Child Welfare

End of Year Wins for Children

December 20, 2019 | National

This week, Congress passed, and the President is expected to sign, two large spending packages to fund the government through FY2020 and thus averting a government shutdown. The packages, made up of four and eight bills respectively, authorize nearly $1.4 trillion in spending.

These packages include some important wins for children. For the first time in more than two decades, the federal government will fund research on gun violence prevention. There is more than $1 billion in increased funding for Head Start, the Child Care & Development Block Grant and Title I schools. There is language pressing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) not to impose fees on asylum seekers and to waive fees for low-income immigrants and $7.6 billion in funding for the 2020 census to ensure all children are counted, far exceeding the $6.2 billion requested by the Trump administration.

And there is also an exciting new development for child welfare with inclusion of the Family First Transition Act which will provide needed resources to help states, tribes and territories implement the historic Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 (Family First). The Children’s Defense Fund has been a supporter of this important legislation since its inception, most recently organizing a letter of support that has been signed by more than 450 national, state and local organizations, after submitting our own letter of ringing endorsement.

When it passed in 2018, Family First provided an unprecedented opportunity to transform the child welfare system in this country. Prior to its passage, states, tribes and territories could only claim federal reimbursement from Title IV-E, the largest funding source for child welfare, for the services they provided after a child was pulled into foster care. Family First allows Title IV-E funds to be spent on qualified evidence-based services for skill-based programs, as well as mental health and substance abuse treatment and prevention for families at risk of entering the child welfare system, so that kids will be able to remain safely at home. For children who do need to enter foster care, Family First ensures that they be placed in family-based settings whenever possible. These reforms represent the first major modernization of the child welfare system in decades. If they are implemented effectively, they will be a significant step to fulfill the fundamental promise of child welfare, that every child deserves the opportunity to grow up in a safe, stable and loving family.

But transforming the child welfare system is no easy task, and that is why a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives introduced the Family First Transition Act, aimed at bolstering the ability of states, tribes and territories to ensure that the reforms made possible by Family First are realized. It offers a bold plan to help jurisdictions meet the unique fiscal and statutory requirements of implementation, so more children and families can thrive.

The Family First Transition Act contains four provisions. Knowing each child welfare system is unique, it offers $500 million in one-time flexible funding to states, tribes and territories to meet the financial requirements of their particular implementation challenges. It offers short term funding guarantees to states and tribes with expiring Title IV-E waivers so they can move forward with Family First without losing the progress they’ve made under the waiver program. To allow states to build the prevention programs that meet the unique needs of their families and communities, it delays a condition in Family First that requires 50 percent of all reimbursements to be for programs designated as “well-supported,” giving the federal Clearinghouse more time to evaluate programs.

Lastly, we here at the Children’s Defense Fund are humbled that the final provision of the Family First Transition Act renames the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program (PSSF) in honor of our late Director of Policy, MaryLee Allen. PSSF, one of the most significant sources of federal funds for family preservation, was one of many reforms MaryLee helped pass in her storied 42 year tenure at CDF. The program, which provided $429 million to improve community-based family preservation programs in FY 2019, is a fitting testament to MaryLee’s lifelong dedication to protecting children and strengthening families.

Family First was the last major piece of child welfare legislation MaryLee helped create and usher into law before she passed away in June. In many ways, it was the culmination of her tireless work for children and she continued to help steward its implementation until her illness forced her to stop working. It is almost poetic that the Family First Transition Act, meant to strengthen the final piece of her legacy, is also the bill that recognizes a career devoted to the protection of children.

This is a richly deserved honor, but as any of you who know MaryLee well know, she would have deflected the attention, forever reminding us that there is more work to do, more children who need us. At CDF, we are so thankful to our partners in Congress who worked to write and pass this important legislation. MaryLee would have been so pleased to see Family First moving forward.