A lot remains to be determined about how a new federal law aimed at preventing children from being placed in foster homes will actually work, but local stakeholders got a taste of what to expect at a meeting Friday, Oct. 5, at the Hall County Government Center.
“As with any new topic, it’s hard to see how it will be implemented in day-to-day lives,” said Richard Highsmith, Georgia special assistant attorney general to Habersham, Rabun, Stephens, Towns and Union counties. “A lot of these things are just now being put together.”
The Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal law that seeks to bolster more preventive resources and services to keep children from entering the foster care system, was passed as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act in February.
Specifically, the act provides federal reimbursement to states for mental health and substance abuse counseling, as well as in-home parenting skills programs.
But many things need to come together and be put in place for state agencies to meet the federal guidelines established in the new law, Highsmith said, such as clarity from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about what level of services will be eligible for federal reimbursement.
For example, these services need to be evidence-based, steeped in research and trials, and peer-reviewed.
Some provisions are not yet in effect, and state officials appear likely to ask the federal government for a waiver to temporarily delay the implementation of the full act to ensure proper protocols are being followed.
Foster care “stakeholders” are still awaiting a release of approved programs from the federal government, which is supposed to be available this month.
“It really changes the focus of what a lot of work is going to be directed toward,” Highsmith said.
The law also seeks to improve the well-being of children already in foster care by incentivizing states to reduce placement of children in group homes.
Attendees agreed that the growing number of foster care children in Hall County, which surpassed 350 this past summer, is partly attributable to the national opioid abuse epidemic.
Trends are now moving toward the least restrictive intervention possible, with foster care as a final option rather than an immediate stopgap, stakeholders said.
But funding for prevention is lacking.
According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, the state Division of Family and Children Services budget poured $221 million into out-of-home care in the 2018 fiscal year; $192 million for child welfare services; $33 million for adoption services; but just $1 million for child abuse and neglect prevention services.
“It’s really going to take the community to get us ready,” said Lindsay Burton, chief judge of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court, about the new law.
She added that more service providers and foster homes are needed.
“We need a lot more foster families for teenagers,” Burton said. “It’ll be interesting to see when all this goes into play.”