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