August 12, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee has introduced legislation whose goal is to reduce the number of children in foster care while increasing funding for improved parenting, kinship care and early intervention into at-risk families. All seven of the bill’s sponsors on the committee are Democrats, but Chairman Orrin Hatch has signaled support for it. Read about it here (Youth Today, 8/6/15).
Wyden’s bill, entitled the Family Stability and Kinship Care Act, would give states greater incentives to use federal funds for initiatives other than foster care. It would also increase funding.
When states spend federal child welfare money, the funding rules mean most of the money goes to foster care services.
But many government officials and children’s advocates say the money could be better spent on services that help a family stay together without the need for a foster placement.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, introduced legislation Wednesday that would give states flexibility in how they use child welfare funding.
The Family Stability and Kinship Care Act would change how states can use money provided under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. States would be able to pay for services such as family skills training or counseling, or concrete goods and services such as a washer or dryer that could help a child stay at home, return home or live with relatives.
Ever the diplomat, Wyden was at pains to demonstrate that he’s not condemning foster care.
Wyden said the bill is not a condemnation of foster care, which serves many children well.
“What this is all about is creating as many good choices as we possibly can for youngsters to grow up in a safe, healthy environment. That means keeping families together,” he said.
Obviously, the senator doesn’t want to offend anyone, but the truth is that, on average, foster care is bad for kids. In fact, at least one study has shown it to be worse for children than remaining in the care of moderately abusive parents. Many other studies have shown that children in foster care are more likely to be abused physically and sexually, more likely to be exposed to illegal drugs and alcohol, do worse in school, are more likely to involve themselves in crime, etc. than are their peers.
And of course children who find a safe harbor in foster care confront the daunting fact that it’ll no longer be there for them come their 18th birthday. When that rolls around, they “age out” of the foster care system and are effectively on their own, ready or not. Few are prepared for life as an adult, but when foster parents stop getting paid by the state, they tend to show the kids the door. Unsurprisingly, many foster kids simply return to the abusive parents from whom they were taken in the first place, casting significant doubt on the decision to remove them in the first place.
As the excellent Molly McGrath Tierney said in her TEDx talk in Baltimore in response to her own question, “What do kids in foster care want?” “They want to go home.”
But as it stands now, the federal government doesn’t want them to go home. It wants them in foster care and, if possible, adopted out of foster care. That’s all true irrespective of the large body of social science demonstrating that kids suffer badly, not only in foster care, but in the process of getting there. What so few policy makers seem to grasp in any situation is that children bond with their parents, and to them it rarely matters whether the parent is an ideal one or not. Very, very few kids want to be taken from their parents. Period. And they’re traumatized when they are.
Add to that trauma that of foster care itself, particularly in group homes, and it’s no surprise that children don’t do well.
Of course many foster parents perform a great and needed service for the children in their care. Many foster parents are the best of people and the best of parents. Many children would be lost without them.
But on average, the foster system is a failure. We should bend our every effort toward drastically limiting its use.
In part, that means working with adults to be better parents. A lot of the adults with whom child welfare agencies come into contact simply don’t have the parenting skills to do an adequate job of caring for their children. Often enough, that’s because they came from dysfunctional families themselves. As children, they never saw good, effective parenting and therefore never learned it. So one thing child welfare agencies should do is teach good parenting.
That will never eliminate the need for some kind of alternative care, at least in the short term. So, when that’s required, kinship care should be the fallback position. Wyden’s bill promotes that too.
But, as Tierney said in her TEDx speech, when a child shows up at the emergency room with bruises and a broken arm, that’s not the first sign of trouble, only the latest. Parents don’t start by hurting their kids; the injured child is the culmination of a long series of incidents in a dysfunctional and harmful family system.
The answer to that is to get services to those parents before the child is hurt. Early intervention is what works best; it’s the time when social workers can actually do some good, not just for the child, but for its parents. Wyden’s bill promotes that too.
MaryLee Allen, policy director at the Children’s Defense Fund, said advocates have been pushing for years for changes to child welfare funding that would prioritize keeping families together.
“It’s a long-overdue step in making investments in services that can help children stay at home,” she said.
Allen said the bill’s attention to the needs of a child and family before, during or after a foster care placement is important.
“It really looks at the system the whole way through,” she said.
Most important though, is the impact of federal money on state behavior. Former North Dakota senator Bill Napoli made the point in 2008 when he told National Public Radio that “When that money came down the pike, it was huge.” Napoli had seen for himself how states began railroading children into foster care when Washington started paying them to do so.
That means the sine qua non of reform is to take as much federal money out of the foster care system as possible and put it to use promoting family stability, kinship care, parent training, etc. Wyden’s bill would do that while increasing funding for more effective interventions.
The bill also would increase funding for community-based prevention and intervention services by $470 million per year through the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program. The bill would provide $1 billion in mandatory funding through the program.
The devil’s always in the details, so just how that money is allocated will be the key to the effectiveness of Wyden’s bill should it become law. Who gets funded and exactly what do they do? Those are the questions.
But for now, Ron Wyden is on the right track. The foster care system nationwide is in desperate need of reform. To date, this is the best bill to take on that task.
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