Child Welfare and the Family First Act

By: Stephanie W. Adams, MSW CSW, social work program director, EKU Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work

Today, we sat in court as the judge ordered the termination of parental rights of our foster sons’ birth mother. The 10 year old has been in foster care twice – for a total of five years, in five different homes. His three year old brother has been in care since he was eight months old. He has lived in three different foster homes. We can all agree that it’s time for these boys to be in a forever home, with permanence and protection. But this is a still a very sad day for everyone involved. Their mom loves them. Despite the fact they won’t live with her again, despite the fact that they have been in care for more months than they have lived with her, she loves them. And they love her. More than 9,000 children in the state of Kentucky are living in foster care right now – we rank 9th in the country. We like our basketball team to be top 10 but this isn’t a good ranking for children living in out of home placement.

In this case, while the children had three loving foster homes, and while their mom had access to supports and services designed to help her gain back custody of her children, the system has failed this family.  And those boys will continue to feel the effects of that failure for a lifetime, even when they are adopted and become part of a new family. The negative impact of any disruption in a child’s family situation is well researched. Foster care placement often becomes one more adverse childhood event (ACE) for children who are often in families dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence. The accumulation of these ACEs will impact these children into adulthood, leading to an increased risk of physical and mental illness.

Recognizing that even one failure is too many, Congress passed the Family First Act, a new federal child welfare act. This federal legislation is now being implemented in Kentucky, as well as the other states in the nation.

This new law focuses on prevention. This is really important because in Kentucky right now, we are spending significantly more on foster care than on preventive family services. States will now be able to use federal funds to address mental health challenges; to provide substance abuse treatment; and to implement in-home parent skill-based programs. These are three of the main reasons children end up in foster care. Instead of waiting until the child is removed, states will be able to set up supports when there is risk of removal. Even more importantly, the legislation requires that the programs offered must have a record of effectiveness. Money will be available for programs and services that have been shown to be best practice – not just the same old things we’ve been doing without any evidence that they worked.

Fixing the child welfare system and ensuring that Kentucky children grow up in safe and stable families is going to take time, effort and money. The Family First Act is a good first step!

Published on February 13, 2020