The NCSL Blog


By Abbie Gruwell

Many states are experiencing a foster care crisis, and are turning their focus to prevention to solve it.

Circle of kidsThe number of children in foster care rose by 10 percent between 2012 and 2016, and six states saw a 50 percent rise in their foster care population, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

States are looking for innovative ways to keep children out of foster care by investing in programs that tackle the reasons families struggle in the first place. Programs such as  the Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams in Kentucky work to keep families together while providing substance use treatment for parents and pairing the family with peer support. As funding priorities shift to evidence-based programs, states have an opportunity to take advantage of new federal programs and grants.

Congress and HHS also are focusing more on prevention and identifying factors that cause children to enter the foster care system. The Family First Prevention Services Act, enacted as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, provides more options for caseworkers to address those factors, including addiction treatment and counseling, parenting support, kinship assistance and mental health services.

The act further expands federal support for children placed with relatives, and reduces funding for children in group care. Under the new policy, states can seek reimbursement for prevention services for up to 12 months under Title IV-E, which previously only allowed reimbursement for foster care. States will also be required, however,  to take on additional data collection, reporting and the development of state plans.

States dealing with rising opioid addiction have seen an even more significant effect on their child welfare systems. Expanding the options available for families before foster care may encourage family unification and reduce long-term cost. Additionally, more than half of states are operating under a Title IV-E waiver, which provides funding flexibility and allows many states to focus on community-based services, early intervention, parenting education and substance use treatment.

The administration plans to release further guidance, but for now it is still unclear exactly which children or prevention programs will be eligible. The expanded Title IV-E funding will be available to children at imminent risk of entering the foster care system, or “foster care candidates.”

Generally, these are children who already have had some contact or involvement with the child protection system or a court. These families are increasingly experiencing substance use or mental health issues tied to addiction crises, and the link is a growing focus for state and federal government officials. The assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS recently released two new briefs on the effect of substance use and the opioid epidemic on the child welfare system:

Additional Resources

Abbie Gruwell is the policy director for human services in NCSL's State-Federal Affairs team in Washington, D.C.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.