As social dynamics change, so must funding: testimony to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee

A recent hearing of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee marks a significant step in the effort to reform the way the federal government finances child welfare and provide states with additional flexibility to ensure safe, stable and permanent homes for vulnerable children.

The committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., invited four experts to testify at the March 10, 2011, hearing, including Dr. William C. Bell, president and CEO of Casey Family Programs. Bell offered technical assistance to the committee regarding innovations in child welfare.


Good morning, Chairman Baucus, Ranking Member Sen. Hatch, in his absence, and all the members of the Senate Finance Committee. Thank you for the invitation to join you today. I am William C. Bell, president and CEO of Casey Family Programs, a national foundation committed to improving the lives of vulnerable children and families in America. Casey Family Programs has been serving children in foster care for nearly 45 years, and we’ve come to believe that the goals of child welfare should be both to keep children, who have been abused and neglected safe from further harm and to prevent the need for foster care in the first place by strengthening vulnerable families and their communities.

Casey understands that it takes both human and financial resources to be successful. And so, we have committed to spend approximately $1 billion of our own endowment over the next nine years to help protect and support our nation’s most vulnerable children.

However, we know that in order for us to meet the goals of safely reducing the need of foster care in this country, we must partner with public and private agencies, communities, advocates, other private philanthropies, and all branches of the state and federal government. This is why we are so grateful that you’ve dedicated this time to discuss how the expansion of waivers can help improve outcomes for children in foster care and those at risk of entering foster care.

Since Casey began its 2020 Strategy for America’s Children, there’s been a 17 percent reduction in the nation’s foster care population. From just over 510,000 children in out-of-home care in fiscal year 2005, to just over 420,000 in 2009. I believe this is, in part, due to an increasing number of child welfare agencies working successfully with families upstream, identifying other safe alternatives for children besides foster care, and emphasizing prevention and post permanency support as integral parts of child welfare practice.

However, many states across the country are facing dramatic budget cuts and many of the innovative and prevention focused services that help reduce reliance on foster care are most at risk of being cut.

According to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, states are making unprecedented cuts in mental health spending.  Nearly four percent, as a national average between 2008 and 2009, an additional 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, and 8 percent or more projected for 2011. These cuts reduce community-based treatment for children and parents at risk of becoming involved in the child welfare system and/or foster care placement.

Research shows that lack of community mental health and substance abuse services increases demands on families. It increases demands on the child welfare system and other health and human services programs.

There are specific state examples, as well. Such as in Illinois, the governor’s budget proposal cuts approximately 10 percent of the Department of Human Services budget, including a proposed mental health budget cut of $35 million. Advocates say that more than 70,000 people, including 4,200 children, are in danger of losing basic community-based services.

We believe that enhanced flexibility through waivers could help states continue these evidence-based programs within their current federal funding. If we are to continue the positive momentum and capitalize on progress already realized on behalf of our children. We must consider changing our policies around child welfare financing. We need finance reform that funds and institutionalizes the kinds of innovative practices that produce the positive results and outcomes we desire.

Title IV-E waivers are an important step in that direction. Seven states that have current waivers, that have the flexibility waivers, and countless other states who receive waivers on their previous authority have demonstrated that innovation and improved outcomes can be achieved.

One waiver state that has been particularly effective is Florida. Florida has reduced the number of children in foster care by nearly 35 percent, between fiscal years 2005 and 2010. They have done so because they are now able to take Title IV-E dollars that normally would have been limited to foster care and used them to support front-end services, allowing children to remain safely at home and preventing the need for more expensive forms of out-of-home care.

Florida was also able to protect its Child Welfare Department from drastic budget cuts because under its Title IV-E waiver, they were required to invest a certain level of state funding in order to receive the federal funding. Florida then reinvested these dollars in programs and services that better met the needs of children and youth in foster care, particularly those who were most vulnerable – youth about to age out of foster care. For example, Florida has used some of its reinvestment to fund the option in Fostering Connections to extend foster care to age 21, and to provide enhanced support to youth to encourage them to stay in school or find employment.

We are learning more each day about how best to serve our most vulnerable children and families. Federal financing policies need to keep pace with what we’re learning. However, until Congress passes comprehensive child welfare finance reform, we urge you to reauthorize the waiver program so that more of our resources are available to support innovation and more effective interventions that better meet the needs of all America’s most vulnerable children.

Chairman Baucus, you said that at the passing of Fostering Connections, that our work was not yet finished. I thank you personally today for seeking to continue that work and moving toward comprehensive finance reform with these hearings today.

I thank you for the opportunity to testify today and I look forward to responding to your questions.

Thank you.

CHAIRMAN BAUCUS: Well, thank you very much, Dr. Bell. I’d like you, Charlie and Jojo, now that you’ve heard Ms. Allen and Dr. Bell, what are some of your experiences that you think they are addressing and being addressed, which ones not? What are your basic suggestions, in addition to what they’ve said? They talked about the waivers and experimental waivers and progress that a lot of these waivers have made. So just a couple thoughts. We want to make the system betterso better. What would you suggest? I know that, Charlie, you talked about connections. And so how we can make better connections?

CHARLIE McNEELY: For me, I think prevention is key. I think that’s the whole concept behind keeping a family together is preventing the foster kids from even having to enter care. Sometimes entering care is inevit…


CHAIRMAN BAUCUS: Thirty seconds.

WILLIAM C. BELL: What I would say is that waivers have shown that they’re not a silver bullet. They are an opportunity to improve upon what we currently have. And I think we have to be concerned about states who are waiver-ready and who have demonstrated that they have a clear plan of action and that they’re moving towards improving outcomes.

What the waivers – the flexible funding waivers, as distinguished from single project waivers – flexible funding waivers allow for states to expand the use of their dollars and federal dollars to pay for services that are absolutely needed to keep children safe in their communities, but are not available under the current way financing is structured.

I think that the waivers have also demonstrated that the real solution is comprehensive finance reform, because waivers are a temporary step and we have to make sure that we change the way federal dollars are allowed to be spent. And I think that’s what we’ve learned from states like Florida…


WILLIAM C. BELL: …and counties in California.

CHAIRMAN BAUCUS: Thank you very much. So, right now I have to call on Sen. Cantwell who’s got a good Seattle, Washington connection here.