Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (seen with then-Senator Marc Udall of Colorado at an unrelated press conference) has proposed allowing states to spend more child-welfare money on preventive services.

U.S. Senate

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (seen with then-Senator Marc Udall of Colorado at an unrelated press conference) has proposed allowing states to spend more child-welfare money on preventive services.

When Roberta found out she was pregnant for the third time, she was still struggling with the abandonment she’d felt after her mother placed her in foster care as a teenager and signed away her rights. She’d recently left a violent relationship and didn’t have a stable place to live. Both her daughters had also been placed in the same foster care system she’d recently left. “I was crying every day that my children were in care because I knew the feelings of worthlessness you have when you need love from someone that doesn’t return it. I knew what the outcome was for me.”

Now Roberta (who asked that her real name not be used because she has an open child-welfare case) called her best friend crying again, afraid the system would automatically take her next baby. But her friend had dealt with child welfare, too, and told her: “You’ve got to get into services for the baby. That’s the only chance you have of bringing your baby home.”

So she went to the Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership, a community-based organization in Harlem where she’d already taken a parenting class after her daughters went into care. Now she was assigned a caseworker who helped her find prenatal care and a mental health specialist. Sometimes the caseworker would visit her at home. “She’d talk to me about how much better I was doing, that I was no longer with a man who hurt me to love me,” she recalls. “She was very, very, very on my side.” Eventually, she married the father of her third child, who’d grown up in foster care as well and was proving to be a devoted partner. He too began attending programs at Northern Manhattan.

After she gave birth, their son was held at the hospital for a number of days while the city decided whether it was safe for them to have him. “We felt immensely scared,” Roberta recalls. “We’d cry when visiting hours ended and we had to leave him alone.” But her preventive caseworker was very vocal with child protective services about how far she had come. When ACS agreed to send him home, she said, “I felt so grateful to have a chance to be there from the start. When we left the hospital with my son, I was crying because I was so happy.”

A possible turnaround in federal policy

On August 5, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced legislation, The Family Stability and Kinship Care Act, that if passed would for the first time uncap federal funding for the kinds of preventive services that helped that mother keep her youngest child out of foster care. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Democrat from Texas, will introduce a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

Under current law, title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the nation’s largest child welfare funding stream, provides states and tribes with a federal funding match for at-risk children only after they are placed in foster care. If there is a foster care crisis—as in the 1980s and ’90s when crack hit the scene and the number of children entering foster care skyrocketed—more federal funds become available.
By contrast, the funding states receive for preventive services is limited, no matter how many families they serve.

Today the ratio of federal money paid to the states for foster care versus preventive services is 6 to 1, according to Casey Family Programs. This affects not only whether families find help when they need it, but also how many children enter foster care, as research shows that when child protective investigators have confidence in services to refer families to, they are less likely to remove children.

If the bill passes, the federal government would make matching funds available for the first time ever for services to keep children deemed at risk of foster-care placement at home. The funding, which could last for one year per case, would also be available for extended family caring for kin and families after they reunify from foster care.

The legislation wouldn’t require states to shift how they invest child-welfare money. But it would mean they had the flexibility to do so. In New York, the bill is supported by the New York Coalition for Child Welfare Finance Reform, a broad group that includes the city and state child welfare agencies, advocacy organizations for both parents and children, as well as a number of large foster care agencies. The bill is co-sponsored by New York Senator Charles Schumer.

Sea change in thinking

The bill’s broad support among advocates reflects just how much thinking about foster care has changed since the 1960s, when a federally supported system of state child protection was established.
Back then, abusive families, it was understood, were the problem. Foster care would be a safe haven for children whose homes were not safe. Over the decades, though, evidence mounted about the poor outcomes for youth who spent time in care. In 2007 and 2008, an economics professor from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Joseph Doyle, released two studies showing that even compared to similarly abused and neglected children left in their homes, children placed in foster care were more likely to become teen parents, spend time in a juvenile-justice facility, have trouble holding down a job, and be arrested as adults. “Even when children ultimately return home to their parents, the time they spend in foster care not knowing whether their family is going to be their family can be a trauma,” says Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and government relations at the Citizens Committee for Children of New York.

By contrast, in 2012, a 20-year study of child deaths in Sacramento, Calif., found an almost perfect match between increased funding for preventive services and decreased child deaths due to abuse and neglect, and vice-versa.

What has also become clear is that parents with children in foster care are themselves often among the most vulnerable members of society. They live in neighborhoods with the greatest stressors and the fewest resources, in families where a child-welfare placement often merely adds to existing trauma, and often leads to intergenerational foster care placement. Indeed, a third of clients under the age of 25 served by the Center for Family Representation, themselves lived, or live, in foster care. The over-representation of blacks and Native Americans in foster care has fueled social-justice concerns about the system as well.

“Right now funding is not structured to serve parents,” says Jess Dannhauser, the executive director of Graham Windham, a large New York foster care agency, and co-chair with Gendell of the New York Coalition for Child Welfare Finance Reform. “It’s structured to care for their children, whether or not they get better. Obviously this is contrary to the best practice in the field. It’s contrary to federal policy. It’s contrary to the policies of Graham Windham, and it’s contrary to the values of our city and state.”

