July 16 marks the 15th anniversary of the “look back” eligibility requirement for federal foster care assistance, and as a result fewer children are eligible for federal foster care support today than when the decision was initially made. The “look back” refers to the eligibility link to the now defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program as it existed on July 16, 1996, when AFDC was replaced by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant.
The eligibility standard was maintained for Title IV-E foster care. To be eligible for foster care maintenance support a child must be removed from a home that would have met the income eligibility requirement for AFDC as of July 16, 1996. At the time of this decision, 55% of children who entered foster care came from families that qualified for that eligibility standard. Now 44%, less than half, of the children in foster care are eligible for federal foster care support. What was intended as a temporary fix is now a decade and a half of a flawed commitment to our nation’s most vulnerable children. Data show a steep decline in the number of eligible children in the first six years of this link and a leveling in recent years. The net result has left fewer children eligible for federal support.
Title IV-E of the Social Security Act provides federal assistance to abused and neglected children placed in foster care and kinship, guardianship, and adoption from foster care. The federal support helps cover the cost of care for items like food, shelter, clothing, and other basic needs. The federal contribution or match is determined by a formula that is tied to the state’s economic needs. For eligible children, this results in the federal government covering about half the cost of care. In addition, the federal government covers half the cost for administrative expenses of providing care for eligible children, including critical activities like casework and foster parent training. Eligibility is not wholly determined by the “look back,” but it is the only eligibility requirement that is not associated with protections and safety requirements with respect to the child’s best interest.
The 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (P.L. 110-351) delinked Title IV-E adoption assistance from the “look back” through a phased-in approach. CWLA urges Congress to find a way to eliminate this practice for children in foster care and the kinship/guardianship program as well. All maltreated children deserve federal protection.