New law to benefit state’s foster care program

Federal rules will let funds be used to keep kids in homes

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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A bill awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature would give new federal support to state programs like Washington’s that help keep children out of foster care, according to the bill’s sponsors.

Senate Bill 1542 would reform rules that now prohibit states from using federal foster care funding on programs that help keep children at home with their families. States that reduce the number of case- loads now lose federal dollars for foster care, called Title 4-E funds. Under the bill, those states could tap that stream of money for programs that help keep children at home or reduce the duration of their stay in foster care.

The changes could significantly benefit Washington, which wasn’t able to claim about $2.7 million in federal appropriations between 2008 and 2010 because it reduced its caseload by 13.8 percent.

“We have been implementing innovative programs to improve (the) foster care system for years,” said bill co-sponsor Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., during a speech on the Senate floor Friday. “Unfortunately, instead of being rewarded for these actions, we were penalized, and that is what this legislation has helped to correct.”

The existing federal funding system reimburses states for the number of children placed in foster care. When a state decreases its caseload, it loses money from the federal government. The bill’s supporters said the system offers no incentive for reducing caseloads and penalizes states that have developed innovative programs to keep children out of foster care.

“We do a good job of preventing kids from being taken out of their home in the first place or unifying children with their families,” said Rich Pannkuk, finance director for the state Children’s Administration. “What happens is we lost those Title 4-E funds. This bill gives us the ability to focus on the front end by preventing out-of-home placements while using (federal) Title dollars.”

Sharon Osborne, chief executive officer for the Children’s Home Society of Washington, said keeping children with their permanent family is crucial to emotional and mental development.

“Giving the child the ability to bond is extremely crucial,” Osborne said. “To the extent at which that is interrupted it can cause problems with the child throughout their lives.”

Children’s Home Society, which has offices in Vancouver and Washougal, offers parenting skill development programs to families referred by Child Protective Services. The bill could benefit those programs.

States that want to use the new option for spending the federal dollars have to apply for a “flexible funding waiver” from the federal government and may do so beginning in 2012. The application includes a plan and goals for reducing caseloads. Between 2012 and 2014, 30 states will be awarded the waiver, said Dan Ashby, chief of federal funding at the Children’s Administration. The waivers last for five years, he said.

One of the state services that could receive federal funding under the bill is the Intensive Family Preservation Services Program. That state-backed program provides in-home crisis intervention, education, assistance and skill development to families whose children are at imminent risk of being removed from their home. The skills and resources given to families through the program often can make it safe for the children to remain with their family instead of being placed in a foster home, said Cindy Hardcastle, an area administrator for Child and Family Services in Clark and Skamania counties.

Clark County now has money to serve about 100 families in the program, Hardcastle said.

“We have just so many families we can serve, and that’s it,” Hardcastle said. “We have many, many more who could benefit from the in-home services. If we don’t have capacity to provide intensive at-home services to keep children safe, then we really have to weigh if the child should remain in the home.”

The state has been a national leader in innovative child welfare reform. Cantwell wanted the state to be able to keep federal dollars to support its proactive approach, said Janeen Heath, Cantwell’s deputy press secretary.

The bill was passed in the Senate and House Thursday and Friday and is now in queue for the president’s signature. Obama could sign it by the end of the week, Heath said.

About 600 children are in the foster care system in Clark County, and another 200 families are in the Child Protective Services program, Hardcastle said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.