Friday, September 24, 2010

A win for kids: House passes child welfare waiver bill, allowing flexible use of foster care funds

The House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to grant funding waivers like the one that has helped Florida dramatically improve its child welfare system.

                How big a win is this?  I’m not sure.  Members of Congress want to get out of town to start campaigning as soon as possible, and I’m aware of no action at all on this in the Senate.  But this is at least a small step in the right direction.

                The bill would restore HHS’ authority to authorize a wide variety of waivers, but the most important are waivers like the one granted to Florida.  That one allows the state to use all of the federal aid other states can use only on foster care for better alternatives as well.  In exchange, Florida gave up the right to receive ever more federal money for taking away ever more children.  So it’s no wonder the child welfare establishment is not thrilled by this.

                In keeping with their approach of never say no, just “yes, but…” it to death, the Child Welfare League of America, the trade association for public and private agencies, many of which can’t exist without a steady supply of foster children, and the Children’s Defense Fund, which thinks we’re still living in 1968 and can’t conceive of anything that doesn’t involve federal control and “entitlement” funding as being good, declared that  CDF, CWLA and others have concerns that extending waivers now will have a chilling effect next year on comprehensive child welfare financing reform.”

                But what CWLA and CDF want is neither comprehensive nor reform.  They want to keep the open-ended entitlement for foster care, and they want something called “delinking” which would eliminate the one small brake on that entitlement. (For details, see our report on child welfare financing.) Even were this a good idea – and it isn’t – this is already in the deep freeze in Congress for one simple reason: At a time when any new spending is poison, this plan is not cost-neutral.  The waivers, however, are.

                What CWLA, CDF and much of the rest of the child welfare establishment really fear is that more states will opt for such waivers and succeed, reducing needless removal of children from their homes – and putting at least a few private agencies out of business in the process.  Or worse, from CWLA’s point of view, Congress might see how well the waivers are working and simply offer the Florida option to every state without a complex waiver process.

                I suspect that’s the kind of real reform the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. John Linder (R-Georgia) had in mind in his remarks on the bill:

This bill comes to the floor in a fashion too many bills have not in this Congress: First, we held a subcommittee hearing; then the legislation was drafted with bipartisan support; and finally we ensured it does not increase the deficit by even a penny.  It is an example of what can happen if we pursue in a bipartisan way goals that are widely shared, and that have been demonstrated to achieve real results.

The legislation before us would allow all States to follow the successful child welfare reform model tested in Florida and other places.  As we learned in our hearing, those reforms reduced the number of Florida children in foster care by 36 percent, increased adoptions by 12,000, and improved child safety - all without spending more taxpayer money.  …

Since 1994, 22 States have joined Florida in using child welfare waivers. This legislation extends the authority for all States to do so for 5 years. This will allow other States to test and replicate policies that are working.  And it is my hope this will one day pave the way for successful Federal reforms covering all States.  Meanwhile, let's move this bill forward and continue our efforts to improve the lives of all children.

                Actually, Florida’s waiver wasn’t the first, as that line about “joined Florida” may imply – but it is the only comprehensive waiver that applies statewide.  Michigan initially accepted the same deal and chickened out at the last minute.

                Oh, and it was nice of CWLA to put that little “yes, but…” statement out yesterday morning, just hours after the website for Youth Today published an NCCPR Blog about how CWLA has impedes real child welfare reform. 

                I’ll have more news related to Florida on Monday.