Concerns over costs

In 2011, the federal government allowed states to apply for a waiver to use federal funding in more flexible ways. The waivers needed to be cost-neutral, but if states chose, they could use federal funds to increase preventive services and decrease foster care. Those waivers are set to expire in 2019; Wyden’s bill would make that flexibility permanent.

Unlike the waivers, though, Wyden’s bill offers no guarantees of cost-neutrality and it is unclear whether the legislation will garner enough votes among Republicans to pass both houses of Congress.
In discussion of a draft of the bill that was released in May, some advocates argued that the one-year time limit for preventive services could lead to poor outcomes for families that have deep and chronic vulnerabilities, like ongoing mental-health issues or addiction. Those limits were kept in place, however, to reassure senators and representatives that spending won’t mushroom. But many advocates believe that passing the bill will require considerably more compromise.

In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on August 4, the day before the release of the bill, Ann Silverberg-Williamson, executive director of Utah’s Department of Human Services, argued that investment in evidence-based services like Utah’s HomeWorks Program are not only successful at keeping families together, but also cost-effective. “For the average cost of serving one child in foster home for one year,” she argued, “we can serve 11 families through HomeWorks. For the average cost of keeping one child in a group congregate setting, we can serve 34 families.” Still, advocates said, not all fiscal conservatives appeared convinced. The bill’s supporters are awaiting an estimate of the measure’s cost from the Congressional Budget Office before negotiations begin in earnest.

There is evidence, however, that Capitol Hill may be more willing than in the past to change the way child-welfare funding is structured. “There’s a point when we should refuse to spend scarce tax pay dollars to subsidize a placement that we know results in negative outcomes,” ranking Republican and committee chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah said at the August 4 hearing. “As I’ve said in the past, no one would support allowing states to use federal taxpayer dollars to buy cigarettes for foster youth. In my view, to continue to use taxpayer dollars to fund long term placements in foster-care group homes is ultimately just as destructive.”

Damage to undo

In many ways, New York State’s preventive service funding scheme is a model for what the federal government is trying to do.

That’s because, in 2002, the passage of New York State’s Child Welfare Financing Legislation uncapped state reimbursement to localities for preventive services. Today New York State reimburses 62 cents out of every dollar that the city or other locales spend on prevention. As a result, according to a report by the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, between 1997 and 2007, New York City’s budget for preventive services more than doubled, arguably contributing to New York City’s plummeting foster care rolls, which stand at roughly 11,000 today.

Advocates initially worried that New York might miss out on the new federal prevention funds because the state already devotes a sizable portion of its own child welfare budget to prevention. But discussions with Wyden’s staff have assuaged those concerns.

Instead, advocates now hope that if Wyden’s bill does pass and greater federal funds for preventive services for families deemed at risk of foster care placement are made available, that would free up New York state and local funds to create a more robust system of primary supports available to all parents, not just parents deemed at risk of foster care placement.

They said the biggest problem with New York’s preventive services today is that, as the foster care rolls in New York City dropped and preventive services came increasingly to handle high-risk cases referred to them through an investigation, preventive services came increasingly to be associated in the minds of parents in the community with child protection, and that made some parents loathe to ask for help.

Of particular concern is the fact that when families from the community come to a preventive agency for help they have to sign an application form that says that their child is at imminent risk of foster care placement. “A lot of families say, ‘No, I’m walking away,'” said Jim Purcell, chief executive officer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

“Our current model of preventive services is more regulated for safety and more child abuse and neglect focused than many families are comfortable with,” added Purcell. The fear of child protective services is pervasive in poor communities of color, Child Welfare Organizing Project executive director Sandra Killett told City Limits, and that affects parent’s willingness to reach out for help. “Right now when families have a problem where they go is underground—and they don’t come out until it’s really bad.”

Instead, advocates said, primary prevention should be housed in agencies that residents trust are there to help them: agencies that draw residents to them by providing services like a food pantry, or help with housing or immigrant services, have a good rap in the community, and are not seen as closely connected to child protection. Whether those programs should be run by child welfare agencies or by agencies that are not connected to the child welfare system would likely be a point of contention.

Advocates also said that if the city wants to strengthen preventive services, it should more closely tailor preventive services to fit the specific needs of neighborhoods where foster care entry is the highest. It’s a strategy—focusing the view to the Zip Code level—now championed by Casey Family Programs. The city has begun to try to target services to homeless shelters, after a number of high-profile deaths of children in such facilities. But advocates say more work needs to be done to match services to the specific needs of high-risk communities.
For Roberta, having services she could trust in her neighborhood made the difference. Roberta’s son is now one, and the best time of her week is when her husband brings her son to pick her up at work “and the look on his face is ‘Mama, Mama, Mama.'”

Her happiness, though, is bittersweet. Her daughters remain in care, while Roberta and her husband wait for housing and court approval to reunify with them. “I’m determined to bring my daughters home,” said Roberta, “so that they don’t continue to feel the way that I once felt.

City Limits reporting on child welfare is supported by the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation.