When Congress returns this week there is the possibility the Senate Finance Committee could take up a child welfare bill that is still very much in flux. The draft bill, the Families First Act, 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 met 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, which is still very much in flux would actually spend new federal dollars. If it can make it through committee with the required offsets, the legislation would be a significant step away from previous child welfare bills of recent years that have been cost neutral either through waiver proposals, time-limits on care or other approaches that have conditioned child welfare expansions on child welfare spending reductions in other areas. 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.

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There is a long way to go in the process including a final calculation or “score” of the cost of the bill by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as currently written. In addition, there are the challenges of any “offset” or ways to pay for the bill. After that, the bill needs a time for a debate and vote and with days running out on this year, such a vote may be conditioned on what the Finance Committee does with their other priorities such as tax policy. If time runs out all legislation continues into next year without the need to reintroduce bills since this Congress continues through 2016. Under any circumstance a vote on the Senate Floor and then a consideration and vote in the House will have to take place next year.