The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), signed into law in 2018, is a drastic overhaul of the current child welfare system.

FFPSA was part of the Bipartisan Budget Act allowing states to use federal funding to help keep families together and avoid out of home foster care placement entirely. Specifically, the legislation changes the way that Title IV-E funds can be spent by states, by allowing funds to be used for prevention services that help keep children at home or with their relatives.

FFPSA is expected to be implemented in Wisconsin and nationwide by Oct. 1, 2021.

Family First Prevention Services Act and the 15-month Time Limit

While a large part of FFPSA focuses on the front-end of the child welfare system and preventing children from coming into foster care, there are also provisions of the Act that modify funding for children who are or will be in foster care.

FFPSA eliminates the current 15-month time limit on the use of Title IV-B funds for family reunification services for children in foster care. Additionally, it clarifies that a child returning home also will now have access to 15 months of family reunification.

The Act was created after the federal government conducted extensive research proving children and families succeed when efforts are made to keep them connected. However, FFPSA does not overturn the current Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) requirement that state and tribal Title IV-E agencies must file for termination of parental rights once a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, except in certain allowable circumstances or exceptions.

The three exceptions to this provision are:

  • if the child is living with a relative;
  • if the state agency has documented a compelling reason why filing is not in the best interest of the child; and
  • if the state has failed to provide the family with the services necessary to safely reunite the child with his or her parent(s).

The AFSA requirement that a termination of parental rights petition be filed once a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the most recent 22 months appears contrary to the Family First Initiative and focusing on keeping families together.

15 Months Are Often Impractical

There are a myriad situations where it would be impractical, sometimes even impossible, for a parent to remedy the problem or situation that led to the child’s removal within a 15 month timeframe.

Many parents involved in child welfare systems are struggling with significant, often debilitating, substance abuse and/or mental health problems that require treatment beyond 15 months. Other families are often separated due to parental incarceration, with prison sentences exceeding 15 months. Complicated immigration cases may easily take over 15 months to resolve.

Although an argument could be made that the AFSA exception of a “compelling reason why filing is not in the best interest of the child” should be applied in any of the above situations, every judge is different in what he or she may accept as a compelling reason and therefore allow the tolling of filing termination of parental rights.

Is it time to reassess the ASFA timelines, so that parents are provided adequate opportunity and support to change and reunify their families?

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.