When the child welfare system makes it onto the nightly news, that’s usually bad news for the children and families we serve.
Perhaps it’s a story about rising caseloads and shrinking social services budgets, or about the lack of foster care families. Even worse, it could be about a tragedy involving a child under DSS custody. The dedicated, hard-working staff at county social services agencies like ours are fighting the good fight. But far too often, their stellar work is clouded by such challenges.
That’s why we are so excited to relay a historic bit of good news for child welfare systems across the Carolinas. In February, the Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law, marking the nation’s most sweeping and revolutionary child welfare reform package in generations. It promises to help thousands of North Carolina children by providing up to 12 months of mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and in-home parenting training to families at risk of entering the child welfare system. In addition, it seeks to incentivize states to reduce placement of children in congregate care while improving the recruitment and retention of foster- and kinship-care families.
Because of these many benefits, North Carolina’s county DSS directors offered vocal support for this legislation while it was being debated in Congress. For years, we have talked about the need for society to invest more “upstream” when it comes to social problems, rather than waiting to invest “downstream,” after ills have flowered into their fullest and costliest form. This legislation redirects federal funding from the remedial side of things – after children have already entered foster care – to invest in prevention services that might help keep the child in the best setting for him or her: a family.
The new law will also improve the care children receive by expanding trauma-informed practice. Trauma-informed practice gives caretakers greater insight and skill in recognizing and handling the “trauma triggers” affecting children who have suffered abuse, neglect and other hardships. Currently, some N.C. counties use trauma-informed practice. Under the new law, all will be able to take advantage of these evidence-based interventions, possibly lessening the need for congregate care slots.
Federal officials have given states a two-year window to opt-in to the new opportunities afforded by the Family First law. That window opens in October. For the reasons stated above, among many others, we are urging the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to move forward with implementing the Family First provisions. We do so fully understanding that questions about key policy details remain unresolved. For instance, how narrowly or broadly should the state define candidacy for foster care? Will the state adopt a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to how counties put the new legislation into action? When federal officials finally put out their list of approved evidence-based practices, will counties be allowed to use any interventions on the menu? Or just certain ones approved by the state?
These are all critically important questions, to be sure. But we feel strongly that North Carolina leaders should opt-in now, so that the hard work of implementation can begin in earnest. The new law offers county DSS agencies opportunities to exercise new flexibility and creativity. It is an unprecedented opportunity to tailor preventive services for families in ways that hold promise for both resource-poor and resource-rich counties. While we don’t purport to speak for every county DSS director in North Carolina, we feel confident that many share our position.
With some observers talking of a foster care crisis in our state, social services agencies need new tools. The Family First Prevention Services Act provides them. Let’s get started. To put off action would only mean delaying success for the thousands of children depending on us to keep them safe and forge their paths toward brighter futures.
For a national perspective on the Family First Law, click here.
Blevins is Buncombe County’s director of social services. Fayko is director in Rowan County, and Osborne directs social services in Wilson County.