What Would You Want for Your Child? — What the Family First Prevention Services Act Offers to Children in Grandfamilies

By Jaia Lent, Deputy Executive Director, Generations United

In child welfare advocacy, we often measure policy and casework decisions against the “my child test.” In short, if it were my own child at risk of entering foster care, what would I want for them? For me, the answer always comes back to family.

In February, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act. The bipartisan legislation is built on two major fundamental beliefs that align solidly with the “my child test” and should be core to our nation’s child welfare system. They are the beliefs that:

1. Every child deserves a family, and
2. Children should not have to enter the foster care system if there are supports and services that can help their families safely care for them.

While well-intentioned, for decades federal funding for child welfare in our country has favored removing children and placing them in foster care over helping children stay safely with family. For children who must come into foster care, far too many are being inappropriately placed in residential facilities and are growing up in institutions when their needs could be met in families.

The research is clear. Being raised in institutions is not good for children. Children do best in loving families and with relatives whenever possible. Yet states have built their systems to respond to this warped federal funding structure. And it has been hurting children and families for decades.

The Family First Act makes changes in a range of areas related to prioritizing families for children. I will focus on its opportunities and implications for grandfamilies — families where children are being raised by relatives when their parents are unable to — in particular those provisions related to prevention services, kinship navigator programs, and the licensure of relatives.

Currently, the vast majority of children being raised by relatives are being raised outside of the foster care system. For every child being raised by a relative in foster care, there are 20 being raised by relatives outside of foster care, usually with little to no support.

Often this is a result of “diversion,” a widespread practice in which a child welfare agency will place a child with a relative without opening a case or offering services. They are usually left to navigate complex systems on their own and may live in areas where there are few services for families who keep children out of foster care. Many relatives are never told they could have been eligible to become licensed foster parents and get ongoing monthly financial support and a formal legal and social services structure that may be the best option to help them meet the children’s needs.

While there is little formal quantitative data on the practice of “diversion,” we know the story well. We field calls daily from grandfamilies across the nation who have heroically stepped in to care for children and keep them out of foster care. They are usually feeling isolated and alone, and they need help. They are frustrated and don’t know where to turn.

The story goes like this. A grandmother gets a call in the middle of the night from the child welfare agency. She is told that her grandchildren are being removed from their parents’ care. She must come and pick them up tonight, or they will go into foster care. She is fearful of the child welfare system and they give her little information or time to understand her options. Without hesitation, she steps in to take the children. Months later, when the children are safely in grandma’s care and the agency has closed the case, grandma realizes her family — the children, the children’s birth parents and she as the caregiver of the children — actually need the structure and financial support that come with bringing children into the formal foster care system. Only then does she learn that by taking her grandchildren that night and having her case closed, she lost the opportunity to become a licensed foster parent and get the support and structure that comes with it.

We are often asked: Should grandparents or other relatives raising children become licensed foster parents, or should they keep children out of foster care and raise them outside of the system?

The answer: it depends. That decision is one that should be made jointly by the birth parents, relatives, the child, agency staff and, in some cases, the courts. The decision should take into consideration a wide range of factors including financial need, family dynamics, service needs and the family’s level of comfort with the child welfare system.

Regardless of which option ends up being best for the family, all families need time and information about the advantages and disadvantages of each option to make the right decision for the child and family. It is important that child welfare agency staff clearly convey this information and that grandfamilies understand their options.

The Family First Act provides three key opportunities for states to offer more options to grandfamilies, and time to understand their options without shutting the door on any of those options.

Prevention Services for Children, Relatives and Birth Parents of Children at Imminent Risk of Entering Foster Care

For the first time, this Act will allow federal Title IV-E child welfare dollars to be used for up to 12 months of substance abuse, mental health and parenting services to prevent children from entering foster care by supporting the triad of generations in grandfamilies — children, kinship caregivers and parents. These services are available for families where children are at imminent risk of entering foster care but, with the right help, can safely remain at home with parents or with kinship caregivers.

For some families, this will allow the children to return to their parents without entering foster care. For children who can’t safely return to their parents, the prevention services may help the kinship family stabilize so they can move forward as a grandfamily without entering foster care. Some relatives prefer to care for children outside of foster care and the funding of these services honors their preferences. The children may not need the ongoing support and oversight of the child welfare agency and the relatives may be uncomfortable with their grandchildren, nieces and siblings being in the legal custody of the state, along with the necessary rules and restrictions that accompany that legal status.

For yet other children and families, it may be best for relatives to become licensed foster parents and children to be placed in foster care with them. Nothing in the law alters that possibility. If, at any time during the 12 months of prevention services, the agency and family determine that licensing a relative and bringing the child into foster care is the best option, they remain eligible.

Addressing Barriers to Licensing Relatives as Foster Parents

The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) must identify a model of family foster home licensing standards. So that inappropriate barriers to licensing relatives as foster parents are addressed, each state must then measure their state’s licensing standards against those model standards and report to HHS on how their standards are aligned with the model and how they use the process to waive non-safety licensing standards for relatives.

The National Association for Regulatory Association (NARA) Model Family Foster Home Licensing Standards — developed in partnership with Generations United, the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation — are a complete set of common sense licensing standards that will lead to safe relative and non-relative foster homes, without creating inappropriate barriers that have nothing to do with safety.

Kinship Navigator Programs

Whether or not children in grandfamilies have ever come to the attention of the child welfare system, they may need help. Kinship navigator programs provide information, referral and follow-up services to grandparents and other relatives raising children to link them to the benefits and supports that they or the children need.

They also help educate other service providers on the needs of grandfamilies. Family First provides federal reimbursement for up to 50 percent of expenditures to provide kinship navigator programs that meet certain evidence-based requirements.

Does the Family First Act provide all the supports and services the children and caregivers in grandfamilies need? No. Has there ever been a bill that responds to every need?

Generations United will continue to build on the opportunities and success of Family First to fight for housing, child care, financial support, respite care, health care, improved access to food and nutrition services and other supports that grandfamilies still need and deserve.

While we do this, relatives can look forward to and educate states on ways they can and must engage with the opportunities Family First provides.

States and child welfare providers have a choice. They can fight against Family First’s focus on helping to keep children with families in favor of a status quo child welfare system that is failing children. Or they can lean in to the opportunities that Family First provides to take a giant step toward doing what is right for children by giving relatives more tools and supports to keep children safely with loving family members.

If it were your child at stake, what would you want?