Congress has a unique opportunity before it leaves Washington, D.C. at the end of September to help children in foster care by enacting important innovative legislation. The Fostering Connections to Success Act (H.R. 6307), already passed by the House, and its counterpart proposal under consideration in the Senate will help ensure better outcomes for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. Together, the proposals will promote important improvements in supports for children and youths in foster care, including new opportunities to live in permanent families through adoption and relative guardianship as well as assistance for older youth transitioning out of foster care.
It's important that Congress act on these proposals before it adjourns because there are too many children who don't have a safe, permanent family where they can grow up with a sense of well-being. Every 36 seconds a child is abused or neglected--2,400 a day. Nearly 40 percent of these children receive no services from the child welfare system after their case has been investigated. In any given year, about 800,000 children are in foster care, and they remain in care on average for two years. Half are separated from at least one of their siblings. About 127,000 children are waiting for adoptive families.
The House and Senate measures provide important improvements by promoting permanent families for many children in foster care. The proposals offer federal financial support to states to provide subsidized guardianship payments for children leaving foster care to live permanently with grandparents or other relative guardians when they can't return home or be adopted. The proposals also contain provisions designed to keep siblings together in foster care.
Proposals from both houses require that relatives be notified when children enter foster care to increase the opportunities for them to come forward as caregivers when children must be removed from their parents. Kinship Navigator Programs are included in the proposals to help connect children living with relatives to program supports and financial assistance for which they are eligible. Incentives are given to states to find adoptive families for children in foster care, especially for older youths and those with disabilities or other special needs. In addition, for the first time, many American Indian and Alaska Native children will gain protections and direct federal assistance through the federal foster care and adoption assistance programs for which hundreds of thousands of other children are already eligible.
Much needed provisions would help about 26,000 teenagers who are aging out of foster care each year without permanent families. They face poverty, homelessness, limited educational opportunities and lack health and mental health care. Under these proposals, youths who turn 18 in foster care without permanent families could remain in care and increase their opportunities for success as they transition to adulthood. Without this help, many of these youths are at risk of slipping into the Pipeline to Prison, ending up in a jail cell instead of a home.
The House and Senate proposals are particularly valuable for minority children and families who face continuing disparities in foster care largely because of racial bias, poverty and challenges in accessing support services. According to a General Accountability Office (GAO) Report, Black children are overrepresented in foster care in all 50 states--by more than four times their representation in the general population in some states. Disparities exist too for American Indian and Latino children in some states. A significantly greater proportion of Black children enter and remain in foster care longer than children of other races and ethnicities, and, once placed, the disproportionality of Black children grows at each decision point in the child welfare process.
Although multiple studies have found that children of all races and ethnicities are equally likely to suffer abuse or neglect, minority children are more frequently reported as victims of abuse and neglect. Once reported, Black families are more often investigated. Black infants and toddlers are more likely than other children to be removed from their homes following accusations of abuse or neglect and are only half as likely to receive services. Some studies have found that once removed from their parents, minority children spend more time in foster care, making them vulnerable to the undertow of the Prison Pipeline.
Taken together, the Fostering Connections to Success Act and its counterpart Senate proposal are an important step in the right direction. They both have strong bipartisan support and are fully funded. There is no excuse for Congress not to act. Passing this legislation would be an important win for Congress and for hundreds of thousands of children and youths in foster care across the country.
For more information about the Children's Defense Fund, go to www.childrensdefense.org.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Join Marian Wright Edelman in Los Angeles on September 14 for the first annual People® Red Carpet Fun Run. Jessi Stensland, and members of the Women's Olympic Softball team will also be there! This 3 mile run (or 1.5 mile walk) through the iconic sets and stages of the Paramount Studios lot benefits the Children's Defense Fund.
Mrs. Edelman will release her new book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, in September 2008. The book will be a look at what's been done and what still needs to be done to make our world safe and fair for all children.