There was little progress to report in regard to the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, (HR 5456, Conference Report 114-628). Its only path forward would appear to be a voice vote in the Senate with perhaps some assurances from sponsors and other parties to interpret the legislation in a way that will address concerns expressed by opponents.

There are at least three Senate “holds,” that is individual senators objecting to moving the bill on a voice vote.  Although holds do not require a public declaration by the objecting senators it is being circulated and written about in some publications that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) are objecting at this time.  With the Senate procedure a senator can place a hold on a bill when there is a move to bring it to the floor.  The Senate does not require members to go public so it is possible other senators have or would object if others lift their holds.

Opponents have argued for the bill to be stopped unless there are changes while supporters argue there is no possibility of a potentially lengthy amendment process. If action isn’t taken, supporters argue that the bill and its significant changes in funding will end not just for 2016 but for years to come.

On Tuesday, at the start of this fall session, the four main sponsors, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Congressman Kevin Brady (R-TX), Congressman Sander Levin (D-MI) authored an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, A Better Way to Help Vulnerable Families and Children. In a positive piece that described the role of quality foster care they emphasized the benefits of the expanded services the bill would provide saying,

Every year, thousands of American children are taken from their homes and placed in foster care…For many children, foster care is absolutely necessary and even lifesaving. Many of those children find stability they never had thanks to the tireless work of dedicated social workers, foster parents, judges and treatment providers…

Highlighting the need for a restructuring they said they came together in bipartisan fashion, saying,

“Foster care should be limited, temporary and high-quality. Under this bill, instead of having a system that just pays for foster care, states would receive federal support to strengthen families through substance abuse treatment, mental-health services and in-home parenting programs — to allow parents or other relatives to get the help they need to safely care for their kids.” 

Proponents, including CWLA have endorsed the legislation (description of legislation here) because on balance we believe that over the long term, the expansion of entitlement funding through Title IV-E for mental health and drug treatment and some limited in-home services offers a potential historic funding source for two behavioral health needs that have not been addressed by many state Medicaid programs over the fifty year history of that program. Instead of an income-based eligibility there would be an eligibility based on whether or not the child is at-risk of a foster care placement and considered a “candidate for foster care.”

For these candidates, the child, the parent, guardian or adoptive family would be eligible for services for up to 12 months in a spell but not limited in a lifetime.  Services would also be available to a foster youth who is pregnant or parenting.  Eligible services would be limited to promising, supported and well-supported programs with the bulk of funding directed toward well-supported-HHS-approved services.

Over the weekend the Los Angeles Times, in an editorial Landmark Foster Care Bill Requires Some Work,  editorial writers generally praised the legislation but argued that it should be amended saying,

[the problem] “There wouldn’t be one in many states, where lawmakers are stuck in a mid-20th century mindset about foster care…This legislation could finally push those jurisdictions into smarter and more cost-efficient practices…But California is one of several forward-looking states that already have made great strides in prevention and finding productive alternatives to foster care. In fact, California is on the verge of further reforms…”

If the Families First Act doesn’t move before October 1, then Congress will have to decide how to reauthorize the two Title IV-B programs: Child Welfare Services and the Promoting Safe and Stable Families as well as the Adoption and Legal Guardianship Incentive Fund. Two of these funds are dependent on annual apportions, Child Welfare Services and the Incentive Fund.  Both the Senate and House Labor-HHS bills would continue current funding and that would be unlikely to change even without a reauthorization.  For PSSF the situation is more precarious. The $20 million in mandatory court funding would disappear (the $20 million is not in current Labor-HHS bills).  The larger part of PSSF includes $345 million in mandatory funds (some designated for courts) and it is unclear how long that law could go without reauthorization beyond October 1.  The Congressional Budget Office might categorize an extension, if it doesn’t occur in a reasonable time, as “new” federal spending requiring new offsets.

While the time clock to act runs out on October 1, at the latest, it could be a great deal shorter. In all likelihood Congress will take off as soon as they get a deal for a CR and that is looking sooner rather than later with some senators expressing a desire to leave as soon as this week to get back to campaigning.

There is also no set methodology for how fast this bill could go.  Members could drop their hold or continue them to the end.  The October 1, start of the fiscal year would also trigger the next phase-out of the adoption assistance delink which was a major part of the way to pay for this legislation.