Testing What Works: Federal Waivers Give States the Flexibility to Discover What's Best for Children in Foster Care

By Williams-Mbengue, Nina | State Legislatures, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Testing What Works: Federal Waivers Give States the Flexibility to Discover What's Best for Children in Foster Care


Williams-Mbengue, Nina, State Legislatures


Want to build a strong child welfare system, try programs that will save money and improve foster care? Seeking a child welfare waiver--allowed under the Child Welfare and Family Services Innovation Act of 2011, might be your answer. The federal act authorized the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to issue 10 waiver demonstration projects for 2012, and 10 more in both 2013 and in 2014.

The waivers allow states to use money usually reserved for specific foster care expenses to test new ways of providing and financing child welfare services. Ideas submitted for approval must aim to safely shorten children's stays in care, increase children's safety and well-being, prevent child abuse or keep children from going back into care.

Priority is given to projects that will improve the lives of children who have experienced trauma, contribute to the body of evidence about what works, and include other programs, such as mental and behavioral health services.

A History of Success

State experiments with waivers as far back as 1995 have shown success in saving states money while keeping children safe. According to evaluators from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, children in waiver demonstration programs in Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, Tennessee and Wisconsin spent significantly less time in foster care than children in control groups. The programs focused on helping children get adopted, find permanent homes with relatives, or return home to their families.

The waiver demonstration programs that tested flexible funding schemes also showed positive results. For example, Florida's waiver allowed it to pay community-based agencies that serve children and families to provide substance abuse, mental health and crisis intervention services and help with rent, utilities and child care in order to keep children safely at home. This led to a 37 percent decline in the numbers of children in care between 2006 and 2011. As a result of fewer children entering foster care, especially expensive institutional care, the state's foster care costs dropped significantly.

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Evaluators also noted that programs in Indiana and Ohio reduced the time children spent in foster care. In Indiana, children receiving services under the waiver averaged 113 fewer days in care compared with a control group. In Ohio, children spent 1.77 fewer months in foster care before being adopted than they would have without the waiver program.

The waiver program was initially authorized in 1994, but had expired in 2006. Previous successes, along with three years of hard work by state legislators and NCSL staff advocating for the program, led the federal government to reauthorize it in 2011. Last year, nine states received waivers: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

If your state is interested in applying for a waiver, here's what you need to know.

1. THERE'S STILL TIME

U.S. Health and Human Services will continue to accept waiver proposals even though the deadline for 2013 was Jan. 15, but they may not be reviewed by the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30. Proposals not reviewed, however, will be carried over for consideration in 2014. States can submit letters of intent before submitting an application. The federal government provides states free assistance in preparing their applications as well as help after they are approved.

2. EXISTING PROGRAMS MAY QUALIFY

States can seek waivers for existing programs. For example, Colorado will use its 2012 waiver to develop four major initiatives that were already in the planning or early implementation stages. Arkansas will expand programs it has been testing, such as "permanency roundtables" in which child welfare officials focus on finding loving families for the children who have been in care for a long time because they have no home to return to, no relative to live with or almost no chance at adoption. …

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