Monday, May 23, 2011

Foster care finance reform: A Welcome-to-Washington present for George Sheldon

Child welfare waiver legislation introduced in Senate

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the Senate to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue waivers from federal foster care finance restrictions.

If such a bill becomes law, many more states would have the opportunity to do what Florida did – take huge amounts of federal money now reserved for foster care and spend it on better options as well.

George Sheldon championed Florida’s waiver when he ran the Florida Department of Children and Families.  Next month, he will run HHS’ Administration for Children and Families.

It looks like a good bill.  So far, I see only one problem, on page 11: The waivers are reduced to three years each, instead of five years, and, after one renewal, a waiver can't be renewed again - so a state can benefit from the waivers for no more than six years.

Of course that makes no sense.  But it probably was put into the bill at the behest of groups that are wedded to the current open-ended entitlement for foster care and want to undercut waivers in any way they can.

Fortunately, if the bill becomes law, even with this provision, there would be six years to persuade Congress to repeal it. And if the waivers succeed, there probably will be lots of pressure to do just that.

There also are conditions states must meet to be granted a waiver.  Most notably, the states have to either have in place or promise to put in place at least six items on a long menu of services and policies for children and families.  Surprisingly, most of these are good policies and practices – in fact it’s almost a laundry list of best practices.  And it’s a long list.  A state that can’t implement six of these items probably isn’t ready for a waiver.

The biggest problem is not with the bill itself.  Rather it is a sad irony:

Opponents of waivers, or anything else that would end the foster care entitlement, even on a voluntary basis - groups like the Child Welfare League of America, the Children’s Defense Fund and the Center for Law and Social Policy - have used a series of scare tactics to kill reform.  One of those tactics is the false claim that an entitlement is more difficult to cut than a flat grant – so if the entitlement is eliminated, they claim, it will be much easier to cut spending on child welfare.

The Congressional Research Service proved this false when it estimated that had earlier reform plans been passed and had every state adopted them, states would have spent $5 billion more on child welfare over five years than they spent under the status quo.

And now, Bryan Samuels, who runs the Administration on Children, Youth and Families within ACF, points out in an interview with Youth Today, that states may be reluctant to seek waivers because a condition of the waivers is that states maintain their own child welfare spending.


It all kind of makes you wonder: CWLA is a trade association for child welfare agencies, including many that depend on a steady supply of foster children to stay in business.  So one expects CWLA to put the interests of the agencies ahead of the interests of children and try to subvert real child welfare finance reform.  Groups like CDF and CLASP, however, are widely perceived as leftist.  But given their enormous success in reducing child welfare spending, could it be that they are really brilliantly-disguised right-wing front groups?

After all, it’s thanks to the successful fear and smear campaign by CDF and CLASP that the proposals that would have led to up to $5 billion more in child welfare spending died.  So, in effect, thanks to CDF and CLASP, right-wing governors got what amounts to a $5 billion windfall to use on the kinds of things they really love, like tax breaks for big corporations and rich people.

If John Boehner knew how much CDF and CLASP had done for the far right, it would move him to tears!

And now, CDF and CLASP have made clear that, while they probably won’t overtly oppose waivers per se, they’ll do everything they can to “Yes, but …” the legislation to death.  If they succeed, right-wing governors won’t have to face embarrassing questions about why they didn’t seek a waiver to help more children.  They’ll never have to admit they didn’t do it because they wanted to remain free to slash state help for those children.

Were I a right-wing governor I’d be sending CDF and CLASP thank you notes – and maybe donations, so they could keep on helping me cut child welfare spending.