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Landmark foster care bill requires some work

Landmark foster care bill requires some work
Judge shows a certificate of family membership to a family who legally adopted a child in 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

Counties form the front lines of child protection in California, but it is Congress that provides much of the funding and the rules for spending it, so legislation shaped in Washington has an outsize impact on children and families here — for good or for ill.

As it begins its final weeks in session, the 114th Congress is taking up a bill known as the Family First Prevention Services Act that, if passed, would help keep children with their parents, or with extended families when their parents become temporarily unable to care for them. It would take an important step away from an outmoded and largely discredited funding model in which federal reimbursements for foster care gave states and counties a perverse incentive to remove as many children as possible from their homes despite mounting evidence that they do better in school — and in life — when kept with family.

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Proponents of the bill are pressing for quick passage, with no amendments. Any flaws, they argue, can be corrected with follow-up bills in a future Congress.

It is tempting to hold firm to the admonition to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and to urge lawmakers to pass this bill. But as correct as the philosophy behind the proposed legislation is, its flaws are glaring and would undermine progress that California and a handful of other states already have made toward better care for abused and neglected children. If the choice is between passing or rejecting the bill as is, it would be better if it were rejected. But that need not be the choice. Although time is short, there remains enough of it to make thoughtful adjustments and to adopt a properly amended version.

At its core, the bill's focus is correct. It would allow states and counties to spend more federal foster care dollars on services to help parents better care for their children — something that few jurisdictions do today. For example, a year's worth of money that currently can be used to pay only for removing a child from home and placing him or her in the care of strangers could be used instead to help parents deal with mental illness, drug addiction, a simple lack of basic parenting skills or whatever other problem is preventing them from properly caring for their children. If a child still has to be removed, the bill would roll back a current incentive for states and counties to dump children in group homes, many of which have earned reputations for inflicting abuse or neglect that is worse than what the children experienced with their parents. It also would make services available to grandparents and other family members who are willing to step in when parents aren't up to the task.

So what's the problem? There wouldn't be one in many states, where lawmakers are stuck in a mid-20th century mindset about foster care and have turned deaf ears to more recent developments in child welfare. This legislation could finally push those jurisdictions into smarter and more cost-efficient practices that emphasize preventing the need for foster care while blunting the impulse to remove children from home whenever the parents get into trouble.

But California is one of several forward-looking states that already have made great strides in prevention and finding productive alternatives to foster care. In fact, California is on the verge of further reforms, many years in the making, that are due to begin in a matter of weeks. The bill, if adopted as is, could negate many of those improvements and unnecessarily lock in high costs.

For example, the well-meaning provision that restricts funding for group homes could undermine Los Angeles County's programs for juveniles with behavioral problems. The proposed new standards are based on the assumption that special-needs kids who do need to be in group homes are suffering from severe mental illness. The law would require a physician or registered nurse in every group home — a mandate that makes little sense in L.A. County homes where juvenile residents are not ill, but instead need to be coaxed or otherwise extricated from commercial sex traffic or street gangs.

As for the child who might go to live with a grandparent (or other relative) under this bill while federal money is helping his or her parents get treatment for addiction, there is a different problem: Once the child is out of the house for a year, he or she no longer is eligible for foster care funding when the grandparent can't keep up the care. So when the child is first removed from his or her home, the family and the child's social workers have to choose — go right away to "stranger care" with a foster family, or go live with a relative and risk the loss of future foster care.

The fact that relative care is often (but not always) preferable to foster care is no knock on foster families, who should be considered heroes for opening their hearts and homes to children whose own families fail them. But foster parents are in short supply, and they should be a backstop rather than a first resort.

The problems with the Family First Prevention Services Act are readily solvable. They should be solved now, before a vote. Congress turns its attention to foster care overhauls on rare occasion, and it is not reasonable to expect that needed amendments would be high on the priority list of a new Congress next year.

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