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House Committee Addresses Child Welfare System

On February 27, the House Ways and Means Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee held a hearing on improving the child welfare system. The hearing focused on the Invest in KIDS Act (H.R. 5466), sponsored by Chair Jim McDermott (D-WA).

Rep. McDermott said, “I believe the time has come for a new vision to ensure the protection, permanency, and well-being of America’s most vulnerable children. Here are a few of the issues that most demand our attention: 40 percent of children who have been substantiated as victims of abuse or neglect currently receive no follow-up services. Only 43 percent of children removed from their homes and placed in foster care receive some federal assistance in paying for that care — down from 54 percent a decade ago. The average child welfare caseworker’s tenure on the job is less than two years and their caseloads are more than twice the recommended level. 24,000 children “aged out” of foster care for the last year on record with little support and guidance. And finally, the health care and educational needs of foster children are too often an after-thought, rather than a priority. I recently introduced legislation, the Invest in KIDS Act (H.R. 5466), to begin to address these major shortcomings…First, the federal government should act as a partner with our states to improve outcomes for vulnerable children…Second, the federal government has an interest in every vulnerable child and our financing system for foster care should reflect that fact. Instead, we are now providing fewer and fewer foster children with federal assistance because of an outdated eligibility standard…Third, and finally, we must do a much better job of promoting the well-being of foster children. Too often, this seems to stop at ensuring their immediate physical safety…There needs to be a greater interest in the day-to-day lives of these children starting with their health care, their education, and their connection to other family members. It’s time to turn another page in our efforts to ensure a better future for America’s most vulnerable children.”

Ranking Member Jerry Weller (R-IL) said, “I would first like to thank the chairman for including several provisions I have worked on for many years. One provision tracks my bill (H.R. 2314) to harmonize federal reimbursement rates for training child welfare workers. …Another provision would address concerns about child welfare services for Native American children. Our first Americans should be treated as full Americans, including in child welfare programs. [Rep. Earl] Pomeroy [D-ND] and I have cosponsored legislation (H.R. 4688), [The Tribal Foster Care and Adoption Access Act of 2007], to provide more equitable access to foster care and adoption services for Indian children in tribal areas. The bulk of this legislation is included in the chairman’s bill, too. Finally, the chairman’s legislation builds on a resolution (H. Res. 733), [recognizing the importance of improving the high school graduation rate of foster youth], he and I co-authored last year. This resolution highlights the importance of improving the high school graduation rates of foster youth. Under the chairman’s bill, states would be required to take action in this area. We also know that Congress needs to reauthorize the Adoption Incentives program, which expires this year and is widely regarded as a bipartisan success. As these provisions reflect, there is ground here for bipartisan cooperation this year, and in a way that could be fully paid for. But unfortunately, the chairman’s bill does not stop with just those issues. For example, his legislation includes controversial provisions that would dramatically reduce the federal matching rate for foster care payments…The chairman’s legislation also proposes a variety of ways to increase spending on child welfare programs, without proposing ways to pay for all of the additional costs. We are still waiting to hear from CBO [Congressional Budget Office] what the total cost of this proposal would be. But the likely high costs of many of the provisions in the chairman’s bill make it difficult to move this year.”

Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) said, “I applaud Chairman McDermott for including the extension of federal support for foster care to age 21. Recently, the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago released the most comprehensive examination of youth leaving foster care since passage of the Foster Care Independence Act. The study followed youth aging out of the foster care system over three years. The results clearly indicate that youth who remain in care are more likely to attend college, to complete college, to have increased earnings, and to delay pregnancy…These are all successes that we want for our own children, and we have an obligation to provide the same protections to those in our care…I encourage you to consider some additions to this provision of the KIDS Act based on the successes of Illinois’ program to ensure that these youth benefit the most from extended protection. Rep. Davis also discussed the importance of the Adoption Incentives Program, saying, “[I]t encourages states to build the infrastructure to support children who cannot return to their families. [H.R. 5466] advances the policy of promoting permanency by expanding the incentive program to include subsidized guardianship.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said, “As many of my colleagues may know, educational opportunities for foster children is an issue near and dear to my heart because over the years, my family welcomed 23 teenage girls into our home through the PATH Social Services’ Treatment Foster Care program…All of our girls were treatment-level care teenagers, meaning they all had psychiatric conditions involving severe emotional and behavioral problems…These girls had never really known what it felt like to be loved or cared for, let alone received encouragement to do well in school in the hopes of achieving a brighter future. Still worse, they were shuffled from school to school when they changed from one set of foster parents to the next just because their new home was in a different school district than their previous one. They were uprooted from their daily routine and separated from their friends and from the teachers who were familiar with their needs.”

Rep. Bachmann continued, “There is strong research to show that school transfers cause disruptions in the learning process and lead to emotional disruptions, including the loss of friendships and relationships with adults. This unique hardship of changing schools when changing homes is a cycle we must break…Instead of separating foster children from trusted friends and teachers, we should give them the opportunity to stay at a school if it is fulfilling their needs. We should also allow families to choose the school that is best equipped to serve their foster child. Last year, I introduced legislation with my colleague, Rep. Jim Cooper [D-TN], to enhance the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and extend its school voucher scholarship benefits to children of all ages. The Chafee Foster Care Independence Act [H.R. 4311] was designed to help foster children successfully navigate the difficult transition out of state care and into independence at adulthood…My bill would not only allow foster children to attend a school best equipped to serve them, but it would also give these children, often for the first time in their lives, the opportunity to belong somewhere regardless of whether their home life changes…Giving foster children the tools they need to succeed in school will only make this country stronger; it will give these kids a real chance to achieve the American Dream.”

Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said, “Our constituents, tribal children, and families face many challenges to their well-being and child abuse and neglect is certainly one of the most critical. Bringing more attention to the barriers tribal children face in receiving basic child welfare services and the opportunities to improve their lives is much needed…[H.R. 5466] addresses many of the issues that prevent our national child welfare system from providing more effective services and reaching those children and families that have fallen through the cracks in our system. American Indian and Alaskan Native children, a population whose needs and service realities are often not understood, can take heart that this legislation addresses their concerns in several important areas, such as the need to receive the benefits of the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program…[T]ribes in most states are the only government that has authority to provide services to their children and families and adjudicate child welfare proceedings. This is a part of inherent tribal sovereignty, and was explicitly recognized in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 [P.L. 95-608]. Tribes have done their very best to provide these services and exercise their authority despite inadequate federal resources for tribal programs.”

MaryLee Allen, director of Child Welfare and Mental Health at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), said, “The Children’s Defense Fund believes that to improve America’s child welfare system in order to achieve better outcomes for children, we must seek changes at the federal level, especially changes in how child welfare services are funded. Financing changes are necessary if we are to garner the increased support that is needed to expand and extend strategies already in place to benefit many more children and families. They are essential, although not sufficient, for improving child outcomes…CDF believes that improved outcomes for children can be achieved by better directing federal dollars so they will help to increase the capacity of states to invest in: prevention and early prevention, specialized treatment and attention to basic needs, enhanced permanency options and post-permanency services, improvements in the quality of the child welfare workforce, and increased accountability measures for improved child outcomes and system improvements.”

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA); Hope Cooper, senior program officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts; Pamela Davidson, vice president of government relations at the National Council for Adoption; Ken Diebert, deputy director of Arizona Department of Economic Security — Children, Youth and Family Services; Lupe Tovar, a former foster youth from Arizona; and Khatib Waheed, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy on behalf of the Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equality in Child Welfare, also testified.

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