Utah leads out to reduce foster care and separation of families

Utah became one of the few states in the nation to formally implement the Family First Prevention Services Act on Oct. 1, the earliest possible start date. The new financing structure offers Utah’s Department of Human Services unprecedented support to access services that prevent children from entering foster care. 

“Last year, substance use was a contributing factor in 72 percent of our foster care cases. The Act increases our options to address a whole family’s needs without condition of unnecessary parent-child separation,” said Ann Silverberg Willamson, executive director of Utah’s Department of Human Services, which served 4,731 children in foster care last year. “We believe families and children should be served together in their homes, schools, workplaces and communities when safely possible.”

The Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law on Feb. 9, 2018 as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act (HR. 1892, Sens. Orrin Hatch R-Utah and Ron Wyden, D-Ore). The Act is the first major federal modernization of child welfare in three decades and authorizes new optional Title IV-E funding for time-limited prevention services for mental health care, substance abuse prevention and treatment, and in-home parent skills programs, while limiting funding for congregate or residential services. 

Utah has spent the past year preparing, documenting and updating practice and procedures to be ready to provide more up-front, in-home services to families. Private providers were offered training to expand required evidence-based prevention programs to serve children who are at risk for foster care and their parents or kin (extended family) caregivers. The state has a good start, and needs more providers—especially in rural areas—for the prevention services shift.

“Transformation includes risk, and this opportunity is one that will take continuous flexibility and persistent focus on our ultimate goal,” said Williamson. “We recognize what is positive about our work while being humble enough to apply our skills in a different way for better outcomes.”

According to Diane Moore, director of Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services, “The principles of the Act are a reflection of the priority our state places on family. Together with our providers, we are expanding foster care prevention services to better address safety factors before children have to be separated from their parents. This strategic alignment of federal dollars with Utah’s values will enhance our work to support the children and families we serve.”