Advocates for Families First was created to develop a common voice in support of children and youth in kinship, foster, adoptive families. Our primary goal is to ensure that when children and youth cannot live safely with their birth parents, they have a safe, loving, supported, and prepared family to care for them. This policy agenda promotes changes needed at the federal, state, and tribal levels, which we hope to accomplish with the support of the entire foster, adoptive, and kinship care community.
To realize the goal of achieving a safe, loving, and supported family for every child or youth who cannot remain with his or her birth parents, we propose reforms in a variety of areas. As a country, we need to:
- Prioritize family-based care when removal from a child or youth’s parents is necessary.
- Ensure children and youth have opportunities to be full participants in their case plans and caregivers have rights to make decisions for children and youth in their care.
- Ensure children, youth, and families have the support and services they need to be stable and successful.
- Ensure caregivers are prepared and able to meet the specific individual needs of children and youth in their care.
- Ensure children and youth grow up in permanent families, not in residential settings.
As we present the recommendations for policy reform below, we acknowledge that policy changes will only take us so far toward improved outcomes for children, youth, and families. Policy implementation and child welfare practice are critical to accomplishing true reform. To achieve our goals, the child welfare system must:
- Ensure that workers and supervisors receive the training, supervision, and support necessary to implement the policy and practice changes recommended in the spirit in which they were written.
- Ensure that services provided are culturally and linguistically responsive to the communities being served.
- Hold agencies and systems accountable for outcomes for the children, youth, and families they serve.
- Collaborate with caregivers and youth and treat them as partners in the provision of services and development of policies.
- Collaborate with other agencies serving children and youth, including departments of education, health, and juvenile justice.
Although the focus of Advocates for Families First is on children, youth, and families in kinship care, foster care, and adoption, this policy agenda is in no way intended to infringe upon the rights of birth parents to care for their children and youth or to decrease the support provided to birth families. We strongly believe that children and youth have a right to be raised in their birth families whenever it is safely possible. Similarly, although we make recommendations for tribes, we acknowledge that tribes are sovereign nations with rights and responsibilities for the children and youth in the tribe. Nothing in the agenda should be interpreted as lessening the rights of tribes or Indian children, youth, and families as provided by the Indian Child Welfare Act. We also acknowledge that tribes typically have less access to financial resources than states and believe the federal government should ensure adequate funding for all of the proposed reforms outlined below.
 Please note that many foster and adoptive families are also related to the children and youth they are caring for.
 When we use the term “states,” we include the District of Columbia.
1. Prioritize Family Care: Prioritize family-based care when children or youth are removed from their parents.
Children and youth want to grow up in families, and they fare better when they grow up in families. They want to be like their friends and not be set apart by a different living arrangement. They deserve to have normal childhood and adolescent experiences and have the right to their cultural, ethnic, and racial identities.
Research shows that when children and youth are placed with relatives they have more stable placement history and a better sense of both identity and belonging. It is preferable to place a child or youth with a relative or with someone the child or youth knows (such as a teacher, coach, religious leader, etc.) whenever possible to mitigate systemic trauma reaction, increase positive outcomes, and better ensure achievement of full potential.
The stories throughout this agenda illustrate the importance of supported, respected, and prepared families in the care, healing, and development of children and youth who cannot grow up with their birth parents.
|Goal||Federal Recommendation||State/Tribe Recommendations|
|a. New and extended families are found, recruited, and supported, especially for older children and youth and those with more complex needs; recruited families reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the children and youth who need families.||All children and youth are eligible for Title IV-E reimbursement, with no restrictions based on their birth parents’ income.Federal funding includes new and periodic opportunities for services that find families for children and youth.* (Recommendations marked with an asterisk relate to more than one goal and are repeated in different sections.)||States and tribes invest additional IV-E funds resulting from passage of the federal recommendation in increased efforts to find, develop, and support families, especially for those children and youth who are harder to place.States and tribes fund and implement effective, comprehensive programs to find families for children and youth.|
|b. Children and youth are more often placed in supported families, and the use of non-treatment-oriented group care is reduced.||Federal reimbursement for non-treatment-oriented group care is restricted and the resulting savings are required to be reinvested in recruiting and supporting therapeutic foster, adoptive, and kinship families for children and youth who cannot return home.Cost neutral due to reinvestment||States and tribes reduce the use of non-treatment group care and redirect saved funds to recruit, training, and support families for children and youth, and to provide effective in-home and community-based support services.Cost neutral due to reinvestment|
|c. Families are engaged for all children and youth from the moment they become involved with the child welfare system.||Federal law offers guidance and financial incentives to ensure immediate assessment of viable kinship resources and emergency placement of children and youth in kinship families.Federal law eliminates barriers to timely assessment of viable kinship resources and emergency placement of children and youth in kinship families, including funding and facilitating an accessible national database for timely, no-cost criminal background checks.Cost neutral
|States and tribes pass policies that ensure agencies:
|d. Provide children and youth with access to needed time-limited therapeutic residential treatment, without forcing parents to give up custody or be charged with abuse or neglect.||Federal Title IV-E funding covers necessary, time-limited residential treatment when services cannot be provided to a child or youth within the family or community, as long as the treatment plan includes family involvement.Federal Title IV-E rules allow reimbursement of caregivers’ maintenance payments when their children and youth are in time-limited residential treatment and the family remains involved in the child or youth’s care and treatment plan.||States and tribes include funding for necessary, time-limited residential treatment in their adoption assistance and guardianship assistance programs.States and tribes ensure parents are not charged with child abuse or neglect solely because they are securing therapeutically necessary out-of-home residential treatment for their children or youth.
