Beyond Family First: Congress Should Boost Funding to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect

Article Chronicle of Social Change

By Daniel Heimpel

Last week, national TV news was filled with images of newly elected Members of Congress descending on Capitol Hill for their “freshman orientation.” My hope is that this change – and momentum on the heels of a major federal foster care law signed earlier this year – will create a new opportunity to get child welfare financing closer to what advocates, practitioners and lawmakers have long said they want, but have failed to deliver: True child maltreatment prevention.

By true prevention I mean the programs – housing, home visiting, child care, mental health, substance abuse, monetary support  – that would (if delivered early enough) easily forestall many cases of abuse or neglect before a report is ever lodged with the child protection system.

In February, Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the Family First Prevention Services Act. The law dramatically changes how the federal entitlement that pays for foster care and adoption services – Title IV-E of the Social Security Act – functions. It severely restricts federal payments to group homes and other “congregate care” facilities, while allowing states to draw down Title IV-E funds to support parents who would otherwise lose their children to foster care. While long on good intentions, Family First does little more than reallocate dollars from the back of the system to the front.

Despite the term “prevention” appearing in its name, Family First doesn’t actually envision preventing child abuse and neglect from happening in the first place. Instead, it focuses on the laudable goal of staunching the number of children who enter foster care, but only after they have come to the attention of the child protection system, and are likely to have experienced some combination of adverse experiences.

So instead of resting satisfied with Family First, the child welfare community should forge ahead. I will start with a simple proposal: Boost spending to Title IV-B of the Social Security Act by $5 billion. In particular, Congress should direct the IV-B spending increase on the aspects of the title’s Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program that focus on services that promote children’s development and are aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect.

The current budget anticipates spending $8.6 billion for the IV-E entitlement, which is tied to children who have already entered foster care or have been adopted. Less than 10 percent of that, $709 million, is spent on Title IV-B, of which an even smaller portion is spent on true prevention. While Family First, which goes into effect in October of 2019, will reconfigure some of this spending, the federal investment in child welfare will still be very lopsided in favor of intervention as opposed to prevention.

Why this idea? Because I recently found myself in the middle of a debate about how the federal government should finance child welfare that resurfaced an old stalemate that has held back serious reform for decades.

It was October. I was in an Anaheim, California, hotel banquet hall (a few blocks from Disneyland) moderating a panel in front of about 150 people, many of whom run county-level child welfare agencies in California. The panelists: Jerry Milner, associate commissioner for Trump’s Children’s Bureau; Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Director’s Association of California; and Bobby Cagle, director of Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency.

While Family First has been publicly celebrated by many Washington, D.C.-based advocates and other key players in the field of child welfare, the three men on the panel were all clear about their concerns about the new law. Mecca, as the head of the association representing the interests of 58 county child welfare directors, was one of the loudest voices opposing the law as it sped through Congress earlier this year. Cagle, who runs L.A.’s sprawling $2.4 billion child welfare agency, has, in the wake of Family First’s passage, been working to move legislation that would maintain the current funding structure L.A. enjoys under a waiver program. And Milner has continued to push for his own vision of funding, which would give states the option of a highly flexible block grant.

Given these three men’s important positions in regard to foster care financing, I wanted to hear what they thought was holding the field back from meaningful reform, and how they could move past it.

Mecca argued that a barrier has always been the implicit maxim that investing in preventing entries into foster care or child abuse requires disinvestment in out-of-home foster care – as Family First has done. “This idea that you have to fund prevention out of the entitlement services … is not a natural law,” he said.

Milner pointed to the child welfare community’s stubbornness on the idea of trading the entitlement for the kind of flexible funds that come with a block grant as another barrier. “I’m not wedded to the entitlement for the very simple reason that the only thing that Title IV-E right now entitles anybody to is a foster care payment,” he said.

And while all three agreed that the goal should be on preventing child maltreatment, the conversation quickly reverted to the debate over entitlements versus block grants that has been raging since rumblings of capping Title IV-E were coming out of President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

But why does there have to be the dichotomy? Why is budget neutrality a foregone conclusion in so many conversations about federal child welfare reform?

Consider this: Budget neutral (read free) Family First was passed as part of the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018,” a $300 billion-plus binge in spending. In such a context, the suggestion that it is impossible to increase spending to promote the well-being of children is laughable.

While Family First will surely reduce the system’s use of group homes, it spends no new money on the primary prevention of child abuse. Further, its claim on preventing entries into foster care relies on a steep set of assumptions to succeed on that count.

To the child welfare community I say: Yes, take advantage of Family First’s benefits, but also concede its limitations and push further. Pepper this new Congress with well-resourced proposals that have a real chance to actually prevent child maltreatment and abuse. Boosting IV-B is a good place to start.

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