On Monday, May 5, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee released a “discussion draft” of legislation that would invest new money into child welfare services through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. The discussion draft would build on the Administration’s FY 2016 budget request that seeks to expand the use of the foster care “candidacy” category as a methodology to provide home and community based services for children who have not yet been placed into foster care. The proposal and legislation would also use this tool to provide services to those children and families that have been reunified. Senator Wyden is circulating the draft to solicit input before it is introduced as legislation.

As the Senator describes it, the “Wyden proposal would expand the federal foster care entitlement to do more than just pay a daily rate to keep children housed in foster care homes.  Instead, States and Tribes would be able to use foster care funds to provide families in crisis with the supports, services, and evidence-based interventions needed to keep their children safely at home and out of foster care.” “This proposal is meant to address the lopsided structure of federal child welfare financing in which the vast majority of dollars are reserved for payments only when children are removed from their home,” Wyden said. In many respects the legislation is significant because it is coming from one of the two highest ranking members of the key Senate committee. It is also significant because much of the debate around child welfare financing over the last several congresses has been limited to budget “neutral” proposals, i.e. do not increase federal spending. That against a backdrop of decreasing funds. The last two child welfare reauthorizations have actually resulted in cuts in funding while requiring increased actions and requirements.

Last year’s, Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (PL 113-183), required a number of additional state actions but actually reduced funding by $15 million a year when it allowed the Family Connections Grants to expire. Similarly the 2011 Child and Family Services Improvements and Innovations Act (PL 112-34), while reauthorizing the Child Welfare Services and Promoting Safe and Stable Families (Title IV-B) programs lost $10 million a year in court improvement funding which was made up for by shifting $10 million away from basic services. Since their reauthorizations both, programs have been cut even more through the annual appropriations process.

The Wyden bill also differs from some recent introduced legislation and proposals from members of both parties, various foundations and other advocacy groups which for the most part have been budget neutral. Several of the current sex trafficking proposals before Congress would expand the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) mandates while funding has actually been cut in the last five years and provides an average of .32 cents a child per year in state grants. Other proposals, discussions, and legislative staff comments have focused on a cost neutral approach through the use of state waivers, time limits on care and finding more federal dollars by limiting the use of prescription drugs and/or limiting funding for group-congregate-residential care.

The Wyden bill would specifically allow up to 12 months of services for a child who is a “candidate” for foster care being identified as a child at imminent risk of entering or reentering foster care or in foster care and exiting foster care. Eligibility for the services is not linked to the 1996 ADFC eligibility standard (look-back).

Among the services included but not limited to: parenting skills and training, parent support, individual and family counseling, services to address domestic violence, substance abuse, housing barriers, mentoring and tutoring, crisis intervention and other family services approved by HHS. There are also requirements for states to spend 50 percent of total services on evidence-based programs and 25 percent for promising models.

In addition to the expansion of Title IV-E funding the bill would increasing mandatory funding under the Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF) (Title IV-B part 2) program, from the current $345 million in mandatory funding to $1 billion (meaning it does not require an annual appropriations). It would also lift the requirement that states spend at least 20 percent on each of the four services under PSSF and it would take off the current restrictions that limits family reunification spending to no more than 15 months from the date a child enters foster care.

The bill would also restore the Family Connections Grants which expired in FY 2014.

Foster care candidacy has been a narrow category of Title IV-E spending for children whose removal from the home is imminent. It has not been without controversy as some states have been penalized or stopped from using funding through candidacy when Title IV-E audits were conducted and they were instructed that the state was using the funding in too broad a way.

The discussion draft is a not final and is being circulated to interest groups, members of Congress, federal officials and others for review and comment. The responses will be reviewed and, if appropriate, be incorporated into legislation that Wyden plans to introduce in the coming months.

Please email comments on the proposal to childwelfaredraft@finance.senate.gov by June 12, 2015.

A one-page summary of the legislative concept can be found here