The Dramatic Overhaul of Foster Care Buried in Last Month’s Spending Bill

The Family First Prevention Services Act restructures how the federal government funds foster care to help keep families together.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a massive spending bill into law, and in so doing, unwittingly changed foster care forever. The Family First Prevention Services Act, buried in the deficit-ballooning Bipartisan Budget Act, significantly restructures how the federal government funds foster care.

Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the $9 billion entitlement that currently pays for foster care and adoption services, has long limited these child welfare funds to be used only after a child has been removed from their home. Family First would change that equation by allowing states to draw from those IV-E funds to keep families together.

For years, policymakers have decried the current funding mechanism as creating a perverse incentive for state and local child welfare agencies to rip families apart. “Providing more options to keep children and their families safely together is critical for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable kids across the country,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the bill’s key architects, in an email statement.

Troublingly, the number of children in foster care has grown for four years in a row, in part because of the raging opioid epidemic. In an effort to stem the rising tide of foster care entries, Family First will deploy services that are more commonly associated with the health care system, proactively tackling substance abuse and mental health issues while providing parenting education services aimed at keeping families together. The law also restricts federal funding to two weeks for group home settings, which have long been associated with bleak outcomes for the young people who reside in them.

“This is the most significant change to funding for child welfare in the last 40 years,” said David Sanders, executive vice president at Casey Family Programs.

The success of Family First will hinge on a couple key assumptions. By severely restricting payments to group homes, the law hopes to incentivize states to rely more on the homes of foster parents and relatives. Long term, the goal is that the foster care prevention services will lower the number of children who even have to be removed from their homes at all. In the short term, moving young people in group homes into family-like settings could increase demand for beds in foster homes. This comes at a particularly difficult moment since nearly half of all states have seen the number of foster care beds decrease in recent years.

Another concern among advocates is about the role of family caregivers. While Family First expands some funding for relatives who take in children currently in foster care, it does not provide any new funding to kin while parents undergo up to a year of drug and mental health treatment in an effort to prevent their children from entering foster care. This means that support will have to come from other streams.

Now comes the hard work of turning the assumptions that underlie the law into reality. In the face of the Republican attempts to cripple the Affordable Care Act and calls to reform entitlement programs like Medicaid, Family First runs counter to a larger and looming erosion of the safety net. Foster care in America will never be the same.

Daniel Heimpel

Daniel Heimpel is an award-winning journalist and the president of Fostering Media Connections, a non-profit journalism organization focused on vulnerable children, youth, and families.