adoption than on programs to keep children safely out of foster care. It spends at least $9.6 billion on foster care and adoption. It spends, at most, $700 million to $830 million on preventing needless foster care. Family First Changes Almost Nothing The Family First Prevention Services Act (Family First) has been called “revolutionary”. 23 It’s been called a landmark. 24 It’s been called the law that will “change foster care as we know it.” 25 It’s been called “a huge overhaul of foster care.” 26 It is none of those things. The law allows some IV-E foster care money to be used for prevention—but it is so full of limits that it is almost meaningless. 27 You can’t use Family First for what families need most: concrete help such as housing assistance and childcare. You can only use it for three specific types of services, two of which are likely to be largely worthless. Indeed, the law reinforces the “medical model” that has sent child welfare in the wrong direction for more than half a century. The medical model postulates that child abuse and neglect are the faults of parents who, while not necessarily evil, are certainly sick. Thus, it is in no way the fault of the larger society; it is strictly something wrong with the parent. 28 So, while Family First allows funding for one service that is genuinely useful, drug treatment, the only other services it will fund are mental health treatment and home-based treatment emphasizing the system’s old standbys: counseling and parent education. While there are times such services can be genuinely useful, often they become just one more hoop a family has to jump through; so they can actually make a family’s situation worse. That’s because the foster care-industrial complex tends to confuse cause and effect. The stresses of poverty may lead to substance abuse and mental illness. Instead of increasing
the stress by adding all those hoops, states should focus on alleviating the poverty. And if that isn’t enough to ameliorate the substance abuse or mental illness, then the solution is still money—so poor people can treat their substance use and mental health issues the way rich people do: by purchasing the help they need. Multiple studies have demonstrated the transformative power of cash in reducing what family policing agencies label “neglect.” 29 Claims by defenders of the status quo that children are not torn from their homes because of poverty “alone” are irrelevant. If the solution is money, the problem is poverty. One of the few truly valuable programs approved for funding under Family First is a program called Homebuilders, which combines counseling with concrete help and does both in ways directed by the family instead of imposed by the therapist. To the extent that states and localities embrace this program, it will make Family First more valuable. And Homebuilders meets the other key criterion to be eligible for ______________ 23 Wogan, J.B. “The Revolutionary Foster Care Law Buried in February's Federal Spending Deal.” Governing , May 13, 2018. https://www.governing.com/archive/gov-family- first-foster-care-child-welfare-congress.html 24 Every Kid Needs a Family, About This Project (National Center for State Courts, Undated.) https://www.ncsc. org/everykid 25 Wiltz, Teresa. “This New Federal Law Will Change Foster Care As We Know It.” Stateline, May 2, 2018. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/ blogs/stateline/2018/05/02/this-new-federal-law- will-change-foster-care-as-we-know-it 26 Ibid. 27 For an overview, see Wexler, Richard. “Family First Act Institutionalizes Institutions, Sets Up Prevention to Fail.” The Imprint , June 30, 2016. https://imprintnews. org/opinion/family-first-institutionalizes-institutions- sets-prevention-fail/19342. See also Wexler, Richard. “Don’t believe the hype. The Family First Act is a step backwards for child welfare finance reform,” NCCPR Child Welfare Blog, Feb. 9, 2018. https://www.nccprblog. org/2018/02/dont-believe-hype-family-first-act-is. html 28 For a detailed discussion, see Wexler, Richard. “Child abuse is not a public health problem, it's a social justice problem.” Presentation to the Kempe Center International Virtual Conference: A Call to Action to Change Child Welfare, Oct. 6, 2020. https://www.nccprblog.org/2020/10/child-abuse-is- not-public-health.html 29 For further discussion and links to some of these studies see Wexler, Richard, “Want to Prevent Child Abuse? Behold the Transformative Power Of Cash,” Youth Today , Aug. 14, 2019.
62 | FIJ Quarterly | Summer 2022
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