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Invest In Child Care, Invest In The Future

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Public budgets from Sacramento to Washington DC are largely driven by the fast turnover of electoral politics. Politicians, fearful of being seen as fiscally irresponsible and accordingly voted out of office, are often compelled to turn their backs on long term investments that would bring huge returns.

Luckily most of us are unshackled by the whims of the electorate and can plan years, even decades, into the future. But that is not the case for everyone. There are currently half a million children in foster care, and with understandably shortsighted politicians for parents, the notion of long term is too often forgotten when it comes to them.

This despite years of research in the field of child welfare that has consistently shown that investing in children is met with positive returns. Because of this research, fiscal arguments against front-loading foster care have become irrefutable and irrelevant.

With the passage of the Fostering Connections and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, congress resoundingly showed intent to invest in children and start the paradigm shift. Extension of care to 21, mandates on educational stability and resources devoted to making sure foster kids had permanent loving connections all speak to a body of legislators with not only their constituents' hearts, but also the taxpayers money in mind. One need not throw up statistics or cost projections to underscore the moral and fiscal burden of a society that fails these young people, and the benefits of a society that does. Just think to your own childhood and the investments put into your success; where would you be without them?

Despite the resounding, bi-partisan statement that Fostering Connection's passage was, the dark force of so-called "fiscal responsibility" had already crept in. The Congressional Budget Office scores the cost of all legislation. Lawmakers are always constrained by cost and were intent on keeping the score for Fostering Connections budget neutral or better. While pragmatic, lawmakers had been forced by this insidious shortsightedness to bargain away an enormous piece to the puzzle.

Along with extension of care to 21, Fostering Connections provides matching federal funds to states that provide foster care payments for family members who take in kin, commonly referred to as subsidized or kinship guardianship.

To keep the CBO score low a clause was written into the law, which suggests that only subsidized guardianship agreements reached "prospective" of the passage of the law in October of 2008 would be eligible for federal funding. In December of 2008, the Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families (ACF) issued guidance, which excluded federal funds for the tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of foster youth already in existing subsidized guardianship programs in 27 states including California.

In California alone, an estimated 10,000 children already in kin care would be ineligible, costing the state $60 million in annual federal funds. For California, which just hacked its way through a $20 billion deficit by slashing $100 million to the child welfare system, every penny counts. Without the Federal kin care dollars, California's bid to extend care to 21 -- the shining provision of Fostering Connections -- is all but dead.

In September, California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass submitted Assembly Bill 12, which would use matching federal funds to pay for keeping kids in care past 18. With one sixth of the nation's 500,000 foster children living in California, the passage of the bill, which has been sidelined due to the state's budget crisis, could pave the way for sweeping implementation of Fostering Connections across the nation.

With so much at stake over the ACF guidance, Sacramento is threatening Washington with a deft maneuver: moving thousands of kids back into foster care to make them eligible for the federal IVE funds and then moving them back into subsidized guardianship.

It appears that California's scheme may work, which could unleash copycat tactics across the 26 other states and the District of Columbia with tens of thousands of kids. If this happens the federal government will have to end up paying anyway. The most practical thing would do would be for ACF to rescind its guidance and allow all those states to access federal funding.

Understanding this, a growing number of the lawmakers who passed Fostering Connections have begun pressuring ACF.

If ACF does relent it will cost more money today. But if AB12 passes in California and that serves as the catalyst for the implementation of Fostering Connections across the nation we will surely save money tomorrow. Then the real victory will be even greater than helping tens of thousands of children in need.

The real victory will be a clear illustration that the only way to budget responsibly is to do what we all do intuitively, invest in the future - even if that is years off. The shift in consciousness has to begin somewhere, and that place is in a country that has the foresight to parent its collective children as any individual parent would their own.

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