State Watch

States brace for dramatic overhaul to federal foster care funding


State and local governments are poised to undergo a major shift in the way they think about at-risk children, thanks to bipartisan federal legislation aimed at encouraging families to stay together and out of the foster care system.

The Family First Prevention Services Act, a provision within the Bipartisan Budget Act that President Trump signed into law in February, would give states incentives to keep children with parents or relatives, rather than immediately transferring them to foster care or the state’s care.

The bill is the latest step in a long-running debate over whether it is best to keep families together, as parents struggle through addiction or other problems, or to remove children from homes where they may be at risk. Some child welfare experts say the program could put more children at risk, and many say it marks a significant departure that will challenge state programs that are already strapped for cash.


The measure is “the most significant change in federal child-welfare funding in half a century,” said Neil Skene, a special assistant to the director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He said the transition to the new system “is going to be difficult for a lot of states.”

Current federal policy sends funds to states, at between 50 and 70 cents on the dollar, to pay for caseworkers, administration and reimbursing foster parents once a child enters the foster care system.

The new measure will give states a chance to access federal funding before a child enters the program. The goal is to give states an incentive to invest in mental health and substance abuse prevention services in order to pre-empt a child’s removal from an at-risk home.

“I heard again and again that while there are good group homes, at the same time, I heard from parents and experts in the field that there were also many poor-quality group homes, where kids were abused and preyed on,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the bill’s co-author.

He said the new approach added what amounts to a third option, aside from keeping children in a potentially harmful home or removing them to a foster care facility.

“The third path would be to use foster care, to use care for these kids, for low-income families, to use the public systems dollars … so that parents could get on their feet, deal with their challenges and their grandparents could get some financial help as they managed this transition,” Wyden said.

The first phase of the new measure offers to match state funding for programs that keep children with relatives when their parents are unable to care for them. States have until October 2019 to apply for funding by submitting so-called kinship strategies.

Budget cuts in many states forced child welfare agencies to close kinship navigator hubs, which supplied resources and guidance to relatives who take in at-risk children. The federal government has already offered the state of Ohio $400,000 to reopen some of its hubs, which have closed in recent years.

A second phase of the program will restrict federal funding for group care and provide additional funding for mental health and substance abuse programs.

That phase has child welfare advocates concerned that the new measure disincentivizes foster care programs at the expense of the children themselves.

“It’s really about prevention of foster care, not prevention of abuse and neglect,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School. “I think we do want children removed to foster care when they’re facing serious abuse and neglect at home.”

She said that supporting parents undergoing treatment for substance abuse or mental health conditions might leave children in homes where abuse and neglect has already occurred.

Maria Mossaides, who runs the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate, said she was concerned that the measure did not account for children with developmental disabilities or autism, who might need extra attention afforded by foster care.

Those who say children are best served by staying in their homes are hopeful that the safeguards they have in place to ensure a safe environment will be sufficient.

“A kid always wants to be in their home,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of Colorado’s Office of Children, Youth and Families. “So if [there’s] any way to provide services for the child in the home, it’s less traumatizing.”

If they work as intended, the new programs could duplicate the success that Washington, D.C., has had in reducing the number of kids in foster situations by increasing the number of kinship care arrangements.

“We have been very intentional about reducing the number of kids in care, bringing the amount of kids into foster care only when necessary, [and] investing in an array of community-based prevention and family services so we can help families who are maybe struggling to take care of their kids,” said Brenda Donald, director of Washington’s Child and Family Services Agency.

Advocates also argue methods of in-home treatment preserve familial bonds, especially for pregnant mothers or mothers with young children. States are finding it necessary to rethink what it means to care for families who are reported to child welfare agencies.

“We are working to make sure that the whole family is supported, not just … treating the kids and the parents separate[ly],” said Jason Butkowski, a spokesman for New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families.

Tags Donald Trump Ron Wyden

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