 In all cases where we have a federal recommendation that would require state or tribal action, we also recommend that states and tribes opt into the program and take full advantage of the federal funding and requirements. For example, we recommend Title IV-E reimbursement for caregivers when children or youth are in time-limited, family-involved residential treatment. For this policy to succeed, states and tribes must also opt to provide the maintenance payments to caregivers.
2. Empowering Youth and Family Voices: Ensure children and youth have opportunities to be full participants in their case plans and caregivers have rights to make decisions for children and youth in their care.
Children and youth in care have knowledge about what they need and where they want to grow up, if it cannot be with their mother and father, but they are rarely consulted. The very experience of being removed from their home can leave children and youth with an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, which affects their ability to develop the skills they will need to become successful adults.
Often children and youth in foster care are excluded from extracurricular activities at school, sports, field trips, sleepovers, camping, and more due to system-imposed policies or a lack of clarity about rules for foster families and their children and youth. Foster and kinship caregivers have the most current and complete knowledge of their children or youth. They often are left out of important decision-making processes, resulting in decisions that have not been informed by vital information.
To make the most appropriate choices, decision-makers must hear from the children and youth themselves and their caregivers. Input from those most affected contributes to better decisions and improved outcomes, and aids in restoring children and youth’s sense of self-worth and self-determination.
|Goal||Federal Recommendation||State/Tribe Recommendations|
|a. Children and youth are partners in their permanency planning process.||Federal law provides that youth age 14 and older are actively engaged in the development of their permanent plan and have a chance to choose other members of the permanency planning team.Title IV-E allows reimbursement of costs related to technology used to assist youth engagement, as long as the technology does not supplant any required or necessary in-person meetings or contacts.*||States and tribes develop policies to ensure children and youth have a voice, a say, and active engagement in decisions affecting their care such as:
Cost neutral or low cost
States and tribes create and support diverse youth advisory boards and provide other opportunities for youth to provide critical feedback about the child welfare system.
|b. Kinship and foster parents have a voice in court and legal decisions.||States and tribes develops policies to ensure foster parents and kinship caregivers have a voice in legal decisions affecting the children and youth in their care including:
Cost neutral or low cost
|c. All children and youth in out-of-home care have the opportunity to participate in age-appropriate activities, and their caregivers have the right to make decisions about children’s and youth’s participation, with respect for each child and youth’s cultural and religious heritage.||Federal law provides a reasonable and prudent parent standard — developed with input of caregivers, children, and youth — that enables foster and kinship caregivers to grant permission for children and youth to participate in age-appropriate activities.||States and tribes adopt a reasonable and prudent parent standard informed by input from children, youth, and caregivers.|
|d. Kinship caregivers have the right to make educational and medical decisions for the children and youth in their care.||Federal law provides relative caregivers with the right to consent to medical care and educational plans and activities for children and youth in their day-to-day care, regardless of legal custody.Cost neutral||States and tribes adopt educational and health care consent policies to help kinship caregivers who do not have legal custody enroll children and youth in school and consent to health care.Cost neutral|
|e. Youth, whenever developmentally appropriate, have the right to be part all medical and educational decisions about their lives.||States and tribes…RECOMMENDATION COMING|
3. Supporting Families: Children, youth, and families have the support and services they need to be stable and successful.
Children and youth in care have experienced a wide range of traumatizing events, including prenatal exposure to alcohol and other drugs, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, and finally, removal from their home and family. They are entitled to a wide range of competent, accessible, and appropriate supportive services to address these negative experiences and promote healing and recovery.
Often the services caregivers can access for their children or youth are inadequate or inappropriate. When services do not match children and youth’s needs, are not available or accessible, or are delivered by providers who are not competent and informed about kinship care, foster care, and adoption, there is a great potential for additional harm to children and youth.
