BLOG: Federal foster care funding now available to fund prevention programs

ACNJ Blog

Federal foster care funding now available to fund prevention programs

Mary Coogan, Vice President

One component of The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 passed by Congress on February 9 and signed by President Trump that received very little media attention was the Family First Prevention Services Act (“Act”). Some touted this legislation as “historic” because it represents a fundamental change in the way state child welfare systems can use federal foster care dollars. Beginning in October 2019, states will be able to use federal funding for mental health treatment, substance use treatment, in-home parenting skills training and counselling in order strengthen the family and prevent children from entering foster care.

While a focus on prevention may seem like the logical approach to the average person, that is not how the federal payment system is currently set up. Most of the federal funding that states receive are reimbursements for costs associated with foster care, information systems costs, training and adoption assistance payments, i.e. costs incurred after children are removed from their families. Many have argued that the present system creates an incentive to tear families apart rather than prevent the breakup of families.

Very little funding from the federal Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), within the U.S. Department of Human Services, is presently allocated to the states for primary prevention programs to strengthen families and avoid child abuse and neglect. Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau and the acting commissioner of the ACYF, who is tasked with the implementation of the Act, wants to change that. He hopes that states will take advantage of the opportunities created by the Act to change the way states approach child abuse and neglect, prioritizing strengthening the resiliency and protective capacity of families. As Mr. Milner says, “[t]he Family First Act provides a very positive first step in changing a profoundly unbalanced and frankly illogical funding situation.”

The Family First Prevention Services Act permits states to use funding commonly referred to as Title IV-E funds to provide services to children who are deemed to be at imminent risk of entering foster care because of a referral for child abuse and/or neglect. With prevention services paid for by these Title IV-E funds, states may be able to avoid having to place these children, referred to as “foster care candidates,” into foster care. Instead, a state agency can work to strengthen their families, providing services for up to 12 months. The Act also allows prevention services for pregnant or parenting youth already living in foster care.

The Act appropriately requires the state agency to provide prevention services that are trauma-informed and have research-supported evidence that they achieve results. Guidance as to what constitutes a well-supported or promising practice or program will be issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services no later than October 1, 2018. Children who are returning home from foster care will now be eligible to 15 months of reunification services to help ensure that they are successfully reunified with their parents.

The passage of the Act is the result of years of work by national and state advocates. ACNJ joined its national partner First Focus and more than 500 other organizations in supporting this legislation which will enable states to work with families earlier, to get them what they need and prevent children being hurt or neglected. It is the hope of those sponsoring this legislation that states can avoid the unnecessary separation from their families and the additional trauma that goes with placing a child into foster care.

Under the new law, states must also take steps to reduce unnecessary congregate care placements (an institutional setting such as group homes). New Jersey has already moved in that direction. An “appropriate evidenced-based, validated functional assessment” must be performed to determine if a child’s needs cannot be met with family or in a family foster home and that residential treatment is the best option for that child.

There are other provisions concerning reporting by the state agencies to the federal government. For more details on the Family First Prevention Services Act, read First Focus Fact Sheet. ACNJ will continue to track the implementation of the Act here in New Jersey and provide updates as they become available.

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