HUNTINGTON - Change can be scary, and the Family First Prevention Services Act passed by Congress this year will make some significant changes to the way states handle their foster care programs.
Those in West Virginia who work closely with the system say the change is a needed one.
The Family First Prevention Services Act - or simply Family First - was signed into law as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act in February. It reforms the federal child welfare funding streams, Title IV-E and Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, allowing these funds to also be used to provide services to families who are at risk of entering the child welfare system. The act is implemented in phases, with the funding changes taking effect in October 2019.
Currently, the majority of federal funding reimburses the state when a child is removed from the home. Under the new act, those same funds can now be used for preventative services, like substance abuse treatment or in-home parental education.
Amy Rickman, state director for NECCO in West Virginia, said with the ability to use more preventative services to keep more families as units, some really good things can be achieved.
"In West Virginia, we had already begun driving in that direction with the Safe at Home program," Rickman said. "We started moving in that direction four years ago. I think with more support things we already started can build."
Safe at Home works with children in congregate care between the ages of 12 and 17, providing comprehensive wrap-around services to them and their families to either reunify families or keep them together in the first place. The program requires youth-serving organizations work together, from the school to the court system to behavioral health.
Rickman said she hoped with the funding change, they could expand the program to serve all ages.
"I think that will be a huge drive especially with the opioid crisis right now and the work we are all trying to do to recruit great foster families," she said. "We can do more prevention in the younger cases and have a drive to get children out of facilities and into single family homes to get them the help they need."
Rickman said the act will also require all providers use evidence-based methods. She said most do, but some of the smaller organizations in the state do not currently.
State Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, a former juvenile judge in Cabell County for 30 years, said this new bill is critical and if there is going to be a silver bullet to address the foster care crisis, it is Family First. He said it is an investment in children.
"I can't think of a better way to help kids than to funnel money to support their families," Woelfel said.
As of the end of August, there were 6,683 children in the state's foster care system, according to a monthly report from the Bureau of Children and Families. Almost 50 percent of those children are with kinship/relatives.
Woelfel said those that grow up in traditional home settings see model parenting, but a lot more people today need that additional family education, which teaches things like how to de-escalate situations or what to do if a parent is in substance abuse treatment.
"No one would stand for a child staying in an abusive situation or an unsafe home, but most of these homes are just stressed to the max," he said.
He added it could also help all of the grandparents now raising their grandchildren, especially if they do not qualify for services like Medicare.
"We are facing a tsunami in this state, and the old ways won't work," Woelfel said.
But even with all the good, Rickman said it's important to remember the need for foster parents is not going away.
"We are still in a crisis," Rickman said. "Family First does not start now. Children are being placed in the system every day because of what is going on. We still need foster parents, and if you are thinking about it, you need to call."
To learn more about how to become a foster parent, visit www.necco.org, or call 304-733-0036 to reach the Huntington office.