11/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Happiness Doctrine

A faltering economy is no reason to deprive foster youth of a better life through the application of the most sweeping foster care reform of our generation.

Last week the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support held a hearing on the implementation of the most sweeping foster care reform in the last decade, if not generation. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increased Adoptions Act of 2008 is an amalgam of many of the best thoughts to be found in the foster care advocacy community and hinges on a common-sense yet revolutionary idea: that happiness is just as important as safety.

"I feel like the question we need to be asking is not why youth are failing, but, more important, why do some foster youth succeed?" said former foster care alumnus and University of Wisconsin junior Greta Anderson during the hearing. "What resources are they using? How can we help even more foster youth succeed?" Anderson, who is advocate for the Oregon-based advocacy group Foster Club, rhetorically queried the assembled lawmakers.

It is those very questions that Fostering Connections tries to answer. The law offers states matching funds to extend care to 21 and to subsidize family members caring for relatives with no other place to go. Along with the optional provisions are a whole slew of mandatory changes from notifying kin when a child is removed, to increased health care oversight and static school placements even if the capricious tide of foster care bounces a child from one group or foster home to the next.

The sum of these provisions is a legal testament to every foster kid's right to happiness -- a veritable happiness doctrine.

This of course marks a radical change in the collective thinking of the child welfare community. The first priority of any foster care agency was always making sure kids were taken out of harm's way; and child protective services has become much better at living up to the protective part of its name. But as CPS mastered protection, the services came into question.

Now that we have saved these kids what kind of lives are we giving them? And up until now the answer to that question has often been less than ideal.

As a reporter covering foster care and a mentor to two young men who came up in the system it is clear that safety is, in-and-of-itself, an insufficient goal. I have known young people safe from physical harm but moved from placement to placement, never finding true stability or lasting human connection. I have watched young men walk out of the system having grown up isolated and unhappy, incapable of holding down jobs, or even maintaining peace of mind.

Fostering Connections is a comprehensive strategy to make the common scenario I described uncommon.

Unfortunately, the clouds of economic uncertainty have slowed the already difficult task of implementing this federal law on the state level.

At last week's hearing, overseen by Rep. Jim McDermott, the subcommittee chairman and the representative who introduced the law, the specter of a faltering economy was on every panelist's lips. Beyond opening themselves up to lawsuits, states that do not enact the mandatory provisions are depriving the 500,000 foster children living in this country a fair shot at their right to well-being.

"While I understand the harsh budget realities faced by nearly every State, I also know that children in foster care cannot wait for a time when reform is convenient," McDermott said in his opening statements.

A forcible reminder to states and citizens alike that the implementation of Fostering Connections is not only federal law, but also an overriding moral obligation and further: a chance at edification. If there was ever a silver bullet to solve the future, it is making sure the most vulnerable children in our society have a chance to flourish in it.