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HR 4980: An Important Advance for Child Welfare

By Stephanie Krol & Jess Reed 

Introduction

H.R. 4980, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, is a wide-ranging, bipartisan bill that was signed into law by President Obama on September 29, 2014.1  The bill seeks to protect children in foster care and prevent them from becoming victims of sex trafficking.  It also makes important improvements to child welfare law, including the extension and expansion of adoption incentives, improvements to international child support recovery, and increased data tracking of foster youth to help improve outcomes for youth in the child welfare system. Several provisions in the bill mandate reform to state child welfare systems, with many changes required within a year of enactment.   This article provides a brief overview of some of the major provisions of this critical new legislation, and addresses some of the ways in which California law is already ahead of the federal mandate.2

I. Brief Overview of H.R. 4980

The areas covered by H.R. 4980 are all intended to make major changes in child welfare nationally.   Below, we highlight some of the key provisions.

  • Identifying and Protecting Children and Youth at Risk of Sex Trafficking. This section of the act improves monitoring and data sharing in order to protect children and youth in foster care who are at an increased risk of sex trafficking (as defined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000).3
    • State child welfare agencies are required to develop multidisciplinary “policies and procedures (including relevant training for caseworkers) for identifying, documenting in agency records, and determining appropriate services” for child victims of sex trafficking, including those children who are at risk of becoming victims. Additionally, states have the option to serve individual victims or those at risk of being victims up to the age of 26, regardless of whether or not they were ever involved with the child welfare system.4
    • States must report children who are identified as victims of sex trafficking to law enforcement within 24 hours. States must comply with this provision no later than October 2016. States must also report the total number of sex trafficking victims to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) within three years of enactment.5
    • State child welfare agencies must submit data on child victims of sex trafficking using the existing data system for children in foster care.6
    • States are required to rapidly locate children missing from foster care, determine why the child left, and discern whether or not the child was sex trafficked while absent, all within one year of enactment. States must then report this information to the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”) at the FBI and to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) within two years of enactment.
  • Improving Opportunities For Children in Foster Care and Supporting Permanency. This section strives to increase the normalcy of children in foster care by allowing foster parents to make choices considered normal for children outside of foster care without prior court authorization.  This includes approving sleepovers with friends and participation in recreational sports. H.R. 4980 imposes a reasonable prudent parent standard which is the “standard characterized by careful and sensible parental decisions that maintain the health, safety, and best interest of a child while at the same time encouraging the emotional and developmental growth of the child.”  This standard allows for the caregivers to make everyday decisions on their own to encourage the participation of the children in their care in extra curricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities.  This includes age or developmentally appropriate activities, which are those activities generally accepted as suitable for children of the same chronological age or level of maturity or those that are developmentally appropriate for the child, including sports, field trips, overnight activities. States are required to enact reasonably prudent parent standards within one year from the passage of H.R. 4980.7
    • H.R. 4980 also seeks to ensure that older youth in foster care have a meaningful opportunity to participate in their case plans and have essential documents when exiting the system.  Children over the age of fourteen have the opportunity to participate in their case plan and preparations for transitioning into adulthood.  States must enact this provision within one year.8
    • The new law requires that foster youth are provided copies of essential documents when they turn 18 in order to help prepare them for adulthood.  These documents include: birth certificate, social security card, health insurance information, medical records, and driver’s license or state identification card.9
    • H.R. 4980 imposes new requirements on the tracking and reporting of the number of children in foster care and the duration of their time in the foster care.10
    • H.R. 4980 imposes new requirements on the tracking and reporting of the number of children in foster care and the duration of their time in the foster care.
  • Improving Adoption Outcomes and Extending Family Connection Grants.  This section includes provisions that improve and extend the adoption incentive payment program for three additional years.  Currently, states receive incentive payments based on the raw number of foster children who are adopted.  Under the new legislation, adoption incentives are expanded to encompass legal guardianships as well. The incentives will also be calculated differently with the intention of promoting adoption, by providing incentive payments based on the rate of adoption, instead of the raw number of children adopted.  This will allow states to receive incentive payments even if there is a decline in the total number of children in the foster care system.  The incentive structure provides higher incentive payments to states for the adoption or legal guardianship of older children.11

Overall, H.R. 4980 provides a mandate for states to implement sweeping reforms that protect foster children exposed to sex trafficking and bring a sense of normalcy for those in the foster care system, and ensure that foster youth enter adulthood with better preparation and with vital information in hand.

II. California is Ahead of the Curve on Several H.R. 4980 Provisions.

California has already implemented several key provisions of the H.R. 4980 through state legislation. California has made tremendous strides in provisions relating to normalcy, transitioning age youth preparedness, case plan rights, and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) that are on par with or exceed the federal mandates established in H.R. 4980.

California has already implemented several key provisions of the H.R. 4980 through state legislation. California has made tremendous strides in provisions relating to normalcy, transitioning age youth preparedness, case plan rights, and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) that are on par with or exceed the federal mandates established in H.R. 4980.

