Punching Holes in the Darkness: U.S. Foreign Assistance for Children in Adversity

Come Share Your Dreams
Photo Credit: Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit 9
May 3, 2013 Nashville, TN

As a boy, renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson lived on a hillside in Scotland, his family’s home overlooking a small town below. Robert was intrigued by the work of the old lamplighters who went about with a ladder and a torch lighting the street lights for the night. One evening, as Robert stood watching with fascination, his parents asked him “Robert, what in the world are you looking at out there?” With great excitement he exclaimed, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

Three years ago, CCAI set out to punch holes in the darkness. Frustrated by the fact that the United States Government, a leader in so many other areas of global concern, lacked a clear and effective strategy for reducing the number of children living without the support of a family; we started by asking why? Why was it that a value so clearly a part of the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect children had not made it into our foreign policy?  Why was such a fundamental American value, the value of family, not better represented in our programming abroad?

The more we learned, the more our concern grew. We learned that while an estimated $2 billion dollars a year was reportedly being invested in international programs focused on the care and support of orphans, little to none of this funding was being spent on preventing orphanhood. We learned that despite overwhelming scientific evidence that institutions seriously damage children, our lack of advocacy for family based care was resulting in an increasing number of children being confined to a life in them.  And perhaps one of the hardest lessons we learned: despite national experience with international adoption as a worthy and effective way of securing a safe and stable family, we watched as global leaders suggested otherwise.

And so we had a choice to make. We could stand idly by and allow the futures of millions of children be cut short by this darkness or we could punch holes in the darkness in the hopes that bringing light to these issues would inspire change. We chose the latter.  We began by educating federal policymakers on what emerging brain science tells us about how urgent the need is for global policies to better reflect the right to a family as a basic human right.  We also outlined how U.S. policies, programs and priorities might be improved to better protect this fundamental right. Finally, we hosted two national and one regional convening to engage foreign leaders in a concrete conversation on moving their child welfare systems away from orphanages and toward families.

Our Haiti Convening illustrated that it is not only possible but preferable for the Government of Haiti to focus on rebuilding its families instead of rebuilding its orphanages. Our Way Forward Project sought to stimulate dialogue among the world’s experts on both the need for family-based care but also the ways in which laws, policies and programs might be developed or expanded to support the use of family-based care for children in need of it.  And most recently, our Pathways to Permanency Project provided permanency training for 15 key leaders from Guatemala.

Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs held a hearing on the newly launched USG Action Plan for Children in Adversity (APCA).  In providing testimony to the committee, Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg acknowledged that APCA is the first ever high-level USG policy that acknowledges that children need families to thrive.  He also acknowledged that the Action Plan is a critical realigning of U.S. investments in children abroad around three key objectives, the second of which is to reduce the number of children without families.

Today, Mr. Stevenson, I felt like that lamplighter.

How the Adoption Incentives Program can Incentivize Adoptions

Today, the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing to review the success of several privately run programs to increase the number of children adopted out of foster care. This marks the beginning of the committee’s efforts to review—and hopefully reauthorize—a federal program entitled the Adoption Incentives Program.  Originally created in 1997 as part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Adoption Incentives Program has delivered a total of $375 million in bonuses to states that were successful in increasing the number of children adopted out of foster care.

Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means Adoption Incentives Hearing.
Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means Adoption Incentives Hearing.

Since the inception of the Adoption Incentives Program, more than half a million children found their forever homes. Despite this success, however, over 100,000 foster children are still waiting to be adopted.  If trends continue, approximately 50% of these children will succeed in finding homes through adoption and 50% will continue to wait.  Statistics reveal that those who remain waiting are most often older children, members of larger sibling groups or those children who have special physical or mental health needs.  In fact, according to a the most recent AFCARS report, the average age of a child adopted out of foster care is 6, while the average age of a child waiting to be adopted out of care is 8.

So the question before Congress is this: how can the federal government incentivize states to find a home for every child? The programs highlighted in today’s committee hearing prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no such thing as an unadoptable child, just an unfound family.   There are at least three lessons to learn from these programs’ experiences.

  • States cannot employ “a one-size-fit-all” strategy for finding a permanent home for a child.  Efforts to recruit an adoptive family for a child must be as diverse as the children themselves.
  • States that have succeeded in finding homes for older and special needs children have done so in close partnership with community and faith-based partners.  Such partnerships allow state child welfare agencies to be more innovative in their approach; address critical workforce gaps; increase their reach into communities where perspective adoptive parents are likely to be found; and provide post- adoption support.
  • Finally, success in finding an adoptive family for every child who needs one is premised on the belief that all children need and deserve a family

If Congress hopes to replicate the successes of the types of programs highlighted today it must learn from these lessons and better incorporate them into the current Adoption Incentives Program.  Congress might also want to consider whether the current model of providing an individual bonus per adoption is the best way to incentivize adoption for older and special needs children. Perhaps this group would be better served by a model similar to the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top,” a federally-funded contest which provides funds to states that successfully put forward groundbreaking, thoughtful plans to address four key educational reform areas.  While the full effects of “Race to the Top” remain to be seen, preliminary findings indicate that it has been successful in spurring innovation and improving in educational outcomes. A similar approach might better incentivize states to be more innovative by providing more concentrated support for their efforts to find homes for harder to place children.

