New law aiming to keep more kids home
HUNTINGTON — A new federal law will soon allow the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to take more action to prevent a child’s situation from escalating to the point that they need to be removed from their home.
The Family First Prevention Services Act — or simply Family First — was signed into law as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act in February. It reforms the federal child welfare funding streams, Title IV-E and Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, allowing these funds to also be used to provide services to families who are at risk of entering the child welfare system. The act is implemented in phases, with the funding changes taking effect in October 2019.
Title IV-E is a foster care reimbursement funding stream. Currently, West Virginia only receives federal funding if Child Protective Services removes a child from the home, said Laura Barno, director for the Division of Children and Adult Services at West Virginia DHHR. But with the changes, these funds can be used for prevention efforts for families at risk of having their children removed.
The act allows for up to 12 months of mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parenting training to families.
“There will still be situations where kids will need to come out of the home, but the hope is with Family First is to do more up-front work with more resources to keep those kids safe in the home,” Barno said.
As it stands today, CPS workers visit homes to assess if there is any protective capacity like a caregiver or some other factor that can be put in place to allow a child to stay in the home, Barno said.
“We always try to determine if a family is stable enough — every family has positive strengths, even if they are going through crisis, but they have to be able to use those strengths to keep kids safe, as well,” she said.
An example of the type of family that might receive these preventative services is a household where one parent is struggling with substance abuse.
“The other parent, with supportive services like parenting education, could rise to the level to keep kids safe, while the other parent is able to access substance abuse treatment,” Barno said. “We would be able to pay for that treatment, which we have not been able to do in the past.”
DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch told members of the Joint Committee on Finance Sept. 17 that 85 percent of children in the West Virginia foster care system are there due to their parents’ substance use disorder.
The act removes the reunification timeline for families before parental rights are terminated, which could benefit parents attempting recovery. Research shows that relapse is a normal part of recovery due to the nature of the disease of addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The current law states if a child is out of the home for 15 of the past 22 months, consecutively or broken up, the department needs to seek termination of parental rights or justify why they have not.
“A lot of research shows that timeline does not bode well as far as recovery efforts,” Barno said.
She said there will not be a set number of chances a parent will have but it will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Some judges recognize recovery is a continuum, Barno said, but there is also the pressure of knowing the child is growing up and there is a push to end any uncertainty for that child’s future. For example, she said a 15-month-old recognizes their caregiver as the parent.
“It’s a balancing act on what is in the best interest of the child,” she said.
Barno said this funding will also be able to provide assistance to the grandparents raising their grandchildren. As of Aug. 31, 3,251 of the 6,623 children in West Virginia foster care were with relatives.
Barno said DHHR is already doing preventive work, like home education and family therapy. These programs can sometimes be paid for with the family’s Medicaid, but if they do not qualify, Title IV-B covers some of the costs. But that funding stream is currently capped at only a few million, Barno said, and when the funding runs out, they rely on state funding. Family First opens up Title IV-E, which Barno said is a more robust funding stream.
“We struggle to have enough community-based services, but hopefully, if you have the money, ‘build it and they will come,’” she said. “We hope that funding will enable the provider community to grow that programing that we don’t have uniformly across the state.”
Funding for group homes, or congregate care, will also change. The Title IV-E reimbursement for group homes will only be available for two weeks unless the child is in a qualified residential treatment program (QRTP), a setting that specializes in prenatal or parenting support, or supervised independent living for youth over 18.
Barno said QRTP requires accreditation and has a behavioral health component. She said there are some group homes that have this designation already, but a lot do not. DHHR will begin meeting with providers in October to begin discussing these details.
“They will have to make a decision on the population that they want to serve,” Barno said. “Some will probably choose not to do that. Some do transitioning, working with older teens transitioning out of care, and don’t have the behavioral health component QRTP requires. We have group homes that just don’t provide that level of care. Some will work with children at risk of sex trafficking and other service provisions.
“We won’t force any agency to be one thing or another, but at the same time, we will be doing an analysis on the current foster population to what kids would fit the new categories to see what our capacity issues might be.”
She said some programs have already voiced their desire to become a QTRP and have started the process.
Along with changing the funding streams, Family First requires states to implement an electronic interstate case processing system. Barno said any judge will say the current interstate compact is the bane of their existence because it is so time consuming, done through email or the postal service.
“Often we have relatives for kids in foster care in, say, Michigan,” she said. “In order for us to make a placement with that family, we have to do home studies. Interstate compact can make that occur much more quickly.”
The new system would enable states to share information instantaneously. The deadline for all states is 2027, but Barno said West Virginia is already redesigning its system and the interstate component will be ready in a few years.
Barno said it is a tight time frame to make all the changes the legislation requires, and she was shocked the bill passed at all. But she said because West Virginia is small and has a wonderful relationship with their community providers, they are on the move to get it all implemented expediently.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.
“We always try to determine if a family is stable enough — every family has positive strengths, even if they are going through crisis, but they have to be able to use those strengths to keep kids safe, as well.”
West Virginia DHHR director for the Division of Children and Adult Services