Congress tacked the Family First Act onto a bill to fund the government earlier this year. The move shifts the bulk of federal foster care funding from residential care to preventative services. It takes effect in October 2019.
The goal is to keep kids at home using parent training and treatment for substance abuse and mental health. Alison Evans is the CEO of the Methodist Home in Macon where 80 foster children live. She said the act’s fine print fails to consider whether the state is equipped to provide these services.
A Long Way To Go
“I think we have a long way to go. Both in terms of the wrap-around services on the prevention end and what would be put in place to help keep kids out of the welfare system, which is what we all want,” Evans said. “But also, in reflection of the kids we currently have in this system, and what will happen to them.”
The state has an option to waive the act until 2021 but Walter Jones, the legislative director with the Division of Family and Children’s Services, said, “We’re still evaluating what it means for us and honestly we don’t know.”
Evans said she will be concerned if Georgia chooses not to apply for the waiver.
“It was a piece of legislation that was alive three or four years ago," Evans said. "We thought that it had gone away, and it came back suddenly with none of the dates being changed.”
The act was first presented to Congress in 2016. Following its failure, lawmakers pared down the number of preventative services it would cover. It passed on Feb. 6, 2018, but the implementation date remained the same as the original bill.
The newly passed act outlines three primary services that money will be allocated toward: mental health services, substance abuse services and parental training.
“It’s very prescriptive on what prevention services can be provided with that money,” Evans said. “And it does not leave a whole lot of flexibility for a local community like the one we have here in Bibb County, to decide what would be best for our community.”
The act leaves unanswered questions for residential homes that now house upward of 100 kids. Evans predicts that the act will require most residential homes to downsize from about 80 to 90 beds to around 20 beds. Those last few beds will be reserved for kids who are considered to be in critical condition or in danger.
“I’ve seen my younger self in some of these kids"
As for those displaced kids who will not be allowed to remain in residential care, the state will have to find them a foster family or reunite the child with their natural family, whether that family is fit or not. The act encompasses three main services, but may not be enough to ensure safe homes for the children.
“Whether or not it will prevent a family, maybe a family who has gotten into drug addiction and stuff like that, from getting to that place, I think that has yet to be determined,” Evans said.
Beth-Leah was brought to The Methodist Home at age 12 because her adoptive parents were ill and could not care for her. Now she’s 16, and considers The Methodist Home her home.
“I’ve seen my younger self in some of these kids, and I’m hoping that, as I mature they see that and they can confide in me to ask how I’ve grown, and how they can come to take advantage of The Methodist Home in great ways,” she said.
Teenagers Will Suffer Most
The majority of children who remain in residential homes for longer periods of time are teenagers. This worries Evans because foster homes for older children are hard to find.
“In my opinion, I think the kids who are most at risk from this act are the teenagers. The 15 years and older kids, those are the kids who also have a vision for their future, that may or may not include the state,” Evans said.
Evans has already started to prepare for the act’s implementation. She has been brainstorming ways to make this transition by talking to colleagues about whether The Methodist Home can re-allocate the money to preventative services.
“We want to take those ideas back to the community, to our stakeholders, and ask them, ‘Are these the services that you feel this community needs?’ because we want to partner with the local community,” Evans said.
What the child welfare system originally had five or six years to prepare for, may now have to be done in 18 months.