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Reforming the Lookback Provision- California’s #1 Child Welfare Priority

February 13, 2012

By Amy Lemley

Here in California, we are extremely fortunate to have the leadership of Congresswoman Karen Bass.  First as Speaker of the California State Assembly, and now as a member of Congress, Karen Bass has committed herself to elevating the issue of foster care.

 Congresswomen Bass has been the driving force behind the creation of the Congressional Foster Youth Caucus, which will have its first a town hall meeting this Saturday, February 25th in Los Angeles. It’s only fitting that the first meeting be held here in California, which has the largest population, the largest congressional delegation and, most importantly, the largest child welfare system in the nation.

 So what do we want Washington to do for foster youth?

 In my opinion, the most important change is fixing the so-called “lookback” provision of Federal foster care eligibility. This provision goes back some 25 years, when foster care was linked to the federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Although AFDC was eliminated in 1996 as part of welfare “reform,” eligibility for federal foster care continues to be based on the 1996 AFCD income standard. Simply put, for a child to be eligible for federal foster care, the family from which it was removed must have income at or below the 1996 income standard, which has not been adjusted for inflation. If a child is not federally eligible, the federal government will not pay its share of the cost (50% in California); instead 100% of the cost gets picked up by the states.

 As you can imagine, tying federal foster care eligibility to a 1996 income standard—the “lookback provision”–has had the effect of making fewer and fewer children federally-eligible every year. According to a 2005 policy brief by the Pew Charitable Trust, the percentage of federally eligible children nationally dropped from 53 percent in 1998 to 46 percent in 2005, translating into a $1.9 billion dollar loss of federal funding nationwide.  According to the same analysis, the drop in federal eligibility was even greater in California than nationally, decreasing from 66.3 percent in 1998 to 59.1 percent in 2005.

 Fixing the lookback provision takes on a new sense of urgency given the recent “realignment” of child welfare in California by the state legislature. Under “realignment” the State of California no longer pays a portion of the cost of foster care. Instead, counties pay 50% of the cost for a federally-eligible child and 100% of the cost for a non-federally eligible child. If the federal lookback provision is not eliminated altogether, or at least adjusted for inflation, the number of children eligible for federal foster care will continue to dwindle. Under “realignment,” that leaves counties paying an increasingly large share of the cost for a program intended to be a state-federal partnership.

 In case you’re wondering if counties will simply reduce the number of children who are assisted by foster care, think again. Foster care is a federal entitlement, which means states are required by federal law to protect children from harm and provide foster care services when necessary, regardless of how much it costs.   Our failure to fix the lookback provision only means that California counties will be paying more and more for foster care.

 A number of ideas have surfaced about how to address this issue. Unfortunately, some think that in order to reform the lookback we have to weaken the child welfare entitlement by artificially capping it at the federal level to “incentivize” case load decrease. I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. Foster care caseload is currently at record-lows in the United States. Here in California, the incidence of foster care participation has almost dropped in half, from 10.8 cases per 1,000 children in 2000 to 5.6 in 2011. At some point, if the emphasis continues to be on case load reduction, we risk putting children in harm’s way by failing to provide the protective services to which they are entitled.

 A good first step would be to simply update the federal eligibility criteria, either by adjusting the income requirements to inflation or by using an income standard currently in use, such as that for food stamps. No, this approach doesn’t solve everything.  But it would stabilize the rate of federal foster care eligibility and maintain critical federal funding. For California counties who are now fiscally responsible for foster care, it would mean a peace of mind, knowing that federal entitlement programs will not require an increasingly large share of “realigned” sales tax revenues.

 Of course, updating the federal eligibility criteria requires an act of Congress, which is why it is so fortunate that the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth is holding its first town hall meeting in Los Angeles on February 25th.  Let’s take advantage of the excellent opportunity provided by Congresswoman Karen Bass and send a clear, strong message about the importance of stabilizing California’s child welfare system by addressing the federal lookback provision. To attend, follow this LINK.

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