Pennsylvania was among a handful of states awarded a federal foster care funding waiver last year, which allows greater flexibility in how counties can use federal dollars to improve foster care outcomes. So far, five counties - Allegheny, Dauphin, Lackawanna, Philadelphia and Venango – have stepped forward to take advantage of the waiver under this 5-year pilot.
Now, the commonwealth’s other counties have the chance to decide if they want to benefit as well, as two remaining windows of opportunity remain (this year and next year) to sign on to the waiver.
The waiver is an important tool in helping states and counties revamp how they fund foster care services, potentially enabling them to put more money into services that prevent child abuse and help kids stay in their homes instead of moving into foster care. To understand how the waiver does this, you need to understand how the federal funding system has worked.
Traditionally, the amount of federal funding a state receives for foster care is dependent upon its foster care population – the more kids in foster care, the more money the state received. But this funding scheme posed a problem for states like Pennsylvania that had made laudable efforts to reduce their foster care populations. Because our foster care population was shrinking, Pennsylvania began receiving less federal financial support. In essence, we lost money because we were succeeding in reducing the foster care population.
Under the waiver, Pennsylvania and its participating counties will no longer face the loss of federal financial support when children successfully leave foster care. That’s because the waiver provides a fixed amount of funding in exchange for the increased flexibility in how that funding can be used, and any money saved by reducing the foster care population can be reinvested into services to prevent the need for foster care.
Just as importantly, the waiver enables federal funding to benefit more kids than the old funding methods allowed. Consider this:
- Nationally, more than 3 million children experience a child abuse investigation or assessment each year.
- About 765,000 of those children receive child welfare services of some kind, and 251,000 of them will enter foster care.
- Yet only 170,000 of the children in foster care are eligible to benefit from the $4.4 billion the federal government contributes to foster care costs because of the lack of flexibility in how those funds can be used.
In contrast, the federal funding stream for services to keep the 3 million children out of foster care only totals $703 million. Clearly, we can come up with a better way to fund child welfare services, and the waiver is a great short-term solution that more counties should be signing on to use. But some counties seem reluctant to do so out of concern that, if their foster care population unexpectedly increases, they won’t receive any additional federal money beyond the fixed amount the waiver provides.
Such shortsighted reasoning isn’t doing more to help kids. The real concern should be about how the existing, antiquated funding method really doesn’t serve our kids well.
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