Five Questions with Casey: Tracey Feild on the Need to Reform Child Welfare Funding

Posted September 15, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

As direc­tor and man­ag­er of the Child Wel­fare Strat­e­gy Group, Tracey Feild over­sees the Foundation’s work to help state and local child wel­fare agen­cies imple­ment reforms and improve prac­tices. Before join­ing Casey, she was vice pres­i­dent for East Coast oper­a­tions for the Insti­tute for Human Ser­vices Man­age­ment, work­ing in more than 20 states to improve ser­vices to chil­dren and fam­i­lies through sys­tem reform ini­tia­tives. Feild also served as exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Social Ser­vices Admin­is­tra­tion of the Mary­land Depart­ment of Human Resources; deputy direc­tor of the Ohio Depart­ment of Human Ser­vices; and as a researcher at the Urban Institute.

Q1. The Casey Foun­da­tion and the Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive recent­ly released a report call­ing for changes in the way child wel­fare pro­grams are financed in this coun­try. What prompt­ed the report? 

Through 25 years of work­ing with pub­lic sys­tems, Casey knows that fed­er­al financ­ing of child wel­fare often does not align with what actu­al­ly works to improve out­comes. Every year, states lose fed­er­al resources to sup­port kids in fos­ter care and the case­work­ers who help meet their needs. The funds they rely on to pre­serve and sup­port vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies and keep chil­dren safe are also in jeop­ardy. So it has nev­er been more crit­i­cal to fix fed­er­al child wel­fare financ­ing. Kids can­not afford to wait, and the cost of doing noth­ing is too high.

Q2. How should exist­ing funds be used to change the sys­tem and help more children?

Because state dol­lars account for the major­i­ty of child wel­fare fund­ing, exist­ing fed­er­al funds should sup­port inter­ven­tions that we know work. Fed­er­al funds should help state sys­tems ensure that every child has a lov­ing, per­ma­nent fam­i­ly. These dol­lars should go toward cost-effec­tive ther­a­peu­tic and sup­port ser­vices, as well as increased sup­port for fam­i­ly fos­ter par­ents and to bol­ster the child wel­fare work­force. Giv­en our polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic envi­ron­ment, we can­not expect an enor­mous increase in fed­er­al fund­ing, so these crit­i­cal new invest­ments should be fund­ed by shift­ing fed­er­al dol­lars away from invest­ments with less pos­i­tive outcomes.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment defines fos­ter care as a tem­po­rary ser­vice, but its largest child wel­fare pro­gram pays for fos­ter care indef­i­nite­ly. Instead of pay­ing indef­i­nite­ly for eli­gi­ble kids, fed­er­al funds should cov­er all chil­dren — but for a fixed peri­od of time. We also want to cur­tail fed­er­al fund­ing to sup­port non­ther­a­peu­tic group place­ments, which are not con­ducive to the devel­op­men­tal needs of youth.

Q3. How are providers and states react­ing to your proposals?

They rec­og­nize the fed­er­al child wel­fare financ­ing struc­ture is flawed and are eager for reforms that can pro­tect fed­er­al resources while giv­ing them increased flex­i­bil­i­ty to sup­port effec­tive inter­ven­tions. But they wor­ry about the bud­getary impact of time lim­its on fed­er­al pay­ments for fos­ter care and elim­i­nat­ing fed­er­al pay­ments for some forms of care. How­ev­er, because states only receive fed­er­al reim­burse­ment for about half the cost of chil­dren in care, they still can use the remain­der as they see fit. If they feel it is in a child’s best inter­est to stay in care longer, they have the option to keep him or her there, but the state will need to cov­er that cost.

Q4. What else does the report recommend?

An impor­tant goal is to reim­burse case­work­ers for the time spent devel­op­ing rela­tion­ships with fam­i­lies to help chil­dren stay con­nect­ed to their fam­i­lies. Fed­er­al funds only sup­port case­work­ers’ more admin­is­tra­tive tasks. We also want to ensure rel­a­tives who are will­ing and able to care for chil­dren receive the sup­port they need and are not dis­cour­aged from becom­ing licensed fos­ter par­ents by unnec­es­sary require­ments that are not safe­ty-relat­ed. We want to increase access to tax cred­its for fos­ter par­ents who care for hard­er-to-place old­er youth and sib­ling groups. And we rec­om­mend tuition reim­burse­ment for child wel­fare work­ers who stay in the field for at least four years so they have an incen­tive to stay in the field long enough to gain exper­tise need­ed to do their job well.

Q5. What chal­lenges must be over­come for these rec­om­men­da­tions to be adopted?

There is mixed sup­port for any­thing per­ceived as a major change, but states need to real­ize they have a lot of flex­i­bil­i­ty in how they use their own mon­ey. The fact that the changes we pro­pose would shift the fed­er­al government’s pri­or­i­ties with­out cost­ing more mon­ey appeals to peo­ple. And we are devel­op­ing esti­mates to show how each state would be affect­ed by the changes so that they have a clear­er pic­ture. States and providers need to see evi­dence that shift­ing invest­ments will allow them to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the num­ber of chil­dren in long-term fos­ter care or group place­ment. For­tu­nate­ly, we have abun­dant evi­dence from states and com­mu­ni­ties that have imple­ment­ed the reforms we are recommending.

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