Repeating History Brings Progress

05/12/2010 01:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since May is National Foster Care Month, I was reflecting on the struggles facing the nation's nearly half million foster children and wondered what my predecessors in the child welfare field were thinking as the Great Depression was pulling to a close. Like me, they must have worried about the long-term effects of the poor economy on children. They also probably saw some positive developments that provided hope. For better or for worse, many parallels exist between these two eras.

Although not as bad as the Great Depression, we too are facing a difficult period with stressed families out of work and homes and those of us tasked with helping -- nonprofits and local governments -- all strapped for cash. It's also a period of hope for those of us in the child welfare profession since difficult times often give rise to innovative and thoughtful solutions.

In the early 1900s, more thought was being given to how society should treat children with no families. Up until then, most children without parents lived in orphanages. The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) was born during this enlightened time as the movement toward family centered foster care intensified.

The Roaring '20s and the early part of this decade seem to share a similar spirit that was spurred by new industry, new wealth and the nation's prosperity. These heady times of course did not last then or now and gave way to periods of economic and personal hardship. Vulnerable children in both times suffered ... especially foster children.

As the Great Depression hit, the well-being of families spiraled as the market dropped and unemployment rates surged. Even as the nation struggled, several breakthrough social programs developed, largely due to the nation's leadership looking for ways to get people working and to protect the citizens from another depression.

Specifically, children benefited from the Social Security Act of 1935 which established aid to dependent children and child welfare services. This was soon followed by child labor laws that provided children with a new level of protection. Since then, a series of changes have focused more attention on helping children grow into successful, productive members of society.

Today, as in the depression era, significant debates and actions are occurring that could have a profound impact on foster children. It started with the historic passage of the Fostering Connections Act in late 2008 that provides kinship care support; continues federal support for children in care after age 18; strengthens oversight of health care services for foster children; gives Indian tribes access to federal funds for foster programs; and bolsters incentives for adopting foster children.

Now, health care reform promises to further strengthen the safety net for vulnerable children. Its passage ensures more access to quality health care and support for home visiting programs that dramatically reduce child abuse and neglect as well as expands coverage and protections for youth aging out of foster care.

To make the most of these landmark laws, we must hold a White House Conference on Children and Youth, a process that brings together stakeholders to seek solutions for pressing issues confronting children. Incredibly effective policy has come from past conferences. The first one in 1909 led to better foster care services and the creation of a Children's Bureau. Forty years has lapsed since the last one. Today, it's time to have another national discourse; but to do so, the President and Congress must first pass HR 618 & S 938.

As we've seen before, difficult times can bring positive change as society is forced to adapt, invent, and even innovate. For the first time in decades, I see a real chance for the foster care system to sizably shrink, but only if we have serious dialogues that lead to needed child welfare decisions. With these changes, I see glimmers of hope, and I know that if we're repeating history, at least we're learning from it and progressing.