Help Improve the Well-Being of Children, Youth and Families Involved with the Child Welfare System

Please sign on to this memorandum to the Presidential Transition Team for President-Elect Joe Biden and join organizations from across California in showing support for urgently-needed investments and reforms that have the potential to greatly improve the well-being of children, youth and families.

To:  The Presidential Transition Team for President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris

Subject: Improving the Well-Being of California Children, Youth, and Families Involved with the Child Welfare System

Dear President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris:

The undersigned are California child welfare advocates, administrators, service providers, and organizations who share your passion for improving the well-being of children and write to you today to share our perspective on needs and opportunities to support abused and neglected children and families touched by the child welfare system. We look forward to working in partnership with you to build upon your work to support children, youth, and families most in need.

State child welfare systems play a critical role in providing child abuse and neglect prevention services, in-home services to keep families together, and foster care services when children cannot remain safely with a parent. Both large and small-scale reforms are urgently needed to improve the full continuum of the system and promote race equity as children and families of color are disproportionally represented in the child welfare system and often experience worse outcomes during their time in foster care.

We understand that partisanship and challenging economic conditions may make comprehensive reforms with significant associated costs difficult to pass in the immediate future. However, we wish to convey a sense of urgency to initiate both large-scale reforms that may take more time and more incremental steps that can be taken immediately.

Families and children served by child welfare systems around the country have experienced steady federal disinvestment over the past two decades, due to freezes on discretionary program spending and the continued linkage of Title IV-E (IV-E) foster care eligibility to the income standards of the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program without any inflationary adjustments since 1996. As a result, a declining percentage of children in foster care receive federal assistance and programs and systems are stretched thin. We hope that your Administration will advance a solution to “de-link” IV-E from AFDC to address this persistent issue.

Child welfare programs in all states are also further financially stressed due to the pandemic, incurring additional costs to support children and families. California has prioritized and invested its resources even with the growing economic uncertainties, for example, by continuing aid to non-minor dependents who would have otherwise aged-out of the foster care system. The pandemic also necessitates that social workers, who are on the front lines protecting vulnerable children and youth, are themselves protected.  At the same time state budgets are under stress from the current recession and the ongoing pandemic has resulted in significant fiscal uncertainty. States are already making significant and damaging cuts, and without additional federal assistance the situation will only worsen. With increasing closures of business to limit the spread of the virus, thus impacting state economies, we appreciate your support for a temporary increase in states’ federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP) for Medicaid and Title IV-E to help stabilize state budgets and stave off the need for further harmful cuts.

Additionally, we hope that your Administration will expand on the precedent to invest in prevention established by the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), enacted in 2018, and Family First Transition Act, enacted in 2019, and provide dedicated, sufficient funding for child abuse and neglect prevention services and family supports that are available further upstream and support primary prevention efforts. This can be accomplished through further flexibilities in the use of Title IV-E towards primary prevention services, the creation of a new prevention program, and/or significant increases in the existing Title IV-B and Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) programs. While FFPSA represents an important first step, it’s critical to expand it to reach children and families before their children are at imminent risk of removal and to broaden the scope of services and supports available to them, especially for families of color and those living in poverty.

Finally, investments are needed to support permanency for children and youth in foster care who are not able to reunify with their parents. We hope that your Administration will support expanding the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act to allow all youth who enter into a guardianship and/or adoption agreement to receive support until age 21 irrespective of the existence of an identified disability and regardless of the age at which they have been moved into these permanent placements (current law provides this benefit only to youth who enter guardianship at age 16 or older).

Without these large-scale investments and reforms, child welfare systems will continue to struggle to support children and families, who are often from underserved communities to begin with. Having underscored the need for new, large-scale investments in the child welfare system, we also wish to outline ideas and solutions that represent incremental steps forward. We believe the following steps have the potential to greatly improve the well-being of children, youth and families involved with the child welfare system even within the current fiscal and political landscape.


Strengthening the Family First Prevention Services Act

Though it was signed into law nearly three years ago, as of this writing only a handful of states across the country have fully implemented the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA). The main objectives of FFPSA – to reduce the need for foster care through increased prevention services and to limit the use of congregate care placements – are laudable and consistent with California’s own Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) effort. However, the complex law also presents limitations and challenges to states, requiring extensive investment in planning processes in advance of implementation. Additional federal guidance and flexibility is needed to address a number of outstanding questions and issues and better support children and families.

The following actions would help ensure the successful implementation of FFPSA in California and across the country:

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should issue federal guidance clarifying that Qualified Residential Treatment Programs (QRTPs) shall not be considered Institutions for Mental Disease (IMDs) under Medicaid, ensuring that children in need of short-term residential services do not lose the Medicaid coverage that is critical to their ongoing health and mental health wellness.
  • The Children’s Bureau (CB) should modify the evidence-based standards used by the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse (IV-E Clearinghouse) to align with the ratings standards used by the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (CEBC). Doing so will ensure the inclusion of a broader range of critical evidence-based programs and practices, including culturally relevant and responsive programs. CB should also develop a process for waiving or expediting the IV-E Clearinghouse review of programs and services that have already been evaluated and found to be promising, supported, or well-supported by the CEBC. Policy should also be enacted to permanently allow states to claim federal reimbursement for expenditures on promising, supported, and well-supported programs without the requirement that 50% of spending be on the well-supported category (as is currently allowed for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 by the Family First Transition Act).
  • The evidence-based standards for kinship navigator programs to be listed on the IV-E Clearinghouse should be temporarily waived – as called for in the bipartisan Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act. CB should provide dedicated funding directly to existing kinship navigator programs in order to facilitate their evaluation.
  • CB should issue guidance clarifying that states can use Voluntary Placement Agreements (VPAs) to ensure adequate financial support and access to services for relatives who are caring for children while the children, relatives, and parents are simultaneously receiving FFPSA-funded prevention services.

