Federal act will help Washington state keep children safe, families together

By:  Ruth Kagi
Source: The Seattle Times

SOMETIMES, for their own safety and well-being, children are better off in foster care than in their own homes.

And sometimes, it is better for children to remain safely with their own families.

Washington state has long been an innovator in its efforts to improve the way we help children and families struggling with child abuse and neglect. By focusing on effective intervention programs that keep children together with their mothers, fathers and siblings, Washington's foster-care caseload declined 18 percent between 2008 and 2011.

Yet this kind of innovation has until recently been penalized at the federal level. States are provided with federal foster-care funding only if they place children in out-of-home care. Every family we've kept together has actually meant less child-welfare dollars coming our way, and at a time when our safety net is already stretched.

Over the past two years alone, our state has lost $2.7 million in federal funds that could have gone toward intervention programs to help keep vulnerable families together. We're being punished for having better outcomes.

This loss of funding is painful. Our child-welfare system faces severe budget constraints, while the state struggles to fund services for children and families.

I recently spoke with a caseworker who removed a baby from her depressed and neglectful mom because there was no funding available for a public-health nurse to visit and support her. These unnecessary out-of-home placements can and must be prevented.

Thankfully, Congress has listened and responded to the need for reform. We owe a debt of gratitude to our own Congressman Jim McDermott for taking action on this issue after hearing about the problems we've had funding state prevention services. For three years, he worked with Republicans on his committee to change the old, punitive system and sponsored the original bill to change it.

In the Senate, Sen. Maria Cantwell listened to my concerns and those of child-welfare advocates about specific provisions of the Senate bill, and amended it to address these concerns. She pushed to give states the flexibility to fund evidence-based practices and other strategies that improve child-welfare outcomes, and for states to have a sufficient period of time to implement foster-care funding waivers and measure results.

Cantwell noted in a statement to the Senate Finance Committee that renewal of the waiver authority promotes innovation rather than penalizing it.

Last September, Congress passed the Children & Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act, which authorizes federal foster-care funding waivers for individual states, giving them more flexibility to use child-welfare dollars to keep families safely together, not just break them apart. Our state is preparing to apply for one of 10 waivers authorized in the bill.

Several bills currently before the Legislature will support this effort, including House Bill 2263, which will require savings in state funds resulting from lower caseloads to be reinvested in services to improve outcomes for children and families.

Passage of the Children & Family Services Improvement & Innovation Act will help our state move from simply purchasing services to purchasing outcomes. This kind of reform will keep more families together, keep more children safe, and allow us to put our limited dollars to the best possible use.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, represents the 32nd Legislative District.