The aim of a new federal law is to reduce the number of children who end up in the troubled foster care system — the biggest reboot of the child welfare system since 1980.
But already, the Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in February, is generating some controversy. A key point of contention: how it will treat extended family members caring for children outside the foster care system — and whether they will be eligible for financial assistance.
“Sometimes a strict interpretation of the law might have unintended consequences,” said Dr. David Rubin, director of PolicyLab, a research arm of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Critics of the law, mostly state and local officials in California, say it could end up diverting more children into the care of grandparents and other relatives who won’t be eligible for the same services and financial help as licensed foster parents. Others insist the law helps more “kinship caregivers.”
“The law is hammering home the importance of family connections,” said Ana Beltran, special adviser for Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based family research and advocacy group. “It’s a huge step forward.”
One of the intentions of the law is to address the havoc the nation’s opioid epidemic is wreaking on families. Largely because of the crisis, more and more grandparents are raising their traumatized grandchildren. For those grandparents and other extended family caring for these kids, help is often limited and can vary greatly from state to state.
“The foster care system has been struggling to meet the needs of kids, and states have had a really difficult time keeping up,” said Karen Howard, vice president of early childhood policy for First Focus, a Washington, D.C.-based child advocacy group that worked on the legislation. “They’ve been stretched to the brink.”
The federal government won’t release compliance guidelines for the new law until October, so states are still figuring out how the changes will affect them.
“A lot of details aren’t there in the law,” said Brandon Nichols, chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, which, along with other local California agencies, opposed the legislation.
“There are some concerns we have,” Nichols said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t go down a road that undermines families.”