Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 29, Number 1
by Allison Green
The child welfare world has been abuzz with talk of the Family First Prevention Services Act. Yet amid the planning and implementation chatter, a powerful change to the U.S. Children’s Bureau’s Child Welfare Policy Manual reached its first anniversary in 2019 with less fanfare. It is a landmark opportunity to transform financing to reflect the field’s multidisciplinary heritage and encourage all child welfare professionals— social service agencies, attorneys, and judges—to share ownership and accountability for improving today’s foster care system.
Children’s Bureau’s Policy Shift
Title IV-E child welfare agencies routinely seek 50 percent federal reimbursement for eligible “administrative costs.” Historically, administrative funding helped cover the typical costs of doing business in child welfare: ensuring adequate office space, recruiting foster homes, conducting data collection, and, of course, paying salaries, including for attorneys representing the agency in dependency hearings. However, the same reimbursement could not previously be used to support the costs of legal representation for children and families. Unsurprisingly, this uneven funding structure helped perpetuate a lopsided legal process where, nationwide, government agencies had more consistent access to resources and advocacy. Although pockets of high-quality representation for children and parents have thrived in many areas, overall families experiencing the child welfare process have not enjoyed the same reliable access to high-quality legal representation.
The recent change to the Child Welfare Policy Manual was an important move to balance this inequity. In January 2019, the policy was formally revised “to allow the title IV-E agency to claim title IV-E administrative costs of independent legal representation by an attorney for a child who is a candidate for title IV-E foster care or in foster care and his/her parent to prepare for and participate in all stages of foster care legal proceedings, such as court hearings related to a child’s removal from the home.” Several months later, the Children’s Bureau further clarified that participating Title IV-E tribes are eligible as well.
A Change Driven by Head and by Heart
The federal government’s shift harmonizes with basic principles of fairness and due process, and also with plain common sense. After all, who among us would ever choose to face the often dizzying, painful, and arcane child welfare court process experience alone? What parent—already faced with the colossal task of overcoming addiction, or stabilizing from serious mental health concerns—could also be expected to learn the relevant statutes, regulations, and jurisprudence needed to persuade the judge presiding over their case? What teenager—reeling from removal from their home, their siblings, and their school—could also be expected to understand the specialized law needed to inform the judge about their needs? In a situation where stakes could barely be higher, it is only right to outfit families with trained professionals equipped to help navigate stormy waters.
To read the rest of this article, login as a CWLA member or download this issue of Children’s Voice here.
Allison Green is the Legal Director at the National Association of Counsel for Children. For more information about high-quality child welfare legal representation and Title IV-E funding for attorneys, contact Allison.Green@NACCchildlaw.org.