Monday, August 9, 2010

Could foster care finance reform have a friend in high places?

I've often noted that the left is as prone to march in lockstep with the "foster care-industrial complex" as the right is to march with the military-industrial complex. So it was a pleasant surprise to come across come comments made by Bryan Samuels. Samuels used to run the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. President Obama chose him to run the federal government's Administration on Children Youth and Families (which is a division of the Administration for Children and Families, which is a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services).

During his confirmation hearings last October, Samuels opened the door to considering comprehensive reform of child welfare financing – not the fake reform pushed by the Child Welfare League of America and its allies, but the real kind, like the kind that helped transform child welfare in Florida.

Samuels indicated he might be willing to support legislation to let every state take the approach now taken by Florida. That state received a "waiver" allowing it to trade the open-ended "entitlement" to more and more foster care funding for taking away more and more "eligible" children for a flat grant, indexed to inflation, that could be used for better alternatives and not just foster care.

This has helped Florida significantly and safety reduce foster care while keeping the savings that other states doing the same have to give back to the federal government. And because Florida was not allowed to use the federal funds to replace existing state money, the waiver has prevented Florida from slashing child welfare spending during the recession.

Given how extraordinary it is for any of my fellow liberals even to consider this, it's worth quoting in full what Samuels said, when asked a general question about child welfare by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). This is from the hearing transcript:

Mr. Samuels:
I think the biggest challenge is the need for more resources. That would be the easy answer, which is that I think, as a director of child welfare, I found myself often having to choose between two very unattractive options in terms of what I could afford to do for kids.
I think there are a number of State directors who would simply argue that they need access to additional resources. But given that that is unlikely to occur, I think that—again I would like to play with the details a little bit on this, but—I would like to look very closely at the block granting option.
I think that the States need some flexibility. I think States take different approaches to it. A good example is, the work that we did in Illinois resulted in us having about 16,000 kids in care, 17,000
when I left, but today there are about 16,000. If you look at the county of Los Angeles alone, they have almost 15,000 kids in care. So, you take one county versus an entire State, the reality is that
each of these systems looks very different. You also have the phenomenon of States that have county-based systems, so each county is making decisions about how to create and craft support services for children in the child welfare system.
I think block granting is worth exploring because it would give States the flexibility to attune what their kids need with the system that they currently have and support. I would like to take a
look at that, but it is a complex system, obviously, and there would have to be a whole lot of discussions about what we would do to really get the kind of results we want.
I agree with you that right now we are funding the wrong things in terms of the kinds of outcomes
we want to achieve. [Emphasis added].

A couple of things are worth noting here:

First, it shows how effective the fear and smear campaign against this kind of comprehensive reform has been, from groups like CWLA, the Children's Defense Fund and the Center for Law and Social Policy, that even in raising the possibility of opposing their position, Samuels used their scare phrase – "block grant." As is discussed in NCCPR's report on child welfare finance, this kind of flexibility option is nothing of the kind.

Second, Samuels made these comments ten months ago. I'm sure the hearing room was filled with lobbyists for the foster care-industrial complex, and they've had all this time to give him hell for even hinting at departing from their orthodoxy.

Indeed, Samuels isn't the first on the left at least to consider breaking ranks on this. Here's what then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said in an op ed column for USA Today in 2003, which she co-signed with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay:

We can find a bipartisan solution to reform the way we finance our child welfare system, but both the House and Senate must make reforms a priority. President Bush has offered one proposal that deserves careful consideration. He wants to give states an option to change the way foster care is financed so they can do more to prevent children from entering foster care, shorten the time spent in such care and provide more assistance to children and their families after they leave the system.

The plan Clinton and DeLay refer to essentially would have offered every state a Florida-style waiver.

I hear Clinton caught hell for those comments. I know she never brought it up publicly again.

On the other hand, unlike most state child welfare leaders, Samuels actually has seen how much can be accomplished by real reform of child welfare finance. Samuels continued an approach begun by his predecessor, Jess McDonald, who made dramatic improvements in Illinois child welfare by changing financial incentives.

Illinois used a waiver to pioneer subsidized guardianship, and the huge decline in the foster care population in that state, from more than 50,000 in the late 1990s to under 16,000 now, has a lot to do with Illinois changing its own financial incentives for private child welfare agencies. In Illinois, agencies can't simply sit there raking in per diem payments for holding children in foster care. And independent, court-appointed monitors have found that the changes have improved child safety.

So maybe, unlike Clinton, Samuels won't cave.