A Pivotal Moment for Vulnerable Children and Families

Co-author, Benard P. Dreyer, MD, FAAP, president, American Academy of Pediatrics

This week is a pivotal moment for our nation’s most vulnerable children. We both have spent much of our life giving children a voice, mobilizing advocates to improve outcomes for children, and educating our leaders about the need for better policies. We join together at this critical moment for children who are abused and neglected and at risk of entering foster care. The U.S. Senate has an historic opportunity to pass a landmark bill, The Family First Prevention Services Act, to improve outcomes for these children that has broad, bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and with the White House.

The Family First Prevention Services Act seeks to help keep children safely with their families and out of foster care. When foster care is the only alternative, it requires placement in the most family-like settings appropriate to their needs. It offers federal support for children with special health and mental health needs who require residential treatment settings for a period of time. And it would keep more children safe by supporting evidence-based services including mental health, substance abuse and in-home parenting programs proven to help stabilize struggling families. We know children do best in a safe, stable family or when offered quality treatment programs to address disabilities and other special needs when group care is necessary.

Quality care that promotes positive outcomes for children must be the standard. Too often that is not the case today. Children with a broad range of needs end up in group care settings and must wait months just for a full evaluation without receiving any help. The settings often lack access to medical and clinical staff, especially after hours, and too little attention is paid to the trauma these children have experienced.

The Family First Prevention Services Act begins to move us toward positive outcomes children need to succeed, a direction consistent with the path some states already have taken. More than 400 organizations working on behalf of vulnerable children and families across the country have sent a letter to Senate leadership and the full Senate urging prompt passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act. Those who raise objections, a few public agencies and some group home providers, acknowledge the bill’s benefits for children but are focused on their own bottom lines rather than putting children first. As federal dollars in the bill are used to better help children, states may have to use their own dollars for continued care and services no longer funded with federal dollars.

The Family First Prevention Services Act is a landmark opportunity to improve the lives of America’s most vulnerable children. Failing to act now will have tragic consequences for a generation of children and families. If the Senate leaves for the elections without passing the Family First Prevention Services Act, substantial funding for its provisions will be lost at the end of the fiscal year as will decades of work by so many to provide these children the care they need in the least restrictive most family-like settings.

The opportunity window is closing fast. In the three months since the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Family First Prevention Services Act, an estimated 416 children have died from maltreatment, more than 188,000 have been victims of maltreatment, with more than 39,000 of those victimized removed from their families and placed in foster care. Every day we delay, these numbers grow.

Families across America are facing tremendous challenges including drug addiction, untreated mental illness, food insecurity, and homelessness. All directly affect the safety of children if unattended. The Family First Prevention Services Act will help put a generation of children with their families on track to succeed. The Senate should enact real change and hope for these children. We cannot afford to wait another day.

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