Congress Leaves Town, Senator Blocks Child Welfare Bill

The Senate ended their summer by leaving on Thursday night and left many priorities including HR 4980, the “Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act’ unfinished. The legislation will reauthorize the Adoption Incentive Fund for three years and extend it to guardianship placements. It will also extend the Family Connections Grants by one year through this current fiscal year of 2014 but its Senate approval, which would have sent it onto the President, was stopped by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).

The Senate was attempting to pass the bill by “UC” or unanimous consent, which translates into a voice vote, that by-passes extensive debate. The overwhelming majority of child welfare bills tend to pass in this way after key committees and members in both houses negotiate their differences over time. This legislation had its first votes and debate last summer in the House. While most child welfare legislation passes this way, before they can get to that point each senator is asked to ok the process and any one member can object and bring the entire process to a dead stop. That is exactly what happened when retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) blocked a vote. He objected more generally to the process of UC and had some specific objections to provisions of the bill. So he stopped it, stopped the Senate and the reauthorization.

On the Senate floor Coburn objected to generally to the unanimous consent process for several bills and the spending that resulted. In a letter to the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Coburn said, “As a father, grandfather and physician, my heart goes out to children who need a permanent family.” He then went on to outline his objections to the “…the role of the federal government to be interfering in state’s adoption and foster care programs.” He also objected to several of the trafficking issues raised and emphasized his concerns over the spending provisions. Although the legislation is “budget neutral”—in other words paid for—he objected because the savings to offset the cost was in the out years of the budget process.

The objection is ironic in that the bill was praised by Republican leaders when it passed the House because it reduces the deficit over ten years. In reality most of the cost in the program is in the adoption incentive piece which has to be appropriated each year for over 15 years. It is dependent on what the appropriations committees decide to provide. Generally that is $40 million a year. An greater irony is that Senator Coburn had also block action a last minute supplement funding request to aide Israel and its maintenance of their iron dome missile defense system. That allocation of $225 million was blocked by the Senator because it wasn’t paid for but over Thursday night a firestorm of criticism ensued and although most senators had left, the Senate was still technically in session and Friday morning so the emergency Defense Department request was approved—without any offsets. No such break was extended to children and youth in foster care.

What happens next is less clear and is entirely up to the Senate (the House approved the bill the week before). Leaders may try to persuade Senator Coburn or attempt to schedule a vote. The second option may not be that easy. The Senate will be around for less than 20 actual days next month before they leave for the election. If it gets on the list of bills for debate, it could become entangled in election year politics whereby members see it as an opportunity to hang politically-charged amendments in an attempt to create political attacks for the last weeks of the election. For example, issues dealing with immigration, coal, oil pipelines.

Perhaps the biggest victims is the one-year of funding (FY 2014, this year) for the Family Connections Grants. From a hopeful bipartisan deal last October in the House that provided three years of funding, it has been reduced to one year of funding (FY 2014) to this situation with only two months of the fiscal year left. Some current grantees in the third year of their efforts are still awaiting that funding that ran out last October 1. The grants help kinship navigator programs and by extension all kinship families, it also funds family finding efforts to help connect children in foster care with extended family members, and it funds family group decision making casework which are programs that bring family and friends together in an effort to help children at risk or in foster care and finally it funds substance abuse treatment for parents involved in the foster care system. Other provisions in the bill include:

• Reauthorize the Adoption Incentive Fund through FY 16, extends the awards to guardianship/kinship placements,
• Extends the Family Connections Grants by one year through 2014 (this year only) which will likely be just enough to continue funding to programs that are currently in the third year of their funding
• Adds state plan requirements regarding screening and services to victims of f sex trafficking, and locating and responding to children who have run away from foster care including plans to address, report and track children who run from care
• Includes sex trafficking data in the adoption and foster care analysis and reporting system (AFCARS).
• Requires the state to develop a “reasonable and prudent parent standard’ for foster parent training
• Limits to children age 16 or older the option of being placed in a planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) and gives children age 14 and older authority to participate in the development of their own case plans,
• Requires that foster children leaving foster care (unless in foster care less than six months) are not discharged without being provided with a copy of their birth certificate, Social Security card, health insurance information, copy of medical records, and a driver’s license or equivalent state-issued identification card.

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