07/19/2012 10:22 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Look Back Anniversary Is a Time to Call for New Direction

As we recognize the 16th anniversary of the "look back" eligibility requirement for federal foster care assistance, the time has come to urge Congress to change direction. The House of Representatives' FY 2013 budget included steep cuts to discretionary spending, instructions to replace scheduled defense cuts with cuts to non-defense programs, language to repeal the Social Services Block Grant (a critical funding stream for child welfare systems around the country), and proposals to convert Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to block grants. In fact, since Republicans took control of the House, they have pledged to cut federal spending in the aforementioned areas -- a move that lays in stark contrast to their acclaimed vision for the country and future generations. If their actions so far are any indication of the future, then the promise for America's children isn't promising at all.

Discretionary spending on children has declined by nearly $2 billion over the last two years. Less than eight percent of the federal budget is spent on children. It's obvious that Congress must start investing in our most vulnerable children. It's equally obvious that it must fix the eligibility requirement and put an end to all these years of leaving foster children behind. Yes, today marks the anniversary of the 1996 decision by Congress that has dramatically reduced the number of children placed in foster care who are eligible for federal support. Eroding eligibility for Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance means the federal government is increasingly doing less to partner in protecting children.

Landmark welfare reform legislation passed by Congress in 1996 did away with the more than 60-year-old anti-poverty program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. However, Congress did not detach the eligibility requirement for federal foster care support from the AFDC program. Thus, when a child enters foster care or is placed for adoption as a special needs child under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the federal government will help subsidize a share of the cost only if that child was removed from a family that would have been eligible for the AFDC program as it existed on July 16, 1996.

In 1998, following enactment of these reforms, well over half of the children entering foster care, some 55 percent, were eligible for federal foster care assistance. By 2004, under half, or 48 percent, were eligible. By 2010, using the most updated data, that amount has dropped to 44 percent. In sheer numbers, 227,347 children in 2010 were placed in foster care but are not eligible for federal assistance.*

CWLA believes the eligibility link to a federal program that no longer exists is bad policy. We call on Congress to eliminate the link altogether and provide support for all abused and neglected children. For a full federal partnership in protecting all children who have been removed from their homes, the IV-E entitlement must be strengthened by extending its guarantee to all children in and adopted from foster care, regardless of the income levels of their parents or caregivers.

Fortunately, the recent sequestration process protects some key safety net programs. Congress has shown us, however, that preventing additional cuts to safety net programs, entitlements and other funding sources for child welfare services isn't their top priority. It's time for all us to join together and stand up for all children. It's time for a new approach. The idea that vulnerable children and families should be shielded from budget cuts has historical precedent, but now is the time to urge Congress to go further, to be held accountable. Members of Congress, regardless of political affiliation, need to be challenged to put children first -- not only when it comes to campaign slogans, but in their legislative priorities.


1. Child Welfare League of America. (2006). Appendix B, Caseload data: Total United States caseload 1998-2005. Washington, DC: Author.

2. Kids are Waiting: Fix Foster Care Now (2007) Time For Reform, Fix Foster Care Now (Appendix A). Available online at: Washington, DC.

3. Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (n.d.). Foster Care FY2002-FY2010 Entries, Exits, and Numbers of Children In Care on the Last Day of Each Federal Fiscal year. Retrieved July, 2011 from

Note: The penetration rate is a CWLA calculation of special Children's Bureau data on state IV-E Foster Care expenditures.