By Shadi Houshyar

Congress, and the Senate Finance Committee in particular, has long demonstrated leadership on and commitment to child welfare reforms. A number of critical reforms have been enacted by Congress in recent years, including the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (2014), Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (2008) and Child and Family Services Improvement Act (2006) to name a few. The Senate Finance Committee is now hoping to consider new legislation in January, the Family First Act, intended to direct investments at keeping children safe and supported at home and in family-like settings.

Based on recent briefings and summary documents shared by Finance Committee staff, we understand the Family First Act addresses longstanding barriers in federal child welfare financing by providing, for the first time, targeted new investments of Title IV-E of the Social Security Act in evidence-based prevention, intervention and post-permanency services and supports. We are told that the Committee plans to mark-up the bill in early January. The proposal draws from the prevention investments in Ranking Member Wyden’s Family Stability and Kinship Care Act (S. 1964) and recommendations for the reduction of the time foster youth spend in congregate care, including group homes, in Chairman Hatch’s 2013 Improving Outcomes for Youth at Risk for Sex Trafficking Act of 2013 (S.1518).

This legislation is precedent setting, providing states – for the first time ever – access to Title IV–E funds for investments in a range of services for children and families, including prevention and family services. The ability to access IV-E funds for services will be critical in helping build states’ capacity to keep children and families together and out of the foster care system. The bill would also enhance federal resources available under Title IV part B, strengthen support for kinship families, and, importantly, reinforce existing law’s goal of placing children in foster care in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their needs. In addition, the legislation draws on child development research and best practice by including provisions to better ensure children, youth and families receive trauma-informed services and that child welfare staff and providers are well-trained to support the unique needs of families.

The Family First Act also provides critical reforms to ensure that children are not unnecessarily placed in restrictive settings but rather, in the care of families when possible. It would target federal dollars to smaller family-foster homes and other specialized care settings for pregnant and parenting teens or older youth in independent living settings, as well as settings for children and youth with special treatment needs and creates a process for courts to review these placement settings on an ongoing basis.

This legislation is a “game changer,” offering a critically important new funding source to support states in their efforts to provide a broad array of effective services to vulnerable children and families.

Recognizing the importance of this legislation, thirty-two State Policy and Advocacy Reform Center (SPARC) partners joined to send this letter to the Senate Finance Committee in support of the Family First Act. We’re looking forward to the new year and to seeing the Family First Act become the next major child welfare reform legislation enacted and passed into law.