SHERIDAN — A new law could eventually lead to more children staying in their homes and less children in foster care and group homes.

Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act in February, shifting federal funding priorities to family prevention and treatment and imposing more restrictions on group homes, beginning October 2019.

Wyoming Department of Family Services support services administrator Roxanne O’Connor said DFS prefers the new legislation, which could help address family dynamics without removing children from the home.

“We used to have prevention dollars from the state general fund perspective, but through the recent budget reductions that we’ve seen over the past few years in the state, those prevention dollars were significantly cut,” O’Connor said. “So we are actually really excited about the prospect of the Family First Act from a funding perspective, that now we will be able to kind of rejuvenate and build those funds again through federal dollars.”

The federal government will reimburse states for up to 12 months of programs that help keep families together, such as substance abuse treatment, mental health services and parenting classes.

However, the legislation may lead to less funding for group homes. The federal government will reimburse states for placing children in group homes for a maximum of two weeks, unless a group home is qualified to provide treatment for children with mental health or behavioral needs. Other exceptions to the two-week limit include teens who are pregnant or parenting. There is currently no maximum time limit.

The law also places additional requirements on group homes, such as accreditation by an independent organization and having a licensed clinical staff on site. Ideally, this will lead to group homes dealing only with children who have the most severe needs, while other kids stay with their family or are placed in foster care.

It could lead to unintended consequences, however. If a group home doesn’t meet the requirements and a child has stayed in the group home for two weeks, states might have to pay — without federal reimbursement — to shelter kids who would otherwise be on the street.

The only group home in Sheridan is Milestone Youth Home, which is run by Volunteers of America Northern Rockies.

VOANR director of youth services and homeless outreach Susie Arnold isn’t sure how the new law would affect Milestone, but said the two-week maximum stay is the most significant change. Milestone is not a qualified residential treatment program, so it would be difficult for kids to get an exception and stay longer than two weeks.

Arnold couldn’t estimate an average length of stay for a child at Milestone but mentioned two kids who recently stayed there for more than a year. Under the new law, the kids would have to live elsewhere, and it isn’t clear where they would live or who would pay for it.

Final federal guidelines will be released in August, and then administrators from Wyoming group homes and the Wyoming Youth Services Association will meet with the DFS to discuss potential repercussions.

The law doesn’t go into effect until next October, and states could also ask for a two-year delay. However, if they do, states won’t be eligible to receive federal funding for preventive services.

O’Connor said Wyoming won’t make a decision about the delay until a new governor and Department of Health director are in place.

“Because this is such an impactful piece of law, this administration would prefer to have a new administration involved in the decision-making process,” O’Connor said.

The new law won’t directly affect foster care providers but could lead to a decrease in the required number of providers. A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed about 27 percent of 991 qualified children in Wyoming lived in non-family placements in 2013. O’Connor said the number was around 25 percent as of April 2018. Ideally, that number will decrease when the new law is implemented.

Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange executive director Carla Trier said there is already a shortage of foster care providers in Sheridan County, so the new law could help alleviate that issue.

“I would much rather help the same amount of kids (who would be in foster homes) stay with their biological parent if it’s safe and healthy to do so,” said Trier, who has cared for nine foster children.

The law won’t lead to noticeable changes until at least next year, but it is a significant overhaul that could lead to more families staying together.