TUCKED QUIETLY INTO the most recent congressional measure to keep the government open was the most sweeping and ambitious piece of child welfare legislation passed in at least a decade. It’s an attempt to reshape the entrenched foster care system as a raging opioid epidemic swells the population of children in need.
The measure overcame the opposition of group homes, which pocket thousands of dollars per month for each child warehoused in their custody. The Family First Prevention Services Act upends the funding structure for the child welfare system by allowing states to use federal matching funds for programs addressing mental health, substance abuse, family counseling, and parent skills training — to keep at-risk children from entering the foster care system in the first place. It’s meant to help families stay together.
Most new programs are funded by specific amounts of money, which makes them vulnerable to cuts or expiration in the future, but the new law amends the Social Security Act to open up funding for families at risk of entering the foster care system. That means major funding will be available in states willing to take advantage of the new federal money.
The law is also designed to deter the use of group homes, which profit from the children they take in and shuffle through, by limiting federal funding for congregate care and reducing the number of kids going into the system at all. At a Senate HELP committee hearing on Thursday, William Bell, president of Casey Family Programs, noted that for every $7 spent on foster care, there is only $1 spent on intervention.
The law seeks to rebalance a particularly difficult dynamic at play in the foster care system. Imagine the situation from the perspective of a caseworker: You see a parent struggling with her housing situation, holding down several low-paying jobs, and perhaps you suspect some substance abuse issues. There are pamphlets you can hand out, organizations like food pantries or diaper banks you can recommend for some elementary services, but beyond that, what can you do?
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