As noted above, over the longer term, it will also be important to further expand the prevention services allowable under FFPSA. While the law took an important first step in expanding Title IV-E to cover a limited set of foster care prevention services, additional service categories must be added and service eligibility must be extended farther upstream in order to ensure the well-being of children and families and effectively prevent the occurrence of child maltreatment in the first place.


Caregiver Support and Kinship Equity

To help children in foster care heal from trauma and past abuse and neglect, they need stable, supportive, and enduring relationships with nurturing caregivers who are equipped to meet their unique needs. Moreover, when children cannot be kept at home safely, research demonstrates that placements with kin are the most stable and achieve the best outcomes. Accordingly, federal and state law requires child welfare departments to identify family and facilitate placement of children with relatives whenever possible. However, the persistent barriers related to licensing and funding too often impede the efforts of child welfare systems to place children with relatives.  For example, “non-safety” related requirements, such as requirements about the size of the home, often pose barriers to placing children with loving and supportive relatives.

In addition to increasing flexibility for kinship navigator programs, as discussed in the section above, the federal government should also take the following steps to assist states in increasing the number of children in out-of-home care who are placed with nurturing caregivers, especially relatives:

  • Provide additional funding to states to support the recruitment and retention of foster parents, with a particular focus on families who, with additional support, will open their hearts and homes to older youth and youth with higher needs. This is necessary to ensure that there is an adequate array of community families available for children and youth as states continue to reduce the use of congregate care.
  • Require states to make reasonable efforts to assist relatives and extended family members in meeting all licensing requirements and remove or provide waivers for non-safety related barriers to licensing relatives and extended family members.
  • Require states to track how long crossover youth in juvenile justice systems are awaiting a family-based or other appropriate community-based care setting to incentivize immediate family-finding efforts for these youth.


Recognizing the Unique Needs of Older Youth

Many older youth who have been subjected to significant maltreatment and need the protections and support that come with entry into foster care experience a range of barriers to entry, including the use of assessment tools that are oriented toward younger children. As a consequence, many of these youth unfortunately eventually cross over into other systems including juvenile justice and homelessness. Homeless youth and young adults who have experienced abuse or neglect at home need services uniquely tailored to meet their specific needs. The federal government must ensure all children who need the protection and support of the foster care system can access it and get the services they need.

At the same time, adolescents in foster care – including non-minor dependents in extended foster care – possess unique needs and challenges that must be recognized and addressed. Child welfare systems must authentically engage youth and young adults in making decisions about their lives and cases. They must also provide flexible and developmentally appropriate support services, including those that integrate peer supports and those that will help youth develop academic and career pathways.

Moreover, it will be critical to address the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students in foster care who already lag behind their peers in educational outcomes and are more likely to be impacted by learning loss and a lack of access to the digital technology needed for remote learning.

The following actions could assist older youth in attaining their educational goals and successfully transitioning to adulthood:

  • Issue guidance clarifying that states can continue to utilize federal Title IV-E dollars to allow youth to remain in extended foster care beyond 21 while the COVID-19-related state of emergency is still in place.
  • Allow all transition-age youth in foster care to be considered “Out-of-School Youth” for purposes of funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), thus ensuring that all older youth in foster care can access career and workforce development services while they are simultaneously pursuing their education goals.
  • Expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to include transition-age youth in foster care as a target population, providing a federal tax incentive to employers to hire these youth.
  • Issue guidance and provide technical assistance to states about how to braid workforce funding streams to support transition-age youth in foster care, including the WIOA programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment & Training, Perkins Career and Technical Education Act programs, Job Corps, AmeriCorps, and others.
  • Issue guidance clarifying that postsecondary institutions can provide youth in foster care with additional flexibility in meeting “satisfactory academic progress” (SAP) requirements to ensure they maintain federal financial aid eligibility.
  • Establish a dedicated funding source for campus-based support programs for youth in foster care enrolled in higher education.

We also support the Up Chafee campaign objectives to provide in the next federal stimulus bill a meaningful increase to the chronically underfunded but critically important Chafee Foster Care Independent Living Program, which can better support vulnerable transition-age youth in attaining self-sufficiency during these challenging times. Increased funding will help states to deliver high-quality Independent Living Program services to assist youth currently or formerly in foster care to attain employment, pursue higher education, and obtain the necessary skills in budgeting, financial management and other aspects of daily living.


Homelessness Prevention

Despite the success of extended foster care in reducing the rate at which transition-age youth in foster care experience homelessness, the percentage of these youth who do become homeless after leaving the system remains unacceptably high. Housing instability, in turn, makes it extremely difficult for these youth to maintain employment and/or persist in postsecondary education.

In order to prevent youth in foster care from becoming homeless in early adulthood, the federal government should:

  • Increase funding for the Family Unification Program (FUP) and establish a set aside within it so that all youth in foster care who are pregnant and/or parenting have access to a housing voucher after exiting care at age 21.
  • Issue guidance clarifying that upon exiting care, youth receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) should receive preference in permanent supportive housing programs.
  • Establish the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) as a permanent program, while requiring that continuums of care (COC) receiving grant funding ensure coordination between the child welfare system and homelessness response system so that there is a formal plan and a warm hand off for youth emancipating from foster youth who need housing support.

In conclusion, we believe the larger-scale and more incremental steps outlined above have the potential to help advance equity and improved outcomes for the children, youth and families involved with, and at risk of involvement with, the child welfare system. We look forward to partnering with your Administration in the coming years to bring about needed improvements to child and family-serving systems. We thank you for your consideration and for your service to this country during these challenging times.