Wednesday the House Ways and Means Committee marked up and passed the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016. The bill marks a major step in federal child welfare finance reform in allowing Title IV-E funds, the largest federal child welfare program, to be used to provide services and supports to families who are at risk of entering the child welfare system. It also incentivizes states to place foster children in family-based settings instead of group homes whenever possible.

Currently, there are 415,000 children in the foster care system, a number that has grown recently, in part, due to the substance abuse crisis sweeping the nation. Studies show that children who have been involved in the child welfare system face a number of adverse outcomes compared to their peers, including higher rates of mental health issues, homelessness, risk of sexual abuse, poor educational attainment, over-prescription of psychotropic medications, and other obstacles that hinders their overall well-being. In addition, 57,000 foster youth live in group home settings, of which 40% have no clinical need to be in such a placement.

The Family First legislation addresses some of these issues and aims to create better outcomes for children and their families. Specifically, states will be able to receive a federal reimbursement in order to provide substance abuse treatment, mental health services and in-home parent skills for children and families at risk of entering the child welfare system. Currently, IV-E dollars are used to support programs once the child is already in foster care, and has outdated eligibility criteria that limits the number of children who have access to services. The Family First bill provides front-end services to families, before the child enters foster care, and “de-links” the eligibility so that all children at risk of entering care have access to the specified services. The bill also limits federal reimbursement for group care or congregate care facilities to cover only those youths who have been assessed as needing specialized residential treatment, so more placements can be made with families. To support this provision, an amendment was introduced during markup which includes $8 million in grants to states for foster parent recruitment and retention.

The legislation also includes a number of other provisions that would strengthen the child welfare system, including:

  1. Extending supports to transitional youth so that they are given the appropriate time to finish their education and have access to health insurance,
  2. Allowing prevention services to be used by pregnant and parenting foster youth,
  3. Reauthorizing Title IV-B programs that address the developmental needs of children,
  4. Introducing an innovative electronic system that would better connect welfare systems across state lines, and
  5. A GAO review of the status of state’s compliance in reinvesting savings from the federal adoption assistance reimbursement for children with special needs.

Members of the House Ways and Means Committee, including Chairman Brady, discussed the importance of this bipartisan bill, specifically how it addresses some of the root causes leading children into foster care and also provides better outcomes for kids already in care. Congressman Doggett (TX-35), who had introduced an earlier version of the bill last year, made clear at several points that the bill does not do enough- in that more new resources could be dedicated instead of using offsets from other child welfare programs, and that provisions in the bill are phased in over a long period of time, which does little to help the kids who need services immediately. Congressman McDermott (WA-7) also expressed skepticism that the provisions to reduce congregate care placements would have the intended effect. The bill passed in Committee and is expected to be taken up for a vote by the whole House of Representatives sometime next week.

To reach out to your members of Congress in support of this legislation, please see the First Focus Campaign for Children’s Family First Action Page.

First Focus Support Letter

Ways and Means Press Releases:

Ways and Means Approves to Improve Child Welfare Programs

What They’re Saying: Family First Prevention Services Act

Buchanan Introduces Bipartisan, Bicameral Legislation to Strengthen America’s Families