What is the Family First Law?

In February 2018, Congress passed the landmark Family First law, revolutionizing federal child welfare financing and programs for the first time in decades. It includes provisions designed to keep kids safely at home with their parents while restricting funding for group home placements.

VDSS strives to achieve the overarching goal that all children should grow up in secure, stable families who promote their long-term wellbeing. Discover what the Family First law means for children, families and services in our state.

What is the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA)?

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) represents the most fundamental change to federal child welfare financing and programs in decades. It seeks to both prevent children from entering foster care, as well as enhance the lives of those already there.

The law’s fundamental philosophy is that all children deserve to grow up in secure, nurturing families with their parents or other significant adults. This belief has been supported by research which shows that children who are placed with family settings fare better in terms of various outcomes. Furthermore, FFPSA encourages agencies to place children who need to be removed from their homes into family units rather than group settings whenever feasible.

However, FFPSA does allow some congregate placements when a child or youth has needs that require treatment in a qualified residential treatment program (QRTP). QRTPs are licensed and monitored by the federal government, while Title IV-E funds can be claimed by states for these settings.

Under the Family First Prevention Services Act, states must create a prevention plan that meets certain evidence criteria in order to receive federal reimbursement. This strategy should include strategies for identifying and connecting children to community-based services that prevent them from entering the child welfare system.

This new federal funding stream is expected to save state agencies billions of dollars each year by preventing unnecessary out-of-home placements for children and youth, thus decreasing the number of children in foster care. As a result, many child welfare agencies are now working hard to expand their prevention services offerings.

States as they begin to implement this federal program must build a solid evidence base to support emerging and promising programs. Doing so will enable them to make wiser decisions about which initiatives to implement and how best to allocate their resources.

Once the law takes effect, it is essential that child welfare agencies, local and state governments, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, researchers and policymakers collaborate to meet evidence requirements and effectively implement prevention programs. This can be accomplished through various methods such as creating evaluation plans and conducting rigorous research.

What is the Blind Removal Process?

In 2011, Nassau County in New York implemented the “blind removal process.” This initiative sought to reduce racial disparities within their child welfare system by eliminating bias from CPS removal decisions and leading to fewer Black children being removed from their homes.

In a blind removal process, a caseworker presents their case to an advisory committee without knowing the family’s race or any other identifiable information. The members of this panel are then asked to consider safety and risk factors for children as well as their strengths, relevant history and caregiver capability to protect them.

The committee must then decide if the child should be placed in foster care or remain home. If it decides that foster care is appropriate, the caseworker must delete all demographic and identifiable information from their case summary (race, gender, language needs, zip code). Doing this eliminates any possibility for bias and ensures the committee focuses on evidence of safety and risk as well as family strengths and resources.

However, this process has generated controversy and received a mixed response. Some social workers have questioned its use in an emergency situation or thought reviewers would never know about a family’s race; on the other hand, others believe it can take too much time and is not appropriate for every case.

As the practice has gained traction, more and more counties have expressed an interest in testing it out. Examples include Los Angeles, Austin, Texas; Chicago; New Jersey; Baltimore and Washington state. Casey Family Programs – an influential philanthropic organization – has even highlighted the program and included it among their list of recommended policies for child welfare agencies across America.

However, some critics of the program contend that it won’t lead to a steady decrease in the number of Black children placed in foster care. Putnam-Hornstein pointed to a New York Times report which revealed that Nassau County has experienced fluctuations in its percentage of removed Black children since adopting its colorblind removal policy five years ago.

What is the Congregate Care Limitation?

The congregate care limitation is a new requirement of the Family First law that limits federal funding states can receive for children placed in group foster homes or residential settings. This shift represents an important development in the landscape of child placements and may have particular repercussions in states with large numbers of group homes.

State laws allow states to utilize existing IV-E funds for children placed in group homes or residential settings, provided they meet certain criteria. These include being there no more than two weeks, unless there are special circumstances such as pregnancy or mental health issues that necessitate such placement.

To guarantee a secure and healthy environment for all children and staff in congregate care settings, programs must adhere to COVID-19 infection prevention guidelines. In particular, they must follow CDC guidance regarding mask use and social distancing in order to prevent infection spread among residents and staff members.

Furthermore, congregate care providers must continue to implement visitation and vaccination policies that do not restrict residents’ ability to visit with their loved ones. This applies to visits in designated indoor or outdoor spaces as well as inside the resident’s room. When licensing and funding agencies modify visitation guidance, programs must create communication materials for all potential visitors, family members and licensing/funding agencies so that everyone understands the changes.

Furthermore, congregate care programs should increase the frequency of regular cleaning and disinfection as recommended by CDC. This includes a thorough clean and disinfection of rooms, bathrooms and other areas residents use while in the program.

Family First Prevention Services Act and its congregate care limitations are an important step forward in the prevention of child abuse and neglect, but states and local governments must collaborate with researchers, child advocates and policy makers to guarantee that these promises translate into tangible improvements for families.

What is the Transition Act?

In early 2018, the Family First Act was passed to enhance child welfare services by increasing access to prevention-oriented infrastructure such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, in-home training programs, and parent skills courses.

Additionally, it helps keep children safely in their homes or a least restrictive, family-like setting when foster care is necessary. Furthermore, it provides more support for residential programs and therapeutic foster care.

Congress recently allocated $500 million in one-time federal funding for states to help implement the Family First law. This money will be distributed directly to state child welfare agencies according to their discretion.

New York State is expected to receive approximately $21 million from this fund, though the Office of Children and Family Services will determine its use. The fund is intended to assist Long-Term Supportive Services (LDSSs) recruit and retain current and prospective foster families, including kinship caregivers – relative or non-relative with a positive connection to the child.

Furthermore, this bill empowers states to offer additional services to older adolescents and young adults who are overrepresented in group care settings. This includes modifications to the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program that provide flexible spending grants that can assist these youth with education, employment opportunities, financial management skills, housing needs, as well as other necessities.

The law also promises short-term funding guarantees for states with expiring Title IV-E waivers. It allows them to recoup 90 percent of what would have been lost under FFPSA, then reduce that amount back down to 75 percent by next year.

Despite its limitations, the Family First law will drastically reduce the number of children placed in out-of-home care. It also places additional restrictions on which types of placements qualify for Medicaid reimbursement and how those facilities are managed.

The law is expected to result in fewer youth entering the child welfare system, leading to less trauma. Furthermore, it allows states to use federal funds longer for therapeutic foster homes that serve youth with acute needs without requiring them to be placed in congregate care.