Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Paying for foster care and family preservation: How CWLA works to kill real reform

The most recent online newsletter from the Child Welfare League of America, the giant trade association for public and private agencies, makes clear how CWLA will try to oppose any real reform of how federal child welfare dollars are spent.

The newsletter included a rather odd account of a recent House subcommittee hearing, the one discussed in this previous post, concerning "waivers" which allow federal dollars normally reserved for foster care to be spent on better alternatives as well. While CWLA doesn't mind spending on better alternatives if that spending is in addition to the great gobs of money its private agency members scarf up in per diem payments for holding children in foster care, they are not about to sit idly by and risk having some of their members put out of business by reform which allows states and localities to use the money on alternatives instead of foster care.

But it's gotten harder to oppose reform as overtly, now that one great big state has switched sides. Florida has had enormous success with the only comprehensive statewide waiver allowing foster care funds to be used for better alternatives. Even the state's big private agencies have largely been won over – in part because the waiver actually prevented state budget cuts in child welfare. A lot of those agencies, and the Florida Department of Children and Families, are dues-paying members of CWLA.

So is Casey Family Programs, the multi-billion dollar foundation that also is a provider of direct services (but should not be confused with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which also provides both. Though both groups were endowed by the same family, and sometimes collaborate, they are run separately).

Just a few years ago, Casey Family Programs' CEO, William Bell would become angry at the very thought of funding child welfare the way Florida does it under its waiver. At last week's hearing, with his testimony strongly supporting waivers, he proved a primary tenet of the family preservation movement: people can change. While I would like to think the 51 hours CFP spent at this Blog and on last year alone had something to do with it, more likely it was the influence of two of the top executives Bell recruited to CFP, David Sanders, who obtained a Florida-style waiver while running the child welfare system in Los Angeles County, and David Berns, who used flexibility in state funding to reform the county-run system in El Paso County, Colorado.

CFP also is a CWLA member, and a prestigious one at that.

What's a trade association to do? What they always do in child welfare. Never say no, just "Yes, but…" it to death.

So the most recent online newsletter from CWLA characterized the hearing this way:

While some testimony strenuously maintained emphasis on the need for immediate flexibility in state use of IV-E funds through waivers, others pointed to the potential for action on waivers to delay comprehensive reform, particularly in light of the limited capacity of waivers to improve outcomes for children nationwide and to cultivate innovation across the continuum of needed child welfare services.

OK, let's stop there. First, none of the witnesses actually said waivers could "delay comprehensive reform." That may appear in written statements that groups like, say, CWLA, can submit, but none of the witnesses said it.

As for whether waivers can improve outcomes nationwide, that depends on how many are offered and how many states have the guts to accept them. The Bush administration proposed offering a Florida-style deal to every state without a cumbersome waiver progress – and CWLA, and the entire foster care-industrial complex through a fit over it. So first CWLA opposed making flexibility easily available nationwide, and now they claim waivers aren't enough – because they don't apply nationwide.

As for "cultivat[ing] innovation across the continuum of needed child welfare services" – whatever that gobbledygook means, since waivers allow money to be spent on just about every possible alternative to foster care, from primary prevention, to family preservation, to adoption, it's hard to see what is left out of the "continuum" – except, of course, even more foster care.

The whole argument is disingenuous, because the last thing CWLA wants is "comprehensive reform." What CWLA wants is "delinking" – the removal of the one small, clumsy brake that still exists on unlimited "entitlement" spending on foster care. (For details, see our report on child welfare financing.)

CWLA goes on to claim that the Subcommittee chair, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) and Ranking Member John Linder (R-Georgia) "both agreed on the necessity to further evaluate and address the structural deficiencies of child welfare financing."

Well, yes. But they had somewhat different visions. While McDermott promised to introduce legislation to allow more waivers and then spent the rest of the hearing fretting about his own bill, Linder suggested that, if so many states wanted waivers from rules limiting funding to foster care, maybe the rules should just be abolished.

And maybe it's time for the relatively few reform-minded child welfare agencies, public and private, to quit CWLA and form their own association. Because it's hard to see what they're getting for their dues money now.