Preventing Family Separation at Home: Foster Care Reform in the United States
November 11, 2018
Social caseworkers often make tough decisions of whether or not to remove children from their homes during investigations of abuse and neglect. However, states also have the option to provide social services, such as parental counseling, substance abuse treatment, and financial aid. Over the past several decades, it has been historically easier for states to access federal aid for their foster care system, rather than for their parental social services.
Wealthier households that have cases of abuse and neglect often have access to services such as counseling and substance abuse treatment, while poorer families lack access to such resources. As a result, states are often incentivized to put socioeconomically disadvantaged children into foster care, rather than help parents access the resources they need.
While the country entered into a contentious debate over the separation of migrant children at the southern border, America’s broken child welfare system tells a similar story of children mistreated when separated from their families. For the first time in decades, the number of foster children is now increasing because of the opioid crisis. In response, Congress passed reforms to federal fiscal policy that incentivize states to keep families united through well-funded social services, rather than waste money on an ineffective, over-bloated foster care system.
America’s Foster Care System is Broken
When children are removed from abusive or neglectful situations, they are turned to foster care as a temporary housing solution until their parents rehabilitate their parental fitness through treatment, or until the state can find a safe and permanent adoptive home. Alarmingly, there is widespread evidence in states across the country of children switching foster homes every night, sleeping in the offices of caseworkers, and being abused and neglected in foster homes themselves.vYoung children often find themselves in group homes where they do not get the individualized attention they need, leading to impaired development and sharp condemnation from pediatrics experts across the country. Similarly to family separation at the border, this lack of housing stability after being taken away can lead to irreparable trauma and mental harm for children.
In short, socioeconomically disadvantaged children are being separated from their parents, who have few resources to improve their parental fitness, and these children are being placed in a system that struggles to take care of them. The root problem is two funding streams, which affect how states fund their family preservation services and foster care system.
There are two federal funding streams for child welfare systems in the United states, both under Title IV of the Social Security Act.
Title IV-B is mostly grant-based and used for state-run family preservation services. These mainly include in-home family preservation services, designed to help parents improve their parental fitness without removing the child from the home. Examples of these services include anger management classes, financial aid to alleviate food insecurity, and public housing. These funds are historically harder to access, and are much more restricted.
Title IV-E consists of matching funds for state foster care systems. These funds are easier to access, and increase as states put more children into foster care. This creates a perverse incentive structure for states to remove children from their homes and put them into foster care, rather than spend money on helping the parents improve their fitness and keep the family united.
Policy Reform: Families First Prevention Services Act
In February 2018, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Families First Prevention Services Act, which seeks to reform the two funding streams by incentivizing and funding state efforts to preserve families and end abuse in foster care. The bill was inserted into the Bipartisan Budget Act, and ultimately signed and enacted into law.
Under Title IV-B, funds used to have a 15-month time limit for family reunification services while kids are in foster care, and that limit has been eliminated. This limit used to exist to ensure that children do not spend too much time in foster care, but advocates argued that 15 months is not enough time for those suffering with drug addiction to recover. The reform also gives broader authority to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to fund interstate databases to make it easier for kin to foster children.(Ex. A child goes to live with their aunt in another state rather than being put in foster care.) Effective October 1, 2018, group homes will no longer be federally funded for children staying longer than 3 weeks.
Under Title IV-E, reimbursement funds are now available for family preservation services, as long as they focus on the “safety, permanency, or well-being of the child or to prevent the child from entering foster care.” The most prominent programs that qualify include mental health treatment, and substance abuse prevention and treatment. They also include in-home parent skill-based programs, such as parent skills training, parenting education, and individual or family counseling. Funds also go to training state personnel and families. The federal matching rate begins at a minimum of 50%, but will transition to the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (which also governs Medicaid funding) in 2026.
The bill also appropriates $8 million in grants for recruiting and retaining foster families. This helps ensure that children who end up in foster care have better housing stability and more cooperative foster families.
Difficulties in Implementation
Some aspects of the Families First Act do not take effect immediately. For example, regulations governing placements that are not foster family homes (such as group homes) don’t take effect until October 1, 2018. Furthermore, states can request a delayed effective date up to 2 years later for these regulations, with the caveat that it will also delay the new reimbursement funds under Title IV-E. Thus, some states are trying to set up new group homes before the effective date, so that these homes do not fall under the law’s requirements.
There is bipartisan support for fixing federal funding streams to ensure that states prioritize keeping families together rather than putting neglected children into foster care. This trauma on children, saves the state money, and keeps families together. The challenge that now remains is how to hold states accountable for implementing these reforms over the next 1-4 years.
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