In October, the most significant provisions of the Family First Prevention Services Act (Family First) took effect. Family First was signed into law in 2018 and represents a long sought historic opportunity to transform our child welfare system after years of steady, difficult, unglamorous effort by child welfare advocates with the late MaryLee Allen, the Children’s Defense Fund’s beloved Director of Policy, often leading the charge. MaryLee devoted her life to improving children’s lives—especially our most vulnerable children in the child welfare system—and cheered the passage of this important law and what it would mean for children.
Before Family First, states, tribes, and territories could claim federal reimbursement for services to a child only after removal from their family and placement in the foster care system. Family First allows for the first time these federal dollars to be spent on qualified, evidence-based mental health, substance abuse and in-home parent skill-based programs and services to strengthen families to enable children to stay safely in stable, loving homes.
It is the first major modernization of child welfare in decades and it is helping us move toward a system that prevents millions of children from facing the trauma of child maltreatment and entering the foster care system.
In November, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Representatives saw an opportunity to help states, tribes, and territories implement the historic reforms under Family First. They introduced the Family First Transition Act (FFTA) to provide jurisdictions valuable resources to help them upgrade their systems and meet new requirements. The bill also delays some requirements in the law, allowing states to more effectively tailor their prevention systems to the needs of their specific citizens. FFTA, which was signed into law in December, was a bold package that will help ensure Family First’s effective implementation across the country.
Family First was the last major piece of child welfare legislation our beloved MaryLee helped shape and realize and she continued pushing for its successful implementation until the very end. So all of us at CDF and in the child advocacy community rejoice that the final provision of the new FFTA renames the Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF) Program to honor MaryLee’s unwavering commitment to helping the most vulnerable children. This is one of the most significant sources of federal funds for family preservation and was one of the many major reforms MaryLee helped enact in her 42 years of tireless and effective labor at the Children’s Defense Fund. It is fitting that her life’s work devoted to protecting children and strengthening families is honored in a bill meant to strengthen the final piece of her legacy.
MaryLee would have deflected the attention of this richly deserved honor and reminded us that our responsibility is to continue working diligently to ensure all children safe, permanent, loving homes. All of us at CDF most certainly will.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund