On September 29, 2014 President Obama signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (Public Law 113-183 or the Strengthening Families Act). As detailed below, the law will protect children from sex trafficking, enhance the Adoption Incentive program, enable children in care to participate in normal childhood activities, and fund new post-adoption and post-guardianship supports. The law also has several child support provisions.
The bill’s movement through Congress was rocky. Although it passed the House in July, the Senate was set to adjourn on September 18 without taking action. But the community rallied—child welfare groups, including NACAC, sent urgent action alerts, asking people to encourage their Senators to pass the bill. Senators heard the message and passed the bill in time.
With the law comes a new opportunity for advocacy. Many provisions will require state action, and NACAC is particularly excited to work with advocates to ensure the designated funding is invested in post-permanency support services.
Title I — Protecting Children and Youth at Risk of Sex Trafficking
Identifying and Protecting Children at Risk of Sex Trafficking
The new law has several provisions to prevent children in care or at risk of entering care from becoming victims of sex trafficking. States must develop policies to identify, document, and determine services for children involved with the child welfare system who are victims of trafficking and who are at risk of becoming victims. Because they are at higher risk, states must also improve practices for children who run away from care. The law also requires jurisdictions to report data on children who have fallen victim to trafficking.
Increasing Children’s Chances to Participate in Activities
In recent years, youth have testified powerfully about how being in foster care prevented them from participating in normal activities. Youth told of not being able to go on sleepovers, play sports, or attend prom because they needed permission from professionals. To address this problem, the new law includes these provisions:
- By September 29, 2015, states must implement a “reasonable and prudent parent standard,” which will enable foster parents to make more daily decisions for youth in their care. States must revise licensing rules to incorporate the standard and provide training to parents on the standard. States must also ensure that foster care institutions designate an onsite caregiver to use the standard.
- Beginning in fiscal year 2020, the law will make $3 million per year available to support youth’s participation in age-appropriate activities.
Reducing the Use of APPLA
To increase children’s chance of achieving a legally permanent family, the Strengthening Families Act prohibits states from using the Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) case goal for children under 16. Youth with this designation are at high risk of aging out of care without a family. Under the new law, children younger than 16 must have a case goal of return home, adoption, guardianship, or relative placement. Youth 16 and up may still have an APPLA case goal, but states must document ongoing efforts to achieve permanency and the rationale for why other permanency options are not in the youth’s best interests.
Enhancing Support to Older Youth
Several other provisions, to be implemented within one year, are designed to empower youth in care and help increase their chances of a better future:
- Youth 14 and older can help develop their own case plan, including identifying trusted adults for the case planning team. Youth will receive written information about their rights, including those related to education, health, visitation, and court participation.
- Jurisdictions must provide youth who are 18 and have spent at least six months in care with a birth certificate, Social Security card, health insurance information, medical records, and a driver’s license or state ID card.
- The state must provide young people 14 and older with a annual credit report and help resolve inaccuracies.
Title II — Improving Adoption Incentives and Extending Family Connection Grants
Creating a New Adoption and Guardianship Incentive Program
The law enhanced the Adoption Incentive Payment program, extended it to September 30, 2016, and authorized level funding of $43 million per year. Changes include a new guardianship benefit and a transition to incentives based on the adoption rate (the number of adoptions for the fiscal year divided by the number of children in care at the end of the previous fiscal year). The baseline will be the previous year’s adoption rate or an average of the last three years’ rates, whichever is lower.
Now called Adoption and Legal Guardianship Incentive Payments, bonuses will be calculated as follows beginning in fiscal year 2016:
- $5,000 per placement for increases in the adoption rate
- $4,000 per placement for increases in the guardianship rate
- $7,500 per placement for increases in the rate of adoption or guardianship for children 9 to 13
- $10,000 per placement for increases in the rate of adoption or guardianship for children 14 and older
If all of the funds appropriated are not earned, the law enables the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to award states for timely adoptions. The law gives states three years to spend bonuses and prohibits them from using payments to replace existing child welfare funding.
For the September 2015 payment for fiscal year 2014 adoptions, the program will be a hybrid of the new calculations and the old, which rewarded increases in the number of overall adoptions, adoptions of children nine and up, and special needs adoptions. During this transition year, payments will be half of what the state would have earned under the old system and half of its earnings under the new rate-based system.
Investing Funds in Post-Permanency Services
One of the provisions of the law that NACAC fought hardest for relates to the 2008 Fostering Connections Act’s expansion of Title IV-E adoption assistance. Fostering Connections eliminated the link between a birth parent’s income and a child’s eligibility for IV-E adoption assistance. Phased in by age,, the increased eligibility means that states are receiving new federal dollars, which were directed to be spent on child welfare. Since 2008, however, states struggled with how to calculate the amount saved and track reinvestment in child welfare services. (See next page for more information.)
The Strengthening Connections Act now requires states to:
- Track and report the amount of saved funds, including how the state calculates the savings
- Report how the state is spending the funds on child welfare services
- Spend at least 30 percent of the funds on post-adoption and post-guardianship services and services to prevent foster placement; at least 20 percent of the total must be spent on post-adoption and post-guardianship services
The law notes that reinvested funds cannot be used to supplant existing state child welfare funding. In addition, it directs HHS to develop and share with states a method for calculating the savings. States are allowed to design their own calculations, but must have their process approved by HHS.
Making Other Adoption and Guardianship Changes
Other adoption- and guardianship-related provisions, all of which are effective immediately, include:
- Requiring HHS to collect data on adoptions and legal guardianships that disrupt (before finalization) or dissolve (after finalization).
- Ensuring that children remain eligible for Title IV-E guardianship assistance if their legal guardian dies or is unable to care for them and they are placed with a pre-named successor guardian.
- Requiring notification of parents caring for a child through foster care or adoption if a sibling of that child enters foster care. This provision is designed to encourage placement of children with siblings whenever possible.
Extending the Family Connection Grants
The Strengthening Families Act funded, at $15 million, the Family Connections Grant Program for work undertaken in fiscal year 2015. This program funds kinship navigator services and family finding, among other services. This extension will enable the continuation of existing three-year grant programs that would otherwise have ended on September 30, 2014.
NACAC is grateful for the efforts of congressional leaders and staff and child welfare advocates who worked so hard to ensure passage of the Strengthening Families Act, especially the bill’s co-sponsors: Representatives David Camp (R–MI), Sandy Levin (D–MI), Dave Reichert (R–WA), and Lloyd Doggett (D–TX), and Senators Ron Wyden (D–OR) and Orrin Hatch (R–UT).