Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Federal Government Needs to Support Birth Families

by Joe Kroll, NACAC executive director

The Green Book states: “It is generally agreed that it is in the best interests of children to live with their families. To this end, experts emphasize both the value of preventive and rehabilitative services and the need to limit the duration of foster care placements.” Federal funding, however, does not reflect this priority. Currently, 90 percent of federal funding can be used by states only after Title IV-E-eligible children have entered foster care or been adopted.

Since so much federal funding is for children who have entered care, states do not have sufficient resources to invest in birth family support and reunification. In recent years, we have seen the percentage of foster children who reunite with their birth families go down—from 62 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2003.

Children can reunify with their birth families when parents get needed support. In Nashville recently, I met Melissa, a mother who was addicted to drugs. She was at risk of losing her son Marley when she found Renewal House, an innovative drug treatment program that keeps parents and children together, rather than placing children away from their families in foster care. Melissa explains how hard it would have been for Marley to enter care rather than staying with her during treatment: “The pain of his mother being sick and gone … I know that would have been devastating. He would have gone through things he shouldn’t have to. None of it was his fault. To be able to heal with him while I was healing—that was just a beautiful thing.”

Annie was a meth user whose son Jory entered foster care in Oregon. She tried conventional drug treatment programs—like those offered to most birth parents—but they were not successful. It wasn’t until she found a comprehensive program that she was able to recover from her addiction and become a good parent to Jory. The program provided shelter, parenting support, and case management to help her form a more healthy relationship with Jory. “It was a very structured place,” Annie explains. “They had a parenting person and a manager on-site. … I had to have a plan and a goal sheet showing what I was going to accomplish while I lived there.” Today, clean for five years, Annie serves as a mentor to other mothers who are trying to overcome their addictions.

We need to reform child welfare financing so that there are more success stories like these. The federal government must significantly increase its investment in Title IV-B Parts 1 and 2, and provide states with increased flexibility in how they spend federal child welfare monies.

In addition, if states successfully reduce the use of foster care, they should be able to reinvest federal dollars saved into preventive and post-permanency services. Currently, when states reduce the number of IV-E eligible children in foster care, the federal government reduces its payment to the state. We recommend that the federal government provide states with an amount equal to the money saved in Title IV-E maintenance payments, training, and administration. This would provide an incentive to keep or move children out of care, while also beginning to address the vast imbalance in federal funding.

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