SALT LAKE CITY — Utah this week became the first state to receive approval for a plan that will provide parents dealing with substance use disorder or mental health issues resources to keep their kids out of foster care.
State officials believe the Beehive State will set a standard for others as it adjusts to a dramatically new system.
“If the need is, ‘Keep me safe,’ if the need is, ‘Help me, protect me,’ from the voice of a child, — and when we step in, if that help doesn’t result in them being able to realize all the dreams and goals and aspirations they have for themselves, then we have to ask ourselves, ‘What could we have done differently?’” said Ann Silverberg Williamson, director of the Department of Human Services in Utah.
That question, she said, is at the heart of the shift in how kids belonging to at-risk families will be protected under the new program. In the past, federal funds were appropriated to help children with counseling and treatment only after they’d gone into foster care, according to Silverberg Williamson.
But research has shown displacement from parents and families causes its own damage, she said.
“And all too often, individuals who are experiencing homelessness, all too often individuals who are struggling with substance abuse disorders and not realizing their fullest potential, their backstory is, ‘I was in foster care,’ or their backstory is, ‘My parents needed help, and no one was there,’” Silverberg Williamson explained.
Utah’s plan laying out how it will divert kids from going into the foster care system was approved under the Family First Act, which passed last year as a part of the Bipartisan Budget Act. That act was co-sponsored by retired Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and provides a federal match of state funds into the program.
Silberberg Williamson on Friday did not have an estimate on the expected cost of the program.
The numbers of children who received foster care services each year in Utah has hovered around 4,700 for the past several years, according to Division of Child and Family Services data.
Last year, 1,957 children entered foster care, according to a division report, and 2,155 exited foster care. Of the children who left foster care, 41.4% were reunited with their parents or other primary caregivers.
Of those who entered foster care, substance abuse was a contributing factor in 72.2% of the cases.
When at-risk children are identified by the division, the program will offer evidence-based substance use disorder treatment to their parents if needed, parental development skill training, and will work to address mental health needs of children, youth and families, Silverberg Williamson said. The services will be paid for up to 12 months and can be offered in home.
The Title IV-E federal funding, which provides the federal match for the program, is the largest funding stream for child welfare, according to the Department of Human Services, but it has historically only been available for out-of-home care.
Now that caseworkers have the ability to link a parent to treatment, it could impact every case where substance use disorder is a risk to a child, Silverberg Williamson said.
She said the Department of Human Services has “worked intensely” over the last year to increase its base and the qualifications of evidence-based treatment providers across the state through trainings and continuous learning opportunities.
This fiscal year, $4 million was budgeted to pay providers to offer services to the families, and to give the necessary training and certification to the providers, according to the department.
The department has also focused on “making the business of entering into a contract with the state, with the Department of Human Services, much more streamlined and focused on results so that they can be practitioners of these evidence-based services and succeed,” Silverberg Williamson said.
The plan also allows a child in foster care to be placed with a parent in a licensed family-based residential substance use treatment program. Contracts have been entered into with residential treatment programs Odyssey House, House of Hope, Tranquility House, Desert Haven and Valley Phoenix, according to the department.
While many new providers, including counselors and peer support specialists, have contracted with the state, the department is continuing to look for more providers willing to offer in-home services to keep up with demand.
“Please engage with us. This really is a transformative time in human services delivery, and it’s exciting to know that the potential for Utah to benefit is only limited by the number of individuals interested in being a part of the new system,” Silverberg Williamson said.
She believes the plan represents “the start of a new path,” and sees Utah as a leader on the issue.
“I believe this work is going to have continuous positive impact for the next few decades. And we’re going to see a real disruption in the cycle of abuse and neglect and isolation of having separated children from their parents. But instead, working with families where they are, recognizing their value, recognizing their strength, and really supporting them to thrive and live healthfully as a family,” she explained.
Mike Hamblin, Utah Foster Care CEO, says the plan is emblematic of the state “fixing problems” it had in the past — pointing to a 1993 lawsuit alleging the state mistreated children in its custody — to become an example in child welfare.
“I think it’s exciting. It’s great for Utah. It’s great that the federal government’s allowing those IV-E funds, which have historically only been allowed to be used toward foster care, to go toward other services and allow states the flexibility to provide the kinds of services that families need to keep children out of foster care,” Hamblin said.
“We’re excited for the state of Utah. We look forward to the changes that have already begun to be implemented and that will continue to be implemented as Utah moves forward in continuing to improve the system for children in the state.”