California implemented the “reasonable and prudent parent standard” in 2005. The standard is described as the “careful and sensible decisions that maintain the child’s health, safety, and best interests.”12  This legislation was enacted with the goal of providing foster youth with a “normal life experience” while placed in foster care.  A reasonable and prudent parent standard allows foster parents and guardians to make day-to-day decisions that allow the foster youth to maintain a semblance of normalcy while in foster care.  Caregivers are empowered to encourage foster youth to engage in age appropriate extra-curricular activities, including sports and school activities such as dances and field trips, without obtaining prior court approval.  California goes beyond the mandates of H.R. 4980 and permits caregivers to arrange for occasional short-term (less than 24 consecutive hours) babysitting.13   This allows caregivers to attend social gatherings, medical appointments, and other meetings without prior court approval.  Caregivers are required to act in a reasonably prudent manner in determining their babysitters and must leave information about the child’s emotional, behavioral, medical or physical conditions with the babysitter before leaving the child alone.  California also surpasses federal mandates in H.R. 4980 by applying the reasonably prudent parent standard to private foster agencies and group homes.

In California, foster children as young as 12 are afforded the opportunity to meaningfully participate in their case plan and decisions regarding permanent placement.14 Additionally, California has already passed legislation requiring that a foster child aging out of care be provided with essential paperwork, including a certified copy of his or her birth certificate and social security card.15  A litany of additional support for transitioning age foster youth exists under California law, including assistance obtaining Medi-Cal or other health insurance, referrals for transitional housing, assistance in obtaining employment or applying to college or vocational training, and support in maintaining relationships with individuals that are important in the lives of the youth.

California is also ahead of the curve in its attempts to address the serious needs of sexually exploited youth.  In 2014, California created the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Program (“CSEC Program”) through the enactment of Senate Bill 855. The purpose of the CSEC Program, which went into effect January 1, 2015 and is run by the California Department of Social Services, is to identify, document, and determine services for CSEC and those youth at risk of Commercial Sexual Exploitation (“CSE”). The bill allocates $5 million dollars in the first year of enactment for training, and $14 million annually thereafter for specialized services such as case management. Counties may soon begin opting into the CSEC Program and start developing their interagency protocols for serving CSEC months before HR 4980’s implementation timeline. Furthermore, SB 855 mandates that data on CSEC cases be entered into the existing Child Welfare Services/Case Management System, which will allow the state to comply with HR 4980 and report aggregate CSEC data to HHS.

The mandates of HR 4980 represent major steps forward in areas that have been in desperate need of federal attention. California has paved a road for others to follow for some of the key provisions in the legislation.  Much work remains to be done in California and across the country to implement this important legislation, and the clock is running.

1 Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, H.R. 4980, Pub. L. No: 113-183, 113th Cong. (2014)
2 For more detailed analysis of every provision of H.R. 4980, please reference the following fact sheets: Children’s Defense Fund, “Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act,” (Oct. 2014), available online:
http://www.childrensdefense.org/library/data/fact-sheet-on-hr-4980.pdf ; House Ways and Means Committee, “Detailed Summary of H.R. 4980, the ‘Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act’,” (July 2014), available online:
waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hr_4980.pdf ; Center for the Study of Social Policy, “Promoting Well-Being Through The Reasonable And Prudent Parent Standard: A Guide For States Implementing The Preventing Sex Trafficking And Strengthening Families Act (H.R.4980),” available online:
www.cssp.org/policy/2014/A-GUIDE-FOR-STATES-IMPLEMENTING-THE-PREVENTING-SEX-TRAFFICKING-AND-STRENGTHENING-FAMILIES-ACT-HR-4980.pdf ; Congressional Research Service, “Child Welfare and Child Support: The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (P.L. 113-183),” (October 16, 2014), available online:http://greenbook.waysandmeans.house.gov/sites/greenbook.waysandmeans.house.gov/
files/R43757_gb.pdf
 .  H.R. 4980, Title I, Subtitle A.
3 H.R. 4980, Title I, Subtitle A.
4 Id., Title I, Subtitle A, Section 101.
5 Id., Title I, Subtitle A, Section 102.
6 Id., Title I, Subtitle A, Section 103.
7 Id., Title I, Subtitle B, Sections 111-115.
8 Id., Title I, Subtitle B, Section 113.
9 Id., Title I, Subtitle B, Section 114.
10 Id., Title I, Subtitle B, Section 115.
11 Id., Title II.
12 Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 362.04, 362.05, All County Letter 05-39, available online at:http://www.dss.cahwnet.gov/getinfo/acl05/pdf/05-39.pdf .Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 362.04.
13 Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 362.04.
14 Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code 16001.9(a)(19), 16501.1(f)(13), 706.6(o).
15 Cal. Welf. ¶ Inst. Code § 391(e)(2).

 

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