child support. The plan is that the House of Representatives will take the legislation up when the Congress returns next week with the Senate to follow shortly.

Perhaps the most immediate impact of the bill is that it will extend the Family Connections grants for one year. The grants provide support for up to three years to develop and expand kinship navigator programs, to assist in Family Group Decision Making (FGDM), family finding programs, and to provide drug treatment to child welfare families. While advocates had hoped for a three-year extension the committees only agreed to one year of funding at this point. It is significant because some of the grantees would’ve lost current year funding if this bill had not been agreed to (assuming it is enacted). A number of organizations, including the Child Welfare League of America, were working to get a continuation.

The parts of the legislation that extend the adoption incentive fund, extend it for three years. The incentive fund, first enacted as part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), provides incentive funds to each state if they increase the number of their adoptions from foster care. The new language adjusts the incentives in several significant ways, for the first time a kinship incentive bonus is provided for states that place children into subsidized guardianships. Additionally it adjust the targeting to include an additional adolescent age of children from ages 9 to 14, a group that has been more of a challenge. Finally it phases in a rate-based bonus instead of the current strategy which is has been based on the number of increased adoptions. Under the new provision states that have a smaller pool because they have reduced the number of foster children could be awarded more funding because they are increasing their rate of adoptions.

In regard to trafficking, which continues to get extensive Washington DC attention, the child welfare agencies are now directed to come up with a strategy that works across a number of different state agencies to identify and document children who have been victims of sex trafficking. In addition there are new requirements as far as reporting children when they go missing from foster care. Currently some states may not have a specific policy with some children not reported when they go missing or run from foster care. The law also mandates studies by HHS and the creation of a new commission in regard to sex trafficking that could include up to 21 members.

A second piece in the bill requires a new standard for foster care and foster parents called the prudent parent standard. This is an attempt to strengthen definitions and training for foster parents so they can make more flexible decisions in regard to activities for foster youth. Over the past two years Congress has heard testimony about some of the difficulties that youth in foster care may face in terms of normal activities such as high school sports, dating or other extracurricular activities. The new language is an attempt to address that issue. There are also new restrictions on the use of another planned permanency living arrangement what is sometimes referred to by advocates as “APPLA”. This is an attempt to prevent child welfare agencies from classifying children in care in a status that may mean no effort is being made to place them into a family or other permanent setting. There will be new court review requirements on states regarding youth and more active engagement of youth in care. Children age 14 and older are to be more fully involved in the development of their own plan and their own transition. To this point such participation has started at the age of 16.

The bill mandates states to provide youth leaving foster care with a number of important information pieces such as Social Security cards, birth certificates, identification cards as well as health records.

The legislation amends federal child support requirements to align with international child-support practices.

Finally and perhaps most significant the language once again attempts to tighten the requirements for states to reinvest any savings they realize as a result of the adoption assistance program expansion that was the result of the 2008 enactment of the Fostering Connections to Success Act. States are realizing a savings as the federal government expands its coverage for special-needs adoptions. The original bill directed states to take any savings and reinvest those funds into child welfare services but to this point HHS has been reluctant to implement the provisions. The new language is much more specific to both HHS and states directing HHS to come up with a formula to calculate the savings from the expanded adoption assistance and reinvest funds with a specific allocation for post adoption, post kinship and reunification services. If the actual savings come to fruition it could represent several hundred million dollars a year in additional state child welfare spending.