The federal Family Stability and Kinship Care Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on August 4, would give states more flexibility to provide family support services that could keep children safe at home and out of foster care. On Aug. 5, members of the New York Coalition for Child Welfare Funding Reform—a diverse coalition of advocates and foster care agency leaders—met with lawmakers to educate them about the need to expand services that stabilize families without removing children from their homes.
Here, two members of the coalition, Mary Jane Dessables, director of research and information at the Council of Child and Foster Caring Agencies (COFCCA), and Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village, explain the bill and the New York Coalition’s efforts to support child welfare reform.
Q: Why do you think the Family Stability and Kinship Care Act is important? If it passes, how might it change child welfare systems across the country?
Kohomban: There was a time in our city and our country when people believed that it was the right thing to do to remove children from their parents. We’ve come a long way in understanding that the vast majority of children we serve can be served better with their families and in their communities. This bill could help to make that happen.
Dessables: Right now most of what federal funding pays for is foster care placement. One of the best parts of the bill is that it would open up funding so that states could take some of the money they use now for foster care and use it to help at-risk families in their homes.
Similarly, right now when a kid goes home to mom and dad, there’s not much money to help that family make sure the child doesn’t come back into care. Judges may also rule to keep kids in care longer because they don’t have that security blanket of robust aftercare services. The Wyden bill would help to increase those aftercare services. It would also allow states to offer preventive and aftercare services to kin caring for relatives’ children.
Kohomban: The bottom line is that the bill would give us more flexibility to do more for families in the community, rather than taking kids out of their families and communities. Sometimes parents don’t know that even those of us that run agencies don’t necessarily agree with the way our system works. The Wyden bill is one way to begin to change the system.
Q: How likely is it that the Wyden bill will pass and what are people in New York trying to do to support its passage?
Jeremy: While I would love to see a bill that’s this expansive, this broad and this good pass as it is, what’s more likely to happen is a compromise between aspects of the Wyden bill and some of what Republicans who are really interested in child welfare reform also want to see happen. I don’t know what that compromise might look like. When we went to Washington, D.C., to talk about the bill I tried to ask that question but I didn’t get a firm answer. Still, I believe some kind of compromise is possible.
Dessables: In New York, we’re trying to support the passage of the bill in a form that we think really makes sense for families.
The New York Coalition for Child Welfare Finance Reform formed almost a year before the bill came out. At the time, a group of us decided to set up a one-day conference to learn more about child welfare finance reform. We thought 10 people would show up, but 120 people came. After that about 40 of us said, “This is really important and I want to be a part of it.”
The Coalition is probably one of the most diverse groups I have ever been part of in my life. New York’s Children’s Services is part of the Coalition. So are child welfare agencies that do foster care and prevention, as well as people from the courts. Organizations that represent child welfare-affected parents are part of our coalition as well. That says a lot when we’re talking about advocacy, because so many times people are on different sides of the fence.
One thing we’ve done is work with Senator Wyden’s staff to give our input on the legislation. For instance, the bill puts a one-year limit on the services families can receive, but we believe the road to keeping children safe is a longer road for some families than others. We let the senator’s office know we didn’t think 12 months should be set as a magic number.
But the Democrats who have sponsored the bill also have to cut a deal with the Republicans on other side of the table if they want the bill to pass. Many of them want to make sure that the bill won’t wind up costing the federal government too much money.
On Aug. 5, a group of us also went down to D.C. to talk about our experiences in New York. We met with Nicole Cohen, legislative director for Rep. Joseph Crowley of Queens, Rebecca Dean Shipp, health and human resource policy adviser for the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance; and Matt Weidinger, staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Human Resources.
We talked about how the number of kids in care in New York City has gone way down while the number of families receiving preventive services has gone way up. We tried to show that keeping kids out of foster care is a lot less traumatic for kidsand a lot less expensive.
Some of the people we met with were very interested in how New York City has managed to reduce its foster care rolls and were excited to find ways to expand a full array of preventive services to families. But the more fiscally conservative folks we met with weren’t convinced that the drop in foster care in New York City was caused by prevention. They seemed open only to providing limited services.
Jeremy: A number of us also testified before the Senate Finance Committee. Sandra Killett, the executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project and a parent affected by the child welfare system, testified. I testified as well.
My testimony was directly tied to my experience at Children’s Village and my very strong feeling that we have too many children staying too long in residential care. It’s not that children shouldn’t come in to residential care in an emergency. But just like when people go to an emergency room, they should get treatment, they should stabilize and then they should go back home. If you wind up living in an emergency room, you’re likely to get another disease.
Q: New York has a stronger preventive service system than many other states. What would this bill mean for New York?
Dessables: If the bill passes and federal money becomes available to pay for some of the preventive services that New York City and State pay for now, we hope that the city and state could invest more in services that are available to all children and parents, not just parents that are considered to be at risk of foster care placement, which is what the bill would cover.
Currently in New York we do have voluntary preventive services where families can go and ask for help. But in order to get it, they have to get approval from New York’s Children’s Services and they have to sign a form that says that their children are at risk. That’s because of how these services are funded. At that point a lot of people say, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
We would like to see the city put more services into the handful communities where the largest proportion of kids in foster care come from, and make services available to all kids and parents in that community to prevent abuse and neglect from ever happening. That kind of prevention isn’t in the bill. But in New York, we’re hoping that passage of the Wyden bill would free up city and state money to pay for those kinds of supports.