Time for Congress to put families first

On any given day, there are approximately 3,300 children and youth in out-of-home placement due to foster care in Nebraska.1 Nearly 100 days ago, H.R. 5456, the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016, received bipartisan support from the U.S. House of Representatives and landed on the Senate floor. Since then, more than 20 U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle have cosponsored this legislation. However, time is running out. On October 1 – tomorrow – the Legislators are set to leave Washington and the dollars needed will no longer be available.

With all the things Congress has, why should we care about the Families First Act? Simply put, it would enhance existing policy to reduce the number of children and youth removed from their families and improve opportunities for successful transitions to adulthood for young people coming of age in foster care. Family First keeps kids with family, limits reliance on congregate care, aids older youth in foster care in finding educational and financial success in adulthood, and helps us learn how states measure up in supporting older youth in foster care.

Still not sure? Take a closer look…

Prevention. According to the Foster Care Review Office,1 Nebraska placement of state wards in relative or kinship homes is improving. As of July 2016, 1,848 children and youth in out-of-home in Nebraska resided in relative or kinship homes. Clearly, Nebraskans step up to take care of their own. The Family First act keeps kids and youth with family by providing federal funding for preventive services such as substance abuse treatment, mental health services, and in-home parenting assistance. If removal from home must happen, Family First addresses barriers to licensing relatives as foster parents, creates policies to ensure all children have a family, and incentivizes permanency through adoption and legal guardianship.

With 13% of children and youth in foster care experiencing more than four placements and an average length of stay in foster care reaching more than 15 months (474 days), keys to the front door and “refrigerator privileges” are too often only a dream for youth in foster care. Family First helps families to resolve crises or make the needed adjustments to bring a grandchild, niece, or neighbor into their home. This maintains a child’s connection to his or her family, greatly reducing trauma experienced by being removed from a parent’s home.

Congregate care. For too many youths in foster care, a group home or facility provides the only available placement. The Foster Care Review Office1 reports that 208 foster youth live in moderate or most restrictive placements – that is, somewhere other than a foster or kinship home. While some provide structure and safety and strive to do what’s best for youth, children grow best in families. The Family First Act limits access to federal support of congregate care placement. Compensation would be capped at two weeks for placement in all congregate care placements, with three exceptions:

  • Qualified residential treatment programs
  • A prenatal, postpartum, or parenting support program
  • An independent living program for people who remain in foster care after age 18

Family First aligns congregate care for those who need it, while preventing it from serving as the de facto placement for any youth. Our legislature, advocates, and alumni have called for analysis of Nebraska’s use of congregate care; Family First echoes this charge by challenging states to develop plans to improve, recruit, and diversify their foster home networks. Youth and children in foster care deserve what we promise our own children: a chance to be a kid in a the most family-like home possible.

Enhanced access to educational and financial success. Roughly one-third of foster children in out-of-home placement are 13-18 years old.1 Family First updates the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood (1999) by raising focus on youth who age out of foster care or are guardianshipped and adopted after age 14. It gives Nebraska communities access to resources that support alumni of foster care through existing programs by providing greater access to federal funding and keeping dollars in Nebraska. Such support reduces the burden on young adult alumni of foster care and their community as they strive for financial and educational success. The National Working Group on Foster Care and Education2 reports that roughly 50% of youth graduate high school on time and only 10% go on to earn a college degree. These young adults deserve greater attention as they pursue their dreams.

Established outcome measures. The National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) consists of state-level survey data of youth in foster care at age 17 and alumni of foster care ages 19 and 21. The Family First Act requires HHS to submit a report to Congress by October 1, 2017, utilizing NYTD data to provide a clearer picture of the outcomes for youth leaving foster care. More than 40 Nebraska counties have come together as part of the Connected Youth Initiative to support transition-age youth. Nebraska communities are committed to services that work for their youth. Family First enhances access and analysis of outcome data for youth leaving Nebraska’s foster care system.

As the clock ticks down to pass this important legislation, our voices must come together to urge Senator Deb Fischer and Senator Ben Sasse to support and consider co-sponsoring the Family First Prevention Services Act. There are many ways to raise your voice for the children and youth who we are all responsible for: those currently and formally in the Nebraska foster care system. Here’s how you can help.

Contact Nebraska’s U.S. Senators. Below is the contact information for Senators Fischer and Sasse, as well as a script you can follow if you aren’t sure what to say.

Senator Deb Fischer: 202-224-6551
Senator Ben Sasse: 202-224-4224

As your constituent, I am calling to urge Senator _____ to cosponsor the Family First Prevention Services Act (S. 3065/H.R. 5456) and ensure the Senate passes it as written without delay. The House of Representatives passed the bill with unanimous support in June. It is now time for the Senate to Act by passing the bill.

This bill would improve the lives of vulnerable children and families in [insert state]. It would allow child welfare dollars to be used for prevention services to keep families together and prevent unnecessary foster care placements.

Acting now is critical- $400 million in funding to pay for this essential bill becomes unavailable on October 1.

Please let Senator ____ know how important the Family First Prevention Services Act is, and that children and families in his/her state would benefit from the bill.

Thank you.

Not able to make phone calls? Click here to send an email your Senators.

Social media advocacy. You can also join the conversation on social media. Be sure to include both of your Senators’ Twitter handles (@SenSasse and @SenatorFischer) in your messages! Here are a few sample posts.

  • #FamilyFirstAct is a bipartisan, bicameral opportunity to improve the child welfare system. Congress, please support & #putkids1st.
  • Time is running out for the #FamilyFirstAct to pass to improve the child welfare system. Congress, please support & #putkids1st.
  • RT this post on AAP/CDF blog: https://twitter.com/AmerAcadPeds/status/780529851044212736

Click here for a summary of the legislation.


About the author: Cassy Blakely, MA, PLMHP, is the Assistant Vice President of Youth Policy at Nebraska Children. Cassy has served in a number of capacities, all focusing on expanding youth voice and engagement at all levels. Her current focus is on helping to influence policies concerning the needs of young people by collaborating with state partners, committees, and policy makers.

1 “The Nebraska Foster Care Review Office Quarterly Report.” The Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, 1 Sept. 2016. Web.

2 “Fostering Success in Education: National Factsheet on the Educational Outcomes of Children in Foster Care.” National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, Jan. 2014. Web.

Nebraska Children's mission is to maximize the potential of Nebraska’s children, youth, and families through collaboration and community-centered impact.

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