On February 9th, when President Trump signed the Family First Prevention Services Act, I, like hundreds of advocates across the country, celebrated. This was a pivotal moment in the history of our nation’s child welfare system, an opportunity to truly put family first. Along with my excitement came two thoughts: How did we get here and what happens now?
How did we get here? I believe that Family First is revolutionary, but the act is also just the next step in the evolution of our child welfare system. Child welfare advocates know the rungs on this evolutionary ladder well – the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, among others. Each of these reforms was grounded in the understanding that children do best in families, preferably their own. And while each of these reforms improved child welfare practice, state efforts were limited by available resources.
In passing Family First, Congress acknowledged a number of remaining system shortcomings. First, Congress acknowledged that too many children are unnecessarily separated from parents who could provide safe and loving care if provided needed metal health services, substance abuse treatment, or parenting skills training or counseling. Family First also recognizes that too many children who enter foster care are placed in group settings, not because they have therapeutic needs that warrant such a setting, but because child welfare agencies have been unable to recruit and retain enough kin and non-kin foster families who can more effectively care for these children. Congress held that residential treatment is an essential and often life-saving component of the child welfare system, but that such treatment needs to be and has not always been short-term and high quality, enabling children to succeed in a family when treatment is completed. Finally, Family First reflects Congress’ understanding that federal child welfare financing has not been sufficiently aligned with the goal of keeping kids in families.
Family First is the culmination of a five-year effort by advocates to convince Congress to both provide the resources needed for states to keep children in families and to exercise the necessary oversight to ensure that states use these resources effectively. Family First incorporates new insights from child-to-parent attachment research, adolescent brain science, implementation of evidence-based prevention programs and examples of successful reform efforts in numerous states and localities. Armed with new knowledge and fiscal resources, states are poised to take an evolutionary leap forward in supporting children.
What happens now? To achieve the promise of Family First, state agencies, hopefully with significant input from the community, will need to use newly available federal resources creatively and effectively to test new approaches to keeping children in families. Private providers (including current group home providers) will need to alter their business models to better meet the needs of children and caregivers. Judges, attorneys and other legal partners will need to ensure that best-interest determinations reflect what we know, that all children need and deserve a family to succeed. Congress will need to monitor implementation and advocates will need to hold state and federal policymakers accountable for ensuring the Act’s success. Implementation will require an all-hands-on-deck approach and the Annie E. Casey Foundation is prepared to assist and dedicated to ensuring effective implementation of Family First. Let’s make sure that the promise of Family First becomes a reality and that all children benefit from a loving family.
For a North Carolina perspective on the Family First law, click here.
Geen is director of policy reform and advocacy with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.