Any time a child or youth is removed from his or her birth parents’ care, the government makes an inherent promise to provide a safer, more appropriate experience. This promise can only be kept if the children, youth, and their families are able to access effective supports and services in a timely manner.
|Goal||Federal Recommendation||State/Tribes Recommendations|
|a. All children and youth entering foster care or experiencing a placement change have periodic and thorough trauma-informed and culturally informed assessments of their needs and strengths.||The federal government provides guidelines on effective trauma-informed and culturally informed assessments and on how to meet any needs identified by the assessments.Cost neutralFederal law modifies Title IV-E to remove reimbursement limits on case management skills training, including training on how to conduct mental health assessments.||States and tribes provide funding for trauma-informed and culturally informed assessments and establish court oversight to ensure such assessments happen in a timely manner.States and tribes provide services identified as needed during the assessments.|
|b. All children and youth who are, or have been, in foster care are cared for and thrive in foster, adoptive, guardianship, relative, and birth families that have access to ongoing support services.||The federal government designates specific funds for ongoing support services for foster, adoptive, guardianship, relative, and birth families, with specific funding available for each type of caregiver.||States and tribes operate or fund comprehensive, ongoing support service programs for foster, adoptive, guardianship, relative, and birth families. Funds are designated to evaluate the effectiveness of provided services.|
|c. Extended family members who care for children and youth who were diverted from the child welfare system or who did not come to the attention of the child welfare system have access to information, supports, and services they need to ensure the children and youth thrive.||The federal government makes funds available to states and tribes to provide successful programs to keep children and youth out of foster care and safe within their birth or extended families.The federal government preserves existing flexible funding sources that states and tribes can use to offer supports and services for extended family members caring for children and youth such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Children and the Social Services Block Grant.||States and tribes work proactively with caregiver groups and partner agencies to create effective programs that keep children and youth out of care and safe within their birth or extended families.States and tribes preserve and enhance policies, supports, and services for extended family members caring for children and youth such as those currently funded through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Social Service Block Grant.|
|d. Foster families and families who adopt or take guardianship of children and youth from foster care have adequate financial support to meet the children and youth’s needs.||The federal government requires states to use U.S. Department of Agriculture data to determine minimum foster care, adoption assistance, and guardianship rates adequate to meet children and youth’s needs.The federal government requires states and tribes to provide the same level of support and access to the same types of services to a child or youth who has moved on to permanency as the child or youth would have received in a similar level of foster care.*||States and tribes use U.S. Department of Agriculture data to determine the minimum reimbursement rates for children and youth in foster care, adopted from foster care, and who left care to guardianship.States and tribes provide the same level of supports and services to a child or youth who is adopted or placed in guardianship from foster care as the child or youth would have received in foster care.*States and tribes take the option to use federal Title IV-E funding to create and operate subsidized guardianship programs for eligible children and youth exiting foster care.*|
|f. All adoptive, foster, and kinship families, and children and youth who are not living with their birth families, have access to an independent advocacy organization to help them advocate for their needs.||Federal law requires and appropriates funds so states and tribes can support advocacy organization(s) in their state plans.||States and tribes provide direct funding to nonprofit organizations that advocate for children, youth, and families’ needs in kinship care, foster care, and adoption.|
4. Preparing Caregivers: Caregivers are prepared and able to meet the needs of children and youth in their care
Foster, kinship, and adoptive caregivers are entrusted with the care and healing of children and youth who have experienced trauma, including the loss of their families. These children and youth have often been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Caregivers have a fundamental need for and right to education and support that enables them to meet their children and youth’s needs. Training must be affordable, accessible, and sensitive to the particular needs, circumstances, and cultural considerations of the children and youth.
State and federal foster care training, licensing, and reimbursement policies were designed with the intention of ensuring that caregivers of children and youth who are unable to remain with their birth parents are fit and able to meet the needs of those children and youth. Too often, however, these policies fail to consider the special circumstances of relative caregivers. Specific licensing requirements, such as those related to physical space within the home, may pose particular challenges for those who want to care for children and youth who are their kin. Some licensing requirements may be less important than the benefits of placing a child or youth with a relative to both lessen the trauma of removal and maintain family connections.
Finally, training funds should be available and accessible for the training of all substitute caregivers, including adoptive and kinship caregivers. Experts, youth, and caregivers should be included in the formation of such training programs, which should be regularly evaluated for improvement.
|Goal||Federal Recommendation||State/Tribe Recommendations|
|The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) urges states and tribes to review their licensing standards for any unnecessary barriers to licensing safe and appropriate families. As a resource to states and tribes wanting to revise their standards, HHS recommends the “Family Foster Care Model Licensing Standards,” which meet all federal requirements.Cost neutral||States and tribes adopt ”Family Foster Care Model Licensing Standards,” which are reasonable, achievable, and based on the need to find safe and appropriate families for each child or youth in out-of-home care, including children and youth being placed with relatives.Cost neutral/Low cost?
