SALT LAKE CITY — For decades, child welfare authorities operated under the assumption that the best course for children who had been neglected or abused was to remove them from their homes and place them in foster care or group homes.
But years of studying outcomes and advances in neuroscience have confirmed that children removed from their families experience intense trauma that can last a lifetime.
Many states, including Utah, have changed their child welfare practices as a result of these discoveries. When it is safe and appropriate, a growing number of caseworkers are serving families in their homes to help address parenting, mental health and substance use disorder issues that resulted in reports to child welfare authorities.
Those practices have been enhanced by federal waivers that allow states to use federal foster care funding more flexibly than federal statutes allow.
"We, as many states, have been able to front-load resources, really getting services and support to families at the very first touch we have in terms of a prevention focus, and less reactive to the crisis," says Ann Silverberg Williamson, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services.
The successes Utah has experienced using dedicated foster funds for its HomeWorks program through the waiver could be in jeopardy unless the U.S. Senate passes a key piece of legislation by the end of the month.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, drafted by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would provide states federal support for substance abuse treatment and mental health services for parents and in-home parenting programs that enable parents to get the help they need to safely care for their kids.
The legislation would also set high national standards for foster care group homes to ensure vulnerable children get the care they need to address the trauma they have experienced.
The legislation passed the House of Representatives and is before the Senate, which is planning to adjourn by month's end.
Hatch says the Senate needs to pass the legislation because "at-risk children and their families cannot wait any longer. For too long, when these families cannot get the help they need, the only recourse is to remove a child from the home and place the child with strangers — or worse, in a group home."
"And for too long, inappropriate placements in group homes have led to negative outcomes for children and youth," he said.
If the legislation does not pass, Utah's ability to spend federal dollars on in-home services through a demonstration waiver, and reauthorization of the funding itself, will expire in September 2018.
The programming would largely be limited to state appropriations.
Williamson said she is concerned that if the legislation does not clear the Senate, Utah will lose the momentum of its HomeWorks pilot program, launched in 2013.
The demonstration project is credited with a statewide reduction in the time children are in foster care from a median of 9.1 months to 7.9 months.
Numbers of children entering foster care have been reduced by 4 percent after their families received in-home services.
In the most recent fiscal year, the Utah Division of Child and Family Services served 4,666 children in foster care and 5,836 children in their homes through the HomeWorks initiative.
For decades, child welfare authorities' practice model consisted of a report of risk or a threat to safety followed by removing a child from a home, Williamson said.
"Yet, what we know is a system is not a nurturing environment for a child. A child needs to be loved, nurtured and cared for in a home with a family, preferably their family. If their parents are unable, then relatives," Williamson said.
"Children really, really need the comfort and the security of their cultural identity, their familial norms. The harm that's done to them when we separate them from that environment really has far-reaching consequences that we now appreciate," she said.
Data regarding children who leave the foster care system as young adults are especially troubling. Many are homeless and at risk of being trafficked.
"Those are horrifying outcomes that we have to change. That's what a prevention focus allows us to do," Williamson said.
Meanwhile, a national coalition of foster youths, family advocates, and health and human services leaders is calling Senate members to address the legislation before the fall recess.
“Continuing the status quo is unacceptable. In the three months since the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Family First Act, more than 33,000 children have been removed from their families and placed into foster care," said a statement from the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, FosterClub, Generations United and The National Alliance of Children's Trust and Prevention Funds.
"Due to developments in neuroscience, we now know that the trauma suffered by children removed from their families has lifelong ripple effects on brain development. The Family First Act would provide supportive services to children, parents and caregivers in their home, ensuring thousands of children could remain safely with their families."