Pre-KNation Summit in New York City

On Tuesday, August 5, New York City became the site for a “Preschool Nation Summit.” The summit, the first one, was a bicoastal event broadcast through a webinar presented by Scholastic Inc based in New York City. The nation’s largest city was an appropriate setting since Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on a campaign that included a proposal to expand universal preschool in the city.

Mayor de Blasio’s opened the event with keynote remarks that discussed his support and belief that providing universal preschool is vital to addressing a range of issues including poverty. He recounted his recent visits to some of the city’s preschool programs and what they were accomplishing and discussed the experiences of his own children and how they were helped by effective programs. As far as New York City, the Mayor said that the just completed school year resulted in 20,000 children enrolled in full-day Pre-K and that this coming September that figure will increase to 50,000. He also said more would be needed because they estimated the need to be approximately 70,000.

The opening panel focused on the current status of programs across the country and how effective models are being put together and how state and local programs are leveraging funds. That panel included comments by Carmen Fariña, New York City Education Chancellor, Kris Perry, the First Five Years Fund, Celia C. Ayala, Los Angeles Universal Preschool, Steve Barnett, National Institute for Early Education Research, Aaron Lieberman, Acelero Learning; CEO, Shine Early Learning.

Their presentation was followed by a discussion of pre-k’s relevance to a cross-section of key
stakeholders including law enforcement, businesses and the military. The discussion included comments by Rob Dugger, Co-Chair of the ReadyNation Advisory Board, Frank Fowler, Syracuse Chief of Police a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Major General Mike Hall (ret.) and member of Mission:Readiness and Suzanne Immerman, Senior Advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Explaining Mission Readiness’s reason for being involved in this issue, Major General Hall indicated that 75 percent of youth aged 17 to 24 could not enter the military due to being poorly educated, having health care issues or having a serious criminal record.

The final panel focused on advocacy and strategies to increase the support and implementation of preschool programs nationally. This group included Patti Miller, Too Small To Fail, Adrián Pedroza, Partnership for Community Action and member of President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, Helen Blank, National Women’s Law Center and Albert Wat, the National Governors Association. Participants were urged to raise the issue during the upcoming elections and that members of Congress need to hear about the importance of expanded access to universal preschool.

For additional information on the event go to Preschool Nation Summit 2014.

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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.

Congress Fails To Act On Unaccompanied Minors

Despite all the recent focus on unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border, the Congress left for a five week break being nowhere near a consensus on how to deal with the crisis. The President who had been the subject of criticism earlier this spring for not requesting greater funding to address the growing numbers of children, was also the subject of some departing congressional criticism for asking for too much funding. In the end, the House reduced their funding even more than last week’s initial proposal, pulled a vote on that package on Thursday afternoon and then passed a slightly higher costing proposal on Friday after the Senate had left for the break. The Senate couldn’t get enough votes to break a filibuster on their package and they failed to pass a bill and by week’s end the President was still contemplating what he could or would do without Congress.

The President has requested $3.7 billion to be spread across HHS, the State Department and Homeland Security. He indicated some openness to amending a 2008 change that was made to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) which allowed for greater deliberation for unaccompanied minors coming here (as long as they were not coming from Mexico or Canada) but a large number of Democrats in both the Senate and House have objected to such a change.

At the direction of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), a working group of Republican House members crafted their own proposal that was set at a total of $1.5 billion and would designate much of the funding for border patrol, and the National Guard and direct quicker deportation of the children. By Thursday that funding had been reduced to approximately $650 million but late Thursday afternoon the House leadership pulled the bill because they didn’t have enough Republican members who would support it. The leadership issued a statement through Speaker Boehner’s office that said in part, “There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action…” The statement seemed to run counter to a law suit filed a day earlier that charges the President has acted independent of congressional authority. The statement was criticized by both the White House and some conservative critics of the President. The reaction to the postponed vote delayed the House departure until Friday because many members wanted evidence that they at least voted for something. By Friday morning the package had inched up to $694 million with added money for governors to use the National Guard. They also had a vote to restrict the President’s executive authority in regard to immigrant status and issues.

On the Senate side, the progress was just as slow. Senate Democrats couldn’t break a filibuster over their legislation. The Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) had been guiding a $2.7 billion bill that would not amend the 2008 changes to the TVPA. It would also cover funding for services through the end of the calendar year meaning it would cover parts of FY 2014 and 2015. To pass the bill would require 60 votes and some Republican support. Debate stopped when a procedural vote failed by a vote of 50 to 44. An additional part of the Senate debate was the efforts of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who had been working with House Republicans to work for a repeal of President Obama’s 2012 executive order that offered some protections to immigrant students who had been brought into the United States at a younger age (similar to the “Dream Act”). Although critics of the President had been arguing that that 2012 order had caused the surge in immigrants, recent debate has now focused on the 2008 changes to the TVPA instead.

Congress is gone until September 8. The President is likely to move funding from other government programs if funding runs out before the Congress returns.

Senate Roundtable Discusses Wide-Ranging Child Welfare Proposal

On Wednesday, July 30, the Senate Foster Youth Caucus hosted a “Discussion on Child Welfare Finance Reform.” For months, the caucus has been hosting a series of different presentations to update Senate staff on a range of child welfare topics. They issued an open invitation to organizations that wanted to offer varying proposals. For this roundtable approximately 17 different proposals were discussed by a number of different organizations. The proposals (Senate Foster Youth Discussion) ranged from ideas to change the current funding structure to more targeted reforms including ideas to better align and improve on Medicaid and mental health services, changing the current eligibility link to foster care, realigning funding such as SSBG to expanding funding to services such as post permanency and reunification support and the appropriate use of residential care.

CWLA, building on its earlier policy statement issued in April, Finance Reform & Child Welfare: A Balanced Approach submitted a proposal to realign the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) to update the current definitions of programs and to highlight its significant role in funding child protective services, prevention and intervention services, other child welfare services as well as other vital human services including domestic violence and special services for the disabled. The $1.7 billion in SSBG funding has been targeted for total elimination under some House proposals.

During the various presentations there were some overlapping issues and concerns that were raised that offer potential incremental change such as the need to strengthen access to mental and behavioral health services, better coordination between state Medicaid and state child welfare agencies, there was also agreement on the desire to do away with the eligibility link between foster care and AFDC and the need to strengthen the child welfare workforce. There was no conclusion to the event but the series will continue to focus on key issues and issue areas. The forum is envisioned as a way to continue a policy education effort for congressional staff.

In light of the Senate’s inability to pass an adoption reauthorization bill later in the week, there appears to be little opportunity to enact anything comprehensive this year. It is still hoped by some advocates that an end of the year budget deal that may have to deal with a range of delayed policy issues could include a small child welfare piece such as the Administration proposal to incentivize coordination between Medicaid and child welfare that would improve health care access for children in foster care and also reduce the incidence of over-medication.