June 01, 2015

Proposed legislation would help families avoid foster care

The ABA expressed support and offered comments this month on a discussion draft for legislation aimed at helping reduce the prevalence and length of foster care by providing support for families in crisis.

In a June 12 letter to Senate Finance Committee Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman commended Wyden and the committee for efforts to advance meaningful legislation to address the desirability of allowing children to remain in their homes with their families.

The draft legislation, which would amend Title IV of the Social Security Act, would alter the act’s funding formula in Sections B and E to target families in greatest need by providing more services to those in the riskiest geographical areas, such as neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty, child maltreatment and placement in foster care. In the comments, Susman recommended that legal services be added to the services provided, pointing out that high-quality legal representation for children and parents improves outcomes, reduces foster care placement, and lowers government costs.

“If investment is made in quality legal services, systemic functioning will improve: more families will receive individualized services, fewer children will suffer the trauma of unnecessary removals, children removed from home will be returned sooner and with fewer disruptions,  and taxpayer dollars will be saved,” Susman explained. He said a crucial step toward securing quality representation would be allowing a portion of costs for representation to be reimbursed under Title IV-E, which is already an option available for agency attorney costs.

He cited the success of non-profits such as New York City’s Center for Family Representation, where more than 50 percent of its clients’ children were able to avoid placement in foster care, and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, where the cases of 50 families were closed without the child being placed within the child welfare system.

Susman also recommended that the draft legislation be changed to allow funding under Title IV-E − currently available only after a child enters foster care − to be used for prevention and other services to help reunify families and prevent a child’s removal from the home.

He said that while the discussion draft of the legislation identifies many services critical to assisting families and preventing a child’s removal, the draft does not include services critical to creating stability in a child’s home such as mental health services, employment assistance, and in-home services.

Wyden, in releasing the discussion draft for comment, said, “This proposal is meant to address the lopsided structure of federal child welfare financing in which the vast majority of dollars are reserved for payments only when children are removed from their home. For decades lawmakers, practitioners and advocates have talked about the need to provide support and foster care prevention services for children and families in crisis. These investments can help keep children safe in their homes or with other family members while reducing the need for costly and traumatic transfers to the foster care system.”

Wyden plans to introduce legislation after considering the comments and recommendations. 

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