Until the “Family Foster Care Model Licensing Standards” are adopted, states and tribes have a written policy for how they will apply individual waivers and variances for non-safety related licensing standards for relatives and they apply that policy by granting waivers and variances where appropriate.
|b. Caregivers have access to comprehensive, relevant, effective, culturally informed, and trauma-informed training.||Title IV-E rules allow reimbursement for training for all foster parents, adoptive parents, and kinship caregivers raising children and youth who come to the attention of the child welfare system.Federal government reimburses states and tribes for training at 75% regardless of the state’s or tribe’s IV-E penetration rate.
|Using Title IV-E, Title IV-B, TANF, and other sources of funds, states and tribes provide the following culturally informed and trauma-informed training across their jurisdiction:
Training should not be limited by whether a family is affiliated with a public or private agency.
5. Achieving Permanency: Children and youth achieve permanent families.
Every child and youth has a right to grow up in and grow old with a stable, loving and committed permanent family. Federal law requires that all children and youth who enter out-of home care have safety, well-being, and permanency. Once they are safe, it is essential that all efforts be focused on securing a permanent, supported family for every child and youth. This lifelong connection is the best route to ensuring well-being.
The current use of Another Permanent Planned Living Arrangement (APPLA) contributes to the fact that 25,000 youth leave care each year without a family. These youth often face negative outcomes, such as homelessness, joblessness, risk of violence and pregnancy, and reduced academic achievement. As youth have told us, there is nothing permanentabout Another Permanent Planned Living Arrangement. We owe our youth better opportunities for a satisfying and successful adulthood.
Model programs have shown that when children, youth, and caregivers are given a say in their permanency plans, those plans are more readily achieved and sustained.
Finally, it is essential to provide the necessary supports for children and youth who have been affected by their early experiences and time in care so that they can remain safe and stable.
|Goal||Federal Recommendation||State/Tribe Recommendations|
|a. The use of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) is reduced or eliminated.||Federal law eliminates the use of APPLA as a permanency goal and requires that every child and youth have a permanency goal that includes a permanent legal connection to a family.
Federal funding includes new and periodic opportunities for services that find families for children and youth.*
|States and tribes develop policies that eliminate the use of APPLA as a permanency goal.
|b. Children and youth who leave foster care for permanent families have increased support.||Federal law increases funding for Title IV-B2 and designates specific mandatory percentages for post-adoption, post-guardianship, and post-reunification services while maintaining current designation for family preservation services.
The federal government requires states and tribes to provide the same level of support and access to the same types of services to a child or youth who has moved on to permanency as the child or youth would have received in a similar level of foster care.*
|States and tribes take the option to use federal Title IV-E funding to create and operate subsidized guardianship programs for eligible children and youth exiting foster care.*
States and tribes provide the same level of supports and services to a child or youth who is adopted or placed in guardianship from foster care as the child or youth would have received in foster care.*
States and tribes designate a significant portion of their Adoption Incentive payments and the funds received as a result of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act’s expanded Title IV-E adoption assistance eligibility to fund post-permanency support services to children, youth, and families.
|c. Incentives are increased for permanency outcomes for children and youth.
|The federal adoption incentive program becomes a permanency incentive program that rewards states and tribes for adoptions, permanent guardianships, and reunifications, with safeguards in place to avoid the unintended consequence of moving children or youth out of care too quickly, taking children or youth into care unnecessarily, or placing children or youth in unsafe or unstable families.
States and tribes receive incentives for customary permanency placements for Indian Child Welfare Act-eligible children and youth, as long as the placements are in compliance with one of the preferred placements specified in ICWA.
|d. Children and youth are partners in the permanency planning process.||Title IV-E allows reimbursement of costs related to technology used to assist youth engagement, as long as the technology does not supplant any required or necessary in-person meetings or contacts.*||States and tribes develop policies to ensure children and youth are engaged as partners in permanency planning such as through youth-led permanency roundtables.
State and tribal policies ensure that case planning includes identification of a responsible party for ensuring active involvement of youth in their permanency planning, including:
(Please see additional recommendations under Empowering Youth and Family Voices)
|e. Youth in care have every possibly opportunity for permanent family relationships.||States and tribes take the Federal IV-E option to extend foster care to age 21 while continuing to ensure these older youth have every opportunity to achieve a permanent legal family before they leave care.|