Column: Helping foster care children is a year-round effort
Q: What prompted your leadership on foster care issues in Congress?
A: It’s no secret that a loving home and happy household nurtures the next generation to thrive and become productive members of society. Close-knit, supportive families serve as the building blocks for safe schools and strong communities. Strong families are an essential thread in the social fabric of America.
Unfortunately, not every household fits the bill. When neglect and abuse put children at risk, society has a responsibility to intervene and protect their well-being. Currently, more than 425,000 children, from infancy up to age 21 years, are in the child welfare system — the nation’s safety net for children whose biological parents or legal guardians are unable to care for them.
The foster care system is intended to serve as a temporary arrangement until children can be reunited with their biological families or find permanent adoptive families. Too often, too many kids are bounced from one foster home to the next without reunification or adoption. The constant uncertainty can compound the trauma of being neglected or abused, especially when children are separated from siblings, shuffled from one house to the next, and uprooted from their school and community in the middle of the year.
As co-founder and co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, I have led policy forums and enacted federal reforms to improve foster care services for the better part of two decades. Our bipartisan caucus is committed to finding better ways to help secure better outcomes for kids placed in the foster care system.
It’s every child’s wish to find a forever family who will provide more than just food, clothing and shelter. Foster kids want what every child in America deserves: a nurturing, loving family who pays attention to their grades, their friends and peer groups, attends their extra-curricular activities and encourages them to stay out of trouble, work hard and dream big. Reforms I have advanced into law include federal assistance to promote adoption of children with special needs, financial support for relatives who serve as legal guardians for kids in foster care and reforms to help foster youth pursue education or vocational training. I will continue working to improve public policies and programs that serve vulnerable youth so that they may look forward to a bright future filled with hope and opportunity.
Our caucus works directly with current and former foster youth to learn about the unique challenges they have overcome and to identify solutions that will help improve the foster care system. Based on their input, we also have identified measures to help parents struggling with mental health challenges or drug addictions to help with their recovery and treatment. Although Congress recognizes the month of May as National Foster Care Month, we work year round to improve the lives of children in the foster care system. For those who work tirelessly as champions for vulnerable youth in your local communities, I salute you for opening your hearts and homes to these kids in crisis.
Q: What other reforms are you proposing to help at-risk youth?
A: The nation’s safety net for at-risk children involves a broad range of public services, including schools, the courts and social welfare services. Collaboration among education and law enforcement professionals, court officials, social workers and volunteers who work with at-risk youth is a key factor to improve services and outcomes for these young people. Homelessness and human trafficking pose grave risks to kids and adolescents who don’t have a forever family. Many of these youth may be found filtering in and out of child welfare services and juvenile justice systems.
I am the lead co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation called the CONNECT Act, “Childhood Outcomes Need New Efficient Community Teams,” that would give policymakers a better handle on what works and what doesn’t. Our bill encourages state and local agencies to collaborate and share data so that they can work together to identify and provide comprehensive services. We need to do a better job to prevent kids from falling through the cracks and keep at-risk youth safe, off the streets and away from crime. Recognizing that many of these young people have suffered neglect and abuse, we need to better coordinate resources that will help them seek a better future, avoid costly incarceration and improve public safety.