May 02, 2017

Child welfare attorneys discuss Trump-era threats to federal safety net

 “We have never seen such a challenging time,” said MaryLee Allen, director of policy at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. She was speaking at an April 28 program at the ABA Center on Children and the Law Spring Conference entitled, “Creating a National Policy Agenda – Protecting the Safety Net for Children and Families and Looking to the Future,” held at Tysons Corner, Va.

Allen was referring to programs that offer a safety net for children and families that are being threatened by the Trump administration’s funding priorities, and she urged child welfare attorneys to “make sure we play offense as well as defense” in working on these issues.

She listed threats at the federal level facing children and families, including steep cuts to CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), Medicaid and other safety net programs in President Trump’s first budget proposal unveiled in March.

In addition, Allen said, the revisions to the proposed 2017 American Health Care Act have “gotten worse” since it was first introduced by Republican lawmakers in March and then withdrawn due to lack of support. Right now, “95 percent of children in this country have health coverage [under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act], and to go back at this stage would just be tragic,” she said.

Allen said that one way to reduce federal spending for vulnerable populations is to use block grants, which end the guarantee of funds in entitlement programs or combine programs with similar purposes into one funding package. Block grant funds often decrease over time, limit the ability of states to innovate and effectively put a cap on funding. Once in place, Allen said, they don’t allow you the ability to respond to a recession, an opioid crisis or a Hurricane Katrina.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; or what used to be known as food stamps) and Supplemental Security Income (particularly for children with disabilities) may become block grants.

She stressed the need to hang on to these protections for children, and warned that “once lost, they are hard to get back.”

Allen also called attention to areas that are not directly related to child welfare but could have an impact on it if big funding changes occur, including tax reform. In order to pay for Trump’s initial plan, she said, cuts would be needed in other programs, such as Medicaid.

ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), was passed in 2015, but Allen said there has been a “chipping away at some of the regulations” surrounding foster children. The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to revise and rescind regulations that deal with foster children and accountability, she said.

In the area of immigration, Prudence Beidler Carr, director of the ABA Center on Children and the Law, discussed the “collateral consequences” that occur when a parent is detained or deported. “What happens when an immigrant parent is detained,” she asked, “and what does this increased pressure and trauma and stress on immigrant communities have the potential to mean?”

With threats of Immigration and Customs Enforcement coming to courthouses and schools to arrest illegal immigrants, she said, fewer immigrant women are seeking protection from domestic violence and some are declining to register their children for benefits so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Similarly, some illegal immigrants are not filing for food stamps or Medicaid due to a concern that it will make it easier for ICE to identify and deport them.

Amy Harfeld, national policy director and senior staff attorney with the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School, called child welfare work “weird and hard and exhausting,” and told the attendees to take heart that a good, coordinated defense can help them succeed.

She asked each attendee to list three places where they’re playing defense and three things they’re committed to playing offense on. She urged them to be prepared to do good things when the political atmosphere changes: “We don’t want to not have the groundwork laid to make progress whenever it becomes possible or likely that that happens,” Harfeld said.

She offered ways to help those working in child welfare collaborate and advance. She encouraged them to:

1)     Know the players at the state and federal level who influence the issues their clients are facing

2)     Engage with those players and get connected with them at the different levels

3)     Know where to go for information about what’s happening. She said everyone has weak spots in their advocacy (she said hers is budgeting). Know what you don’t know and find someone to go to help fill you in on this “blind spot.”

4)     Engage in “self-care” to stay effective and stave off burnout.

Among the areas the attendees reported playing defense on were:

·        The immigration issues that have arisen since January

·        Access to timely, quality services for parents and children

·        Red tape in kinship placements

·        Lack of children’s mental health services

·        Insufficient resources to meet the need.

Among the opportunities they wanted to be ready for are:

·        Reduce barriers to kincare for foster children

·        Improve outcomes for teen parents

·        Provide more support for placement providers

·        Strengthen access to legal counsel for parents and children.