Friday, September 23, 2011

Financial incentives in foster care: WE’VE GOT WAIVERS!

Legislation that marks the biggest change for the better in federal child welfare law in 31 years has passed both houses of Congress and is on its way to President Obama.  [UPDATE: The President signed the bill on September 30.]

“Biggest change for the better in federal child welfare policy” is, of course, a pretty low bar, particularly since almost every other change since 1980 has been for the worse.   But this legislation has the potential to make a real difference – if states can be persuaded to embrace it.

That’s because the legislation includes a provision restoring the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue waivers from federal foster care funding restrictions, waivers like the one which allowed Florida to make dramatic improvements in its child welfare system.

The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and in the House by Reps. Geoff Davis (R-Kentucky) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).

But special credit also goes to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) who withdrew last-minute amendments to tack on his own proposal.  That easily could have delayed and possibly killed the waivers and the entire bill – which also includes reauthorization of key prevention and family preservation programs. 

In a field where everybody says they put the children first, Sen. Wyden really did it; putting personal pride in his own bill aside in order to get the very important legislation through.

So, the waivers soon will be law.  Then comes the hard part – persuading states to break their addiction to foster care “entitlement” funding and apply for waivers – in particular big, broad waivers like the one that did so much for Florida.

That was made harder by a series of hoops states will have to jump through to qualify for waivers, provisions added in the Senate at the behest of a child welfare establishment that never really liked the waivers – or anything else that limits the foster care “entitlement.”

So we’ve won a big battle.  But it’s a long war.