By: Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Wyden of Oregon
Parenting is the single most challenging, rewarding, thrilling and terrifying job a person can undertake. Each of us have five kids of our own so we understand the highs and lows very well. We recognize the importance of having a parenting and family support system with which to share joyful moments, as well as to lean on during times of hardship. We’ve been fortunate to have strong support systems, but that isn’t the case for everyone.
May is National Foster Care Month, a month dedicated to acknowledging the efforts of individuals and groups to help children in the foster care system. It’s also an opportunity for Congress to recommit to doing more.
Through no fault of their own, approximately 443,000 children are currently in our nation’s foster care system. Ranging from infants to teenagers, many of these kids come from families that face incredible challenges and often with little or no support network. Sixty-two percent of children are placed in foster care due to neglect, and 36 percent are removed from their home due to parental drug abuse—numbers that will only grow more staggering with the opioid crisis that continues to grip our nation.
For more than two decades, Congress has worked to support children in the foster care system. In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which solidified that foster care is a layover, not a destination for children in need, by reducing the amount of time children remain in foster care before qualifying for adoption. Data shows that ten years after its passage, the number of kids in care on any given day was about 7,000 fewer than before the legislation became law.
Congress built on this work, and in 1999, passed the Foster Care Independence Act to provide additional support for foster youth aging out of the foster care system. Nine years later, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act became law, extending benefits and funding for foster children between the ages of 18 and 21. It also made it possible for family members of children entering foster care to receive financial support for becoming guardians or adopting, building on provisions of the Kinship Care Act that passed into law in 1996 which afforded these family members first preference to foster.
Although these efforts have done a lot to help kids who find themselves in the foster care system, providing support to kids and their families to help prevent them from entering foster care in the first place remains a top priority.
Last year, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act to help keep families together. The law, which goes into effect in October 2019, will provide support to states to expand substance abuse and parenting skills programs, as well as mental health services for families with children at risk of entering foster care.
Support for struggling families is critical, but support for foster families is also paramount. Foster families open their homes and hearts to children in need, yet many of them choose to stop fostering after only one year. In many cases, they did not receive the training and support they need to be successful. Without enough foster homes and without enough support to make those homes successful foster homes, children can end up in shelters, or even juvenile detention facilities, instead of with families.
As the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, we stand committed to monitoring and guiding implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act to help keep families together. In addition, we stand ready to find new ways to support foster children, their families, and those who volunteer to provide safe and loving homes to foster kids in need. While we continue our work in the Senate, however, the work day to day, in our communities, continues.
For anyone who wants to help support families in their communities but who isn’t able to be a foster parent, there are other ways to help. Mentorship can be invaluable to a child in foster care. Whether it’s volunteering with an organization, helping a teen in foster care as they explore life after high school or being there to listen and provide advice, mentorship can be a lifesaver for children who may have no one else to turn to.
Offering respite care to parents and foster parents is another way to both help prevent children from entering the foster care system in the first place and provide additional support for current foster parents. A volunteer can offer pre-planned or emergency respite for families in need of support, including parents at risk of losing their children as well as foster and adoptive parents.
Donating items is also a way to help children and foster parents. Items like clothes and school supplies can be expensive and are often in short supply for foster children. Providing items like these helps take pressure off foster families and ensures kids have what they need.
For many of us, it’s easy to take for granted the continual support we receive from our friends and families. It’s difficult to imagine life without it. This month, and every month, it’s important to remember the families in our communities who are struggling and find ways we can support them. And we’re working together to make sure Congress does its part.