Family First act will help children in foster care

October 10, 2018

Children are the innocent and most powerless victims of West Virginia’s opioid addiction problem. Too many children wind up in foster care because of the problems of their parents. That may change soon as a new federal law takes effect.

The Family First Prevention Services Act, also known as Family First, was signed into law as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act in February. While it may have escaped the notice of the public, people in the foster care field have been poring over its many changes to the way the federal government allocates money to the states for foster care services.

Some in the foster care field in West Virginia are optimistic Family First will help the state.

Amy Rickman, state director for NEC-CO in West Virginia, said Family First’s emphasis on preventive services to keep families together will help.

“In West Virginia, we had already begun driving in that direction with the Safe at Home program,” Rickman told Herald-Dispatch reporter Taylor Stuck. “We started moving in that direction four years ago. I think with more support, things we already started can build.”

State Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, was a juvenile court judge for 30 years. He told Stuck the new bill is critical and it can be an investment in children.

“I can’t think of a better way to help kids than to funnel money and to support their families,” Woelfel said.

As of Aug. 31, West Virginia had 6,623 children in its foster care system. About 6 percent of them were being housed out of state, mainly in group homes or in long-term psychiatric facilities. About half of children in the state’s foster care system stay with relatives.

About 85 percent are in the system because of their parents’ substance use disorder.

Family First will change how many of these children and their families are helped.

What that means at the family level is that states may use some of the money they had received from the federal government for foster care and use it instead for mental health services, substance abuse treatment and parental skills training. It also caps the length of time children may spend in group homes, also known as congregate care.

According to USA Today, evidence-based prevention services will now be funded as an entitlement. Children who have been found to be foster care candidates — usually victims of abuse or neglect —will have more opportunity to stay in their family homes.

As with any federal overhaul of a federal program, there are many parts of the whole, some of which are difficult for people outside the system to understand. But it all comes down to one question: Will children be better off under the new funding formula than they were under the old one?

At a forum in Huntington last month, Laura Barno, director for the Division of Children and Adult Services at West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, said DHHR is already doing preventive work such as home education and family therapy. Some of those services can be paid for with Medicaid. Those who don’t qualify for Medicaid can be covered with other federal programs. Those programs are capped, however. Family First provides an additional funding stream, she said.

West Virginia has more children in its foster care system than it has foster families who can care for them. Family First is the latest attempt at the federal level to help children who need it most.

Will it help? Those close to the situation in West Virginia say it should. Not all families can or should be saved. At least now we have new tools to help strengthen more families at risk of being torn apart.

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