A Special Webinar Series on the Family First Prevention Services Act

The Chronicle of Social Change is offering a series of deep-dive webinars on the approved services under the Family First Prevention Services Act in three separate categories: parenting, substance abuse and mental health services. 

Learn about the latest in the series scheduled for Aug. 19th, called When Entitlements Collide: How Medicaid Affects the Family First Act, here.

In June 2019, editor-in-chief John Kelly hosted a session looking at the intersection of two of the biggest child welfare reforms the field has seen in decades. Here are some of the key takeaways. 

“Reasonable Efforts:” The Crossroads of Two Federal Child Welfare Reforms

What is the connection between an increased federal investment in substance abuse, mental health and parent services for parents at imminent risk of losing their children, and more federal dollars available to pay for family representation in court?

First, they are the subjects of very recent and substantial reforms of federal child welfare financing. The Family First Prevention Services Act, passed in 2018 and taking effect this October, for the first time opens up the Title IV-E child welfare entitlement beyond the placement of children into foster care or adoptions. And just before Christmas 2018, the Trump administration announced it would permit IV-E money to be used for the legal fees of parents and children involved in dependency court.

Second, these policy shifts open the door for greater attention on a federally required standard that too often goes ignored: “Reasonable efforts … made prior to foster care placement to prevent removal of the child from his home.”

It has been a requirement of child welfare agencies since the 1980 passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which also requires reasonable efforts to reunify families after foster care is used. But experts say the latter standard gets far more attention than the former. [KH1] 

Earlier this summer, I hosted a lively panel discussion webinar on how these two new reforms carried great potential in the push to get serious on limiting the necessity of foster care.  

Judge Len Edwards, ret. of California.

Judge Len Edwards, ret. of California.

Leonard Edwards, a former judge from Santa Clara County, Calif., and an expert on this subject, shared his thoughts on why the first prong of “reasonable efforts” gets such short shrift. Of the appellate work done in regard to reasonable efforts, he said, only 1 percent dealt with efforts to prevent the use of foster care. The rest of appellate cases, mostly in response to decisions to terminate parental rights, honed in on reasonable efforts to reunify.

One big barrier from the bench, Edwards said, is that judges fear their systems will lose money and resources if they get tough on reasonable efforts to prevent foster care.

We then heard from Melissa Thompson, who heads up Colorado’s Office of Respondent Parent Counsel, who discussed how much of an impact attorneys can have on cases if they are appointed before a decision is made to remove children. Thompson’s office is one of the few statewide agencies totally focused on representing parents in dependency court, and she has been discussing how to take advantage of new federal funds with her state’s child welfare leadership.

Melissa Thompson of Colorado’s Office of Respondent Parent Counsel

Melissa Thompson of Colorado’s Office of Respondent Parent Counsel

Finally, Georgia child welfare director Tom Rawlings joined us to talk about how his state is approaching the opportunities in play under Family First and the inclusion of legal fees under IV-E. Georgia will be ready by next year to tap into the federal funds under Family First, and has begun a pilot project on parent representation that will be funded in part through the new federal funds.

The Family First Act doesn’t ever specifically reference the requirement to make reasonable efforts at preventing the removal of children. But for decades, Title IV-E has largely existed to help states pay for the costs that come after this point in the system. Family First brings new federal resources to bear to fuel greater efforts to avoid foster care when it’s safe to do so.

Even with new resources in place, it will be up to child welfare agencies and their caseworkers to embrace the use of these funds. And the pressure on them to do so will be far greater if parents are properly represented in court when these decisions are made.

A critical component of our mission at Fostering Media Connections is to use our publications to inform those working in the child welfare field, giving them insightful analysis about policy change and helping them learn about some of the best practices being used outside their own jurisdictions.  

As part of that mission, we offer these webinars with subject-matter experts and our staff for free to our subscribers. We take questions from our participants so as to make each session as meaningful as possible.  

If you have ideas about webinar topics for the future or other perks we can offer our supporters, please drop us a line at info@chronicleofsocialchange.org.   

If you’d like to learn more about our next Family First session, do that here.

Thalia Henderson