My Turn, Vernon Walters: Family First Prevention Act will bring changes to child welfare system

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 19, 2021

By Vernon Walters

Most often change is a good thing. That’s certainly the case with the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA).

The FFPSA is the first major change in this country’s foster and residential care system in almost 50 years. The legislation, as the name implies, puts the family structure first through prevention. The goal is to keep families together.

That has been the primary objective here at Nazareth Child and Family Connection for over 100 years. In fact, most of the children who spend time with us end up back within the family structure, be it returned to parents, grandparents, older siblings, or other family members.

We totally endorse the FFPSA, which goes into effect Oct. 1, and the positive changes it will bring to the child welfare system.

The FFPSA concept is built on three pillars: keeping families together, ensuring children can live with a family if they must be removed, and improvement in access to high quality residential treatment when needed. It supports the obvious: all children are valued, all children need and deserve their own families, to flourish they need family life, and they should have the highest quality of services possible.

The FFPSA forces our country to realize the system we have utilized for decades has not worked effectively. The notion that reaction to a family problem will fix it has proven to be faulty and needs improvement. With the implementation of the FFPSA, prevention of problems before intervention is needed is key with the goal of reducing the number of children in foster care, which has skyrocketed in recent years.

From a philosophical standpoint the FFPSA is commendable. There is no greater goal than keeping children with their true families. But sometimes the divide between commendable and reasonable is great. That’s the case with the FFPSA.

With the focus turned to prevention services, there will be a greater need for trauma-informed treatment. But despite that need, the bill does not provide any additional funding for prevention. Instead, it took funds from residential services, which will not be replaced.

With the implementation of FFPSA will come a greater dependence on family foster homes. While, again, this is a laudable goal, there is already a dire shortage of foster parents in this country with every state reporting huge recruitment needs for fostering. At Nazareth, we are in constant recruitment mode for foster parents, with at least two sessions of training classes a year, but we remain far short of what we need.

With the move toward increased fostering comes a diminished emphasis on group care with federal funding slashed, making a huge, negative impact on group care facilities like Nazareth.

Currently federal funding runs through the county where a facility is located, and that county passes the funding along. With the implementation of FFPSA, though, if there isn’t foster care available for a child after 14 days, federal funding is cut to the county and the county is responsible for the cost going forward. We calculate that cost could top $900,000 annually for children placed at Nazareth.

There are certain allowable exceptions under the new law that would preclude the cutting of funds. Nazareth provides many of the services that fall under those exceptions, including transitional living for those identified in danger of commercial trafficking, a teen mother program and help in providing foster homes.

Again, despite some funding challenges, we are in total support of the Family First Prevention Services Act. It brings much-needed change to the system and should have a positive impact on thousands of children every year. Our amazing staff will implement these changes and as they always have, work for the best possible outcome, making sure very child can be the best they can be.

Vernon Walters Jr. is CEO of Nazareth Child & Family Connection, which is based in Rowan County.