Closing the Deal on Child Welfare Federal Finance Reform

Article excerpt

Ohio recently emerged from its most devastating biennial budget process in recent history. Like other states in the nation, revenues had fallen sharply due to the flailing economy and structural changes in our state's tax code. Ohio's child welfare system suffered significant cuts, along with just about every other human service system.

As Ohio is a county-administered, state-supervised state, and heavily dependent on locally approved property taxes to fund child welfare and many other human services, the impact of the state cuts varied widely. I learned how resource-poor communities heavily depended upon state funds and certain federal funds (such as Title XX--also needed for many other activities such as adult protective services) to cobble together resources for up-front core child welfare services.

While the creativity was inspiring, it highlighted that removal of any flexible state funds could cause immediate and severe staff layoffs. With fewer staff available to immediately respond to families and a federal mandate to ensure the child's health and safety remain paramount, many are concerned that out-of-home placement will become the available strategy. If given a small amount of time and resources, a well-trained caseworker can often engage and partner with the family to safely maintain the child in the home.

After 25 years of working in the areas of child welfare and juvenile justice in four states, I have never so keenly understood the need for a federal/ state/local partnership to safely keep children in their own homes. Currently, federal funds (Title IV-E) primarily support placement--foster care, adoption and most recently relative guardianship.

It is time to close the deal--Congress should reform federal child welfare funding to include assessing, engaging and strengthening referred families. Placement prevention would be less costly for everyone, including the federal government.

Background

The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care created groundbreaking interest and momentum for improving the broken financing system for keeping children safe and in stable, permanent families.

The commission convened experts in the field including child welfare administrators, judicial leaders, financing and research experts, and youth and families themselves to make recommendations for change. Across the country, various members of the child welfare and judicial communities took notice, joined in the discussion, and created a national conversation, including media, and policymakers.

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The result--the Fostering Connections to Success and Improving Adoptions Act of 2008, the groundbreaking federal legislation passed unanimously in a much fractured, partisan Congress. Important goals were accomplished--recognition and supports for relative caregivers, enhanced services and funding for transitional youth, direct support for the Native American community for child safety and permanency, an updated adoption incentives program and a focus on key practice issues for foster children--health, education, sibling connections.

Today's Opportunity

The work is not done, however, as the Fostering Connections bill did not address real finance reform to support the preferred and cost efficient methods to safely provide prevention/ diversion services for vulnerable children, nor did it solve the fairness issue created by the 1996 welfare reform act, which forever lodged federal child welfare eligibility with 1996 income standards. …