The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 redirects federal funds to provide services to keep children with their families and out of foster care whenever possible. When foster care is needed, the act allows federal funds for reimbursement only when children are in family settings or specific types of residential treatment programs for children who need them. In addition, the act redirects federal funds to help families stay together and prevent children from going into foster care. In addition to the money business, the Family First Act would make it easier to place children with families over county and state lines.

The bill unanimously passed the House, but not the Senate. Three Senators, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) placed holds on the bill before they adjourned for this session. There is a slim chance that the bill could be voted on in a special session. If you live in CA, TX, or WY, it couldn’t hurt to call, email, and write your Senators asking them to put families first.

Debbi Goudreau spent much of the past year lobbying for the Family First Act. I was able to ask her some questions about the Act and her involvement.

Robyn Chittister: I know that you’ve been working with an organization for foster care reform.  Can you explain what your role has been in regards to this Act?

Debbi Goudreau: There are roughly 25 people in my section who research what laws related to CPS reform are coming to DC and brainstorm ways we can garner support for things we think will effect change. My role was mostly to write to organizations that promote family values and support finding families for kids in long term foster care to inform them of these laws, ask them to publicly support them, and ask if there were any ways we could help them support the bill we endorsed.

The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 was a heavy hitter that had unanimous support in the House. It did not have the same level of support in the Senate and became an all hands on deck emergency. In July, my team met with staffers from Barbara Boxer’s office to discuss why the California Senators were so against the bill. We were told that California had already restructured its congregate care system and to have funding cut for that would be detrimental to the state.

In September, it became critical to get support from as many people as possible to try and sway senators that were not in favor of the bill. California was key because we felt that if they supported it, then other states that were on the fence would follow their lead. From the time they read the bill on September 16th until the recess on September 29th, someone working or volunteering for our organization was outside the staff offices ready to talk any time they answered the door, or mailing, calling, and emailing Californians to encourage them to call their senators.

RC: Can you summarize what the Act proposes to do? Could you give real-world examples of families and children it would help?

DG: One thing the bill hoped to do was provide up to 12 months of in-home support prior to removal. There are interventions that have been proven to work based on evidence-based research. These are things like mental health services, family treatment centers for substance abuse, in-home parenting training, family and individual therapy, and disability services such as ABA therapy.

A specific mental health example I can give is a mother who, shortly after giving birth, experienced a postpartum psychosis. She thought her newborn had been sexually assaulted, took her to a hospital and insisted that the baby had been severely harmed and that someone was drugging her. She was a single mom, barely making ends meet, and was under tremendous stress and pressure. Her daughter had nothing wrong with her, but the hospital staff did not want to send her home with a “crazy mother” so they called CPS.

CPS showed up and put her five month old into foster care. [The] mom had no health insurance at the time, so it took months for her to get proper treatment for depression. Eventually, she was able to meet with a psychiatrist who treated her and eventually deemed her fit to parent. She found a full time job and an apartment, yet her daughter was still in care. Within six months, a state psychiatrist deemed her fit to parent and testified in court that her daughter should be returned, but the state argued for continued care citing “predictive neglect.”

She met someone and had a second baby, who was taken at birth based on her pending case with her daughter, but was returned to her care within days since all parties felt she was a fit mother who could provide a loving, safe environment. But her daughter was still not returned to her. By this time the state claimed there was no parent-child bond, petitioned for, and received an order for termination of parental rights and her daughter was adopted by the foster parents – all contact was cut at that time. Had mental health services been available to the “crazy” mother and had she been allowed to parent during her treatment there is reason to believe she would be raising her daughter today.

There are other examples of parents being forced to relinquish rights in order to get mental health care for their children since insurance may not cover it and the state will only provide assistance for kids in care.

Substance abuse is a huge problem. Research has shown that mothers in treatment do better when they can live with their families. Addiction is a family disease, and treating not only the addiction but the possible causes can go a long way. These treatment centers usually provide additional services such as parenting classes, health and nutrition education, access to support networks for after-treatment success, and so on.

Another thing in this bill is the defunding of non-family facilities. Lots of kids get put in group homes or other congregate care facilities because the state doesn’t have anywhere to put them. The bill calls for alternatives such as less red tape for kinship placements, and use of Kinship Navigator programs to help relatives get support when kids are placed with them. The bill reduces the time it takes to place with out-of-state family members and creating electronic systems to make the process more fluid and easier to complete. It also calls for transition services for kids that are aging out of the system by providing education and training vouchers.

The bill also creates grant opportunities for regional services to prevent abuse and neglect. These are targeted interventions to prevent substance abuse prior to CPS involvement. I think it specifically addresses heroin and opioids since it is a national epidemic.

This bill would also limit federal reimbursements for adoptions of foster children under the age of four. The thought here is that children in this category are not hard to place and the money saved could be reinvested into other services such as the prevention and transitional services noted above. There would, of course, be exceptions for kids with disabilities or illnesses that qualify them as special needs.

RC: California is trying to kill the bill. Do you believe there’s any hope of it seeing a vote this term?

DG: I don’t see them voting for it, but I’m an optimist so I don’t feel it’s over until it’s over.

RC: California is trying to kill the bill because they will lose money. What arguments have you used to try and get through to the Senators? What have their responses been?

DG: Our arguments have been steeped in research and in real life examples. We share statistics about the number of kids incorrectly removed, the number of kids that age out and experience things like prison, homelessness, unplanned pregnancies, and addiction. We discuss the alarming increase in the number of kids removed each year and the number adopted to non-related families. We cite research showing the benefits of family preservation.

We collected thousands of stories of parental rights being unfairly terminated, including “imminent harm” because a parent doesn’t read or speak English or because of a disability, failure to protect, medical kidnap, poverty mistaken for neglect, and so many more.

Most responses have been no response. They just ignore us. We did a letter writing campaign and got form letters back from every senator that replied. It’s incredibly frustrating.

When I said to one staffer that I thought it was supposed to be about the best interests of the children, he laughed at me and said, “No – it’s about the money.”

RC: If the bill is killed this term, do you believe that it will come back again next year?

DG: Yes and no. I believe something has to come because the current funding bill expires in 2019, so something has to take its place. Right now, the chance of the Senate passing it in special session is about slim to none, but there is a chance they will defund congregate care as it is today, so I think that would be a plus.

RC: Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about this Act?

DG: The system is so broken. It’s safe to sit back and think that kids are only removed when it’s really necessary or to not think about it at all because we are good parents and would never be in a position where our kids are taken. Nearly 1/3 of the kids removed should never be removed – that’s over 100,000 kids. When is that collateral damage going to get the attention it deserves? Some of the supports that will be in place with this act can stop those removals.

The truth is this affects everyone to some degree. Maybe not directly, but the longer we say “something is better than nothing because abused kids need help” the more broken the system is going to become. Kids need their family – be that their parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins… the importance of that connection can’t even be measured. If we don’t support families in need then who are we as a society? No family is perfect and everyone can benefit from a hand up once in a while.

The kids affected by the brokenness of the system today are going to be the parents of tomorrow. With the exponential effects of that it’s only a matter of time until everyone knows someone affected by the system. I never thought it would affect me and then it did. My son almost died due to a negligent case worker. His sister has severe PTSD because of her removal. The system causes a lot of harm and we have to do something to stop it from breaking families when they can be saved.