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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning to realize that states are in a difficult position, with children’s lives at risk if they rush to comply with Family First legislation without adequate plans in place.

By Bill Frye

Published July 5, 2019

This column first appeared as a special to the Tampa Bay Times.

The need for foster parents in Florida is critical. In many regions of the state, there is a shortage of beds and suitable placement options for children entering the foster care system. The Family First Prevention Services Act — which Congress passed last year as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 — seeks to change foster care across the nation by investing more funds in treatment and prevention services that are aimed at keeping families together and preventing children from entering the system.

Part of this reform includes limiting states from placing children in residential group homes. Proponents argue that foster homes are better for children than group homes, and child welfare staff should only use group homes as a short-term last resort. Under Family First, states risk losing federal funds if they place children in residential group settings — even family-style models — for longer than two weeks.

With an approaching deadline of Sept. 30 to comply with the new legislation, many states have been trying to reform their systems and limit their use of group homes. However, looking at other states trying to comply with these reforms provides an alarming glimpse into what could happen here in Florida, with fewer options for foster children than we have today. There are stories, in states like Illinois, of children being housed in hotels or, in some cases, locked psychiatric facilities without clinical needs because caseworkers have nowhere else to put them. Even before this legislation, Florida has struggled with finding suitable places to put children. The Department of Children and Families settled a lawsuit earlier this year in South Florida (H.G. vs. Carroll) over the state’s failure to provide enough foster home beds.

Nearly 40 percent of Florida’s child welfare budget comes from the federal government under Title IV-E funds. It’s understandable that state officials are concerned about potentially losing this significant source of funding. However, as we’re starting to see in other states, most states are not ready to meet the standards of the Family First Prevention Services Act without significant consequences to their foster care systems. Trying to do so means fewer options for children entering a foster care system that is already struggling to keep up. It could also result in leaving children in dangerous situations because federal funds incentivize keeping families together.

Fortunately, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning to realize that states are in a difficult position, with children’s lives at risk if they rush to comply with this legislation without adequate plans in place. The State Flexibility for Family First Transitions Act (S 107), introduced earlier this year by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would provide states with a two-year extension, allowing them to continue receiving Title IV-E funds while they figure out how to comply with Family First and how residential group homes fit into the picture before simply eliminating them as part of the continuum of care.

The goals of Family First include keeping children from entering foster care while, at the same time, reducing the use of group homes. However, it’s important to recognize that high-quality, family-style residential group homes across the country have played a role in keeping kids out of foster care for many years. Residential group homes are also designed to keep siblings together instead of splitting them up, which often occurs in the foster system. In many cases, parents or guardians voluntarily bring their child to a family style group home like the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. Cottage parents and staff work with the young man or woman to get things back on track — which includes improving their grades, changing their behaviors, developing a healthy self-esteem and more. When a child is able to return home and the relationship with their family is restored, it’s a success story that we hope to see repeated again and again.

The State Flexibility for Family First Transitions Act is gaining attention, with Florida Reps. Greg Steube, a Republican, and Kathy Castor, a Democrat, recently introducing a companion bill the House, HR 3116. Florida Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, Gus Bilirakis and Neal Dunn have recently signed on as co-sponsors. We hope other members of Congress, including other members of our Florida legislative delegation, will take notice and recognize that states need more time to make these changes to their foster care systems without risking children’s lives.

Bill Frye is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a residential group care program with four campuses for boys and girls. The Youth Ranches has operated in Florida since 1957.