Advocates Urge Senate to Pass Family First Act

The fate of the most substantial piece of child welfare legislation in the last 10 years rests in the hands of a few U.S. Senators this week. The Family First Prevention Services Act, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) would address a critical flaw in our current child welfare financing system in this country. Namely, the fact that federal funding is available for out-of-home placements and foster care when a child is removed from the home, but not for community services that could help children remain with their families.

Sadly, all too often our current child welfare system essentially ensures that a child will be harmed because we wait until they are harmed before we intervene. Family First will provide support for effective services for families to help them earlier - before more costly interventions such as foster care are necessary. This is a HUGE step in the right direction.

Unfortunately there are some powerful interests, particularly in the state of California, that are fighting to preserve the status quo. Maintaining the status quo should not be acceptable. Our children and their families are counting on us to do better.

If we continue to have a child welfare system that only focuses on dealing with the aftermath of child abuse and rescuing children after abuse has occurred, then we will never make significant progress in preventing it.

Much like the eradication of polio in the United States was not realized by the creation of a better iron lung, we must implement actions that address the root causes of the problem - not just treat the symptoms and those who are affected afterward. We must act BEFORE circumstances escalate to a point where children are harmed.

Specifically, the Family First legislation allows states to use federal child welfare matching funds for certain quality prevention investments for children and their parents and encourages the placement of children in foster care in the least restrictive, most family-like settings. Funding would be available for two types of prevention services and programs:
  1. Mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services.
  2. In-home parent skill-based programs, which include parent skills training, parent education, and individual and family counseling.
The bill has broad bi-partisan support and passed the House of Representatives in June without objection. Lawmakers and advocates were hopeful that the Senate would concur and pass the bill in July.
Additionally, hundreds of youth and alumni of foster care, along with concerned stakeholders have
in support of the legislation.

Unfortunately, three Senators, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), have placed a "hold" on the bill - keeping it from receiving a vote despite the overwhelming bi-partisan, bi-cameral support for the bill. Criticism has been most vocal from certain group home providers and child welfare agencies in the State of California. (It should be noted that even the bill's critics have stated their support for the vision and purpose of the bill. Yet critics in these states are fighting to maintain the status quo.)

Senators and legislative staffers have worked to address fears about the bill and have offered to address concerns through program instruction, definitions and in subsequent legislation prior to its implementation. Critics remain dissatisfied and now the entire bill is in serious jeopardy unless the Senate acts this week.

The problem is if the bill does not pass before lawmakers reach agreement on the Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open beyond Sept. 30, then there's a $400 million hole in paying for the offsets for Family First. That money will not be available during a lame duck session, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) would need to start over in scoring any new legislation introduced next year. The delay would be significant, and it is highly unlikely that a subsequent version of the bill would enjoy the widespread support that Family First has.

Children and families across the country would benefit from passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act - especially in those parts of the country that are in the midst of an unprecedented opioid crisis with heroin overdoses happening with increasing regularity. Children and families need access to substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. This bill would provide those services so that families can stay together and children can have a brighter future.

Children's advocates from across the country including the Children's Defense Fund, Zero to Three, First Focus, the Foster Club, Generations United, Prevent Child Abuse America and the National Alliance of Children's Trust and Prevention Funds are making a last push in favor of passage with a day of action planned for Tuesday, Sept. 20. Advocates are asking supporters of the bill to contact their Senators and urge passage of the bill before time runs out.

We cannot afford to maintain the status quo while we dither about trying to craft a "perfect" bill. There is no such thing as a perfect bill, but the Family First Prevention Services Act is a huge step in the right direction.

This legislation is the result of more than 18 months of negotiations, but if it doesn't pass in the next week or 10 days, then it will be back to the beginning with very little optimism for a better bill to be passed 2-3 years from now. Children need our help as soon as possible.

The noted Chinese philosopher Confucius said, "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." The Family First Prevention Services Act may have a flaw or two, but if we fail to pass it based on a few loud voices then we will not even have a pebble to show for it and our children will be the ones that pay the price.

We all know the costs associated when children do not receive the care and love that they need to thrive and succeed. The Family First Prevention Services Act will help families access the help they need so that their children can thrive. It is time to seize this opportunity, put families first and support the Family First Prevention Services Act.