On Thursday, June 19 Congressman James Langevin (D-RI) introduced the Permanent Families for All Act, legislation that would implement parts of the Annie E Casey child welfare finance proposal. The bill would do away with the current link to the 1996 AFDC program in determining a child’s eligibility for federal foster care funding (de-link) but it would accomplish that by reducing the federal matching funds state receive. Currently the federal government provides a match based on what is called the “FMAP” rate for each eligible child with a state’s match based on an annual formula. A state may get a match of as low as 50 percent (meaning one state dollar brings in one federal dollar) while some states receive a match as high as 80 percent (meaning one state dollar brings in four federal dollars) Under the proposal, states would have that rate reduced accordingly to assure all children in foster care are covered. It would not provide more federal funding but would cover all children in foster care.
In addition the bill would, most controversially, time limit federal coverage of foster care to 36 months in a lifetime under the theory that it will drive states to move children out of foster care quicker. The last AFCARS report indicated that 18 percent of children in foster care (70,000 children) have been in foster care for 36 consecutive months or longer. The AFCARS numbers do not indicate total months in foster care if a child has had several spells in and out of foster care over that child’s lifetime. Under the legislation if a child had a cumulative total of more than three years, federal funding would be cut off.
In another area of controversy the bill would limit institutional care to one year of federal reimbursement. Again the assumption is that a limit on federal funding will drive states to find foster care homes or other placements rather than institional care. Currently 6 percent of children are in group homes (23,000 children) and another 9 percent (34,000) are in institutional care. Again the limit is over a lifetime and the AFCARS measures current spells and not a child’s lifetime experience in care.
While the re-design in funding is based on an argument that changing federal funding will change practice, a recent GAO report shows that nearly six years after the enactment of Fostering Connections to Success, states have had difficulty in finding enough foster homes despite the mandates around keeping siblings together and have also had difficulty in youth placements. States have also been reluctant to expand foster care to age twenty-one despite the 2008 law giving states the option to expand care. A total of 19 states have extended foster care to 21 but 9 states, according to the report, had already extended care before federal funding was available.
Other provisions of the bill would expand caseworker training funds for training ‘on child-focused recruitment and retention.’ It would amend the Higher Education Act to allow child welfare workers to be eligible for loan forgiveness after five years instead of the current ten years. Current loan forgiveness applies if you are in one of a number of public service jobs including child welfare and you work in the same profession for ten years. There is also another five year loan forgiveness program in the Higher Education Act that applies to a number of professions including various teacher categories, child care and Head Start workers as well as child welfare workers but that loan forgiveness program is a discretionary funded program and appropriators have never funded it.
CWLA has expressed concerns to congressional staff regarding the imposition of arbitrary time limits.
The Senate started to move an appropriations bill for FY 2015 for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (Labor-HHS) last week but the effort appeared to have stalled out by Thursday when the full committee was expected to debate the bill. On Tuesday, June 10, the subcommittee passed a bill after a brief period of discussion with the full debate awaiting the full committee two days later. But that full committee debate never came and it may now be put off due to potential controversy over various parts of the bill related to the Affordable Care Act.
The subcommittee bill (not released yet) provides $157 billion in discretionary funding, the same as last year with some adjustments. The few details available include proposed increases for Head Start, Child Care and Pre-K, a relative victory in a tight budget. Head Start would be funded at $8.742 billion an overall increase of $145 million with $65 million of that for a designated increase in Early Head Start. Child Care funding would increase to $2.458 billion in discretionary funding, a $100 million increase and the Pre-K initiative first funded at $250 million in January would increase to $350 million.
A major challenge for this appropriations bill is the need to increase funding for unaccompanied minors through the Office of Refugee Assistance. The Subcommittee made some shifts in funding, rejecting some Administration requests to other programs, to provide $1.9 billion in funding which represents an increase of a little more than $1 billion. Unaccompanied minors are young people and children crossing over the border in an effort to escape events in their own countries and frequently coming here without a family or destination. The projected number for this year is 60,000 children, dramatically higher than the 13,000 in FY 2012 and much higher than the average of 6800 a year between 2004 through 2011. The situation has been developing in recent years but in the last two weeks the news coverage of the topic has exploded.
Most of the unaccompanied children are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras through Mexico. A report last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mission to Central America: Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States, documented the challenges and problems these young people face both in their native country and here in the United States. In addition to the HHS funds there will be additional funds through the State Department and Homeland Security budgets with funding increases there adding an additional approximate $200 million.
This now leaves the Labor-HHS bill in limbo. The Senate was attempting to bring its bill to the floor at least by June. The House is also unlikely to act on their bill so negotiations and decisions may now wait until after the election, an outcome some were predicting all along.
The increasing numbers of children coming across the U.S. border alone and without an adult is gathering much more attention within the federal budget and now within the political arena. Referred to as unaccompanied minors, these young people and children cross over the border in an effort to escape events in their own countries and frequently come here without a family or destinations. The projected number for this year is 60,000 children and is dramatically higher than the 13,000 in FY 2012 and much higher than the average of 6800 a year between 2004 through 2011. Under pressure from appropriators, especially the Senate Appropriations Chair, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the Administration has raised its original budget request of less than $900 million to more than $2.2 billion for FY 2015. In January appropriators had increased funding by nearly $500 million. The additional increase for FY 2015 will place greater pressure on the overall Labor-HHS-Education budget. The increased numbers is leading some Republican members of Congress to blame the problem on the Administration’s enforcement of immigration policy.
Most of the unaccompanied children are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras through Mexico. A report last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mission to Central America: Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States, documented the challenges and problems these young people face both in their native country and here in the United States. The report also describes the dangers of making the trip to the US alone with no adult support or supervision. In fact the trip usually involves exploitation, trafficking in labor and sex and violence. The report by the Bishops’ Mission sought to determine why there is such a dramatic increase in the flow of vulnerable youth, what should be done in regard to international policy and what should happen to these youth once they are in the United States. Based on their surveys, interviews and observations the report indicates that there is no simple answer but instead a number of interrelated factors, what they labeled the “perfect storm” of a number of problems including: the absence of economic opportunity, the lack of quality education and access to education generally and the resulting inability for individuals to financially support themselves and their families in their home communities, and the desire to reunify with family in the United States. An additional significant factor is the increased violence including gang violence and coercion within parts of the countries most affected.
Critics claim that immigration enforcement is encouraging children to make the trip while others counter that lack of progress on immigration legislation is the key factor. The President announced last Monday the creation of a working group to respond to the challenge with Cecilia Muñoz, White House Director of Domestic Policy announcing the initiative with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and the Federal Emergency Management Agency taking the lead in coordinating transportation, housing, basic care and medical treatment for the children crossing the border each week. The funding request was a result of overtures by Mikulski with the funding flowing through the Office of Refugee Assistance in HHS. Many of the children are being housed on air force bases and in group homes contracted by the government.
The Report by the Bishops included recommendations that the best interest of the child standard should be applied in legal proceedings, the Department of Homeland Security should conduct child-appropriate credible fear screenings that include questions related to gang related activity, and having child welfare experts assisting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in screening children who arrive at the US/Mexico border.