Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Desperately seeking delinking: How CWLA wants to scarf up more money for foster care


As people from child welfare agencies swarm over Capitol Hill today, odds are a lot of them will be talking about delinking. As I said yesterday, the Child Welfare League of America, and the rest of what I have come to call the "foster care-industrial complex" craves delinking the way Homer Simpson craves donuts, and both are bad for children. It's one of the issues discussed in NCCPR's new briefing paper on child welfare finance. The full paper is available on our website. Here's an excerpt:

So, what is delinking?

It all goes back to when a foster child's case is eligible for federal reimbursement under a program called Title IV-E. That reimbursement runs anywhere from 56 cents to 83 cents on the dollar, a huge federal subsidy for foster care. The same subsidy is available for adoption. As a result, in 2010 the federal government is expected to spend $4.7 billion on foster care and another $2.46 billion on adoption – more than ten times what it will spend on prevention and family preservation. The only brake on this fast-flowing open-spigot of foster care and adoption money involves the determination of eligibility.

Before 1996, eligibility was linked to whether the birth parents were eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). But in 1996, Congress ended AFDC. The link, however, remained. So today, for a child's case to be eligible for federal reimbursement, the child's birth parents need to be so poor that they would have qualified for AFDC by the standards in place in 1996.

It says an enormous amount about the extent to which child welfare systems target the poor that, in spite of the fact that the income limits have not been adjusted for inflation since 1996, about half of all foster care cases are eligible for this very generous federal reimbursement.

But because of that inflation, in theory, the proportion of cases eligible for federal reimbursement should decline ever so slightly every year, to the point where, in somewhere between 50 and 100 years, the federal government would be out of the foster care financing business. (In fact, as states get more aggressive about verifying eligibility, that may offset some of this decline).

Dealing with this "eligibility lookback" is time consuming, and it is cumbersome. It's a bizarre way to put a brake on the otherwise unlimited "entitlement" to foster care funding. But it's the only brake we've got.

If the only brake on a runaway train is a clumsy contraption that only Rube Goldberg could love, it's still better than no brake at all.

Removing the brake is known as "delinking" – since the link between foster care eligibility and AFDC would be broken.

Of course the foster care-industrial complex wants the brake removed. For them, it would be a bonanza. Suddenly, federal aid for foster care would double. Indeed, they crave delinking so much that they would be willing to settle for an alternative: Eliminate the link but cut the amount reimbursed for each case. That way, the change initially would be cost-neutral, though in future years it would cost far more than leaving the link in place.

The propaganda for delinking has been disheartening even by foster care industrial complex standards. CWLA repeatedly presents the issue this way:

The impact of this lack of support is felt by tens of thousands of children who have experienced abuse and neglect but do not qualify for federal assistance because of this outdated eligibility requirement.

The implication, of course, is that if a case is not eligible for federal reimbursement somehow the specific children in that case are getting less help than other children. Who knows - there might even be people from CWLA member agencies on Capitol Hill right now either misleading people on purpose with this line, or who actually believe the implication themselves.

Any such implication is flat wrong.

All foster children placed in licensed foster homes receive exactly the same benefits and services regardless of the case's eligibility for federal reimbursement. Those benefits and services may not be very good, but they are equal. And all licensed foster parents receive the same reimbursement for a IV-E-eligible child as for a non-eligible child. Such equal treatment is required for the state to get its IV-E money.

The camel's nose already is in the tent

At one time, I thought straight delinking, with its huge price tag couldn't happen. But tragically for children, it's already begun.

Just as Title IV-E provides a huge open-ended entitlement for foster care, it also includes another huge, (though not as huge) open-ended entitlement for adoption.

As noted previously on this blog, In 2008, the foster care-industrial complex managed to get a clause into new legislation, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, that phases out the "link" for adoption subsidies.

In another words, they shoved into this law what ultimately will be at least a $2.46 billion annual windfall for adoption, and the public and private agencies that place children in adoptive homes. The law includes absolutely nothing for prevention or family preservation.

Given the state of the federal budget, every dollar spent elsewhere is one dollar less that can be used for prevention or family preservation. And this provision of the fostering connections act creates still another financial incentive for child welfare agencies to prefer adoption of foster children to reuniting them with birth parents.

So there is a very real, very frightening prospect that all the talk of reforming child welfare financing not only won't increase funding for prevention and family preservation, it could result in nothing more than delinking – in other words, nothing more than another $4.7 billion per year, at least, for the foster care-industrial complex, and a greater incentive than ever for agencies to take the child and run.