Another idea might be to use the adoption bonuses as a way to incentivize certain policies and practices that have been proven effective in finding homes for children. For instance, provide rewards to states that use adoption recruiters as opposed to making finding an adoptive family one of the many tasks assigned to an overloaded caseworker.  Or grant bonuses to states that severely limit the use of an alternative planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) for older youth.  Under this approach, the federal government might use the “carrot approach” to reward states that provide robust post adoption services, reduce the amount of time between termination of parental rights and the completion of adoption and engage in interstate adoptions.

We would like to thank Chairman Reichert for his leadership in dedicating the first subcommittee hearing of the 113 congress to such an important and impactful topic. We look forward to working with Members of Congress to explore these and other ways this important program might better serve its stated goal: to find families for waiting children.

It’s budget season…

Reports have been published that show spending money on children and youth in foster care today will save significantly in the future by lowering rates of incarceration, welfare dependence, homelessness, and the need for other public services.  However, elected officials are not looking years down the road when they are plagued by such budget shortfalls today.

Here on the Hill and in states and localities across the nation it’s budget season.  Last month President Obama sent his proposed FY2012 budget to Congress.  However, Congress hasn’t yet passed a spending bill for the remaining 7 months of FY 2011.  Just yesterday they passed a continuing resolution for 2 weeks to avoid a federal government shutdown set to take place this Friday.

With all of the uncertainty surrounding federal spending, and the vast state and local budget shortfalls, one thing is for sure–child welfare programs are at risk.

While ultimately budget decisions are left up to Congress, the President’s budget proposes slight decreases in overall discretionary funding for child welfare programs.  First Focus released a report outlining the proposed changes to child welfare funding.  “Among the most notable aspects of the budget is the inclusion of an increase in funding of $250 million in mandatory funds in FY 2012 to support a reform agenda focused on providing incentives to states to improve outcomes for children in foster care and those who are receiving in-home services from the child welfare system. This increase is part of the Administration’s broader proposal to provide $2.5 billion over ten years to support a comprehensive child welfare reform proposal aimed at making improvements in the foster care system to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep more children safely in their homes and out of long-term foster care.”

Elected officials across our nation are met with the challenge of funding necessary services and programs to serve the needs of their constituents.  It is important to remember that budgets are not really a matter of dollars and cents, but a matter of how the well-being of lives will ultimately be impacted.  A good reminder of this is a quote by Hubert H. Humphrey which is imprinted on the wall at the U.S. Health and Human Services building, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

In an op ed byPaul Krugman appearing in the New York Times, Krugman raises some tough questions about the impact of budgets and spending on America’s children.  “When advocates of lower spending get a chance to put their ideas into practice, the burden always seems to fall disproportionately on those very children they claim to hold so dear.”  While Krugman discusses the child population in general, we all know that children and youth in foster are even more vulnerable to poor outcomes and have a higher level of need for government programs.

Krugman asks, “The really striking thing about all this isn’t the cruelty — at this point you expect that — but the shortsightedness. What’s supposed to happen when today’s neglected children become tomorrow’s work force?”

Photo Credit: photographer Vik Orenstein

Does privatization of foster care work?

Nebraska’s child welfare system has been a focus of the press lately.  The reason?  They are in the process of privatizing parts of their child welfare system.  The effort to privatize state foster care systems has long been a topic of heavy debate.  Back in 1996, Kansas became the first state to privatize its foster care system.  Florida and Colorado soon followed suit with the goal of increasing the efficiency and accountability of child welfare services.  Other states, such as Michigan and Ohio have privatized parts of their system, such as adoptions.

An op ed was published in late September of last year in the Grand Island Independent which states, “The evidence continues to mount that Nebraska’s move to privatize the foster care system has been an utter failure. Day after day brings more evidence that the system is broken.”  The author cites inadequate funding, lack of communication between foster parents and agencies, and confusion about the process as some of problems.

In October, the Nebraska Foster Parent Review Board wrote a letter to state legislators to raise their concerns.  The letter cites “staff changes, payment delays to foster parents and service providers, documentation issues, difficulties accessing services, visitation supervision issues and delayed permanency.  Based on 340 case reviews conducted by the Board in September of 2010, 34.7 percent lacked home study documentation; 30.6 percent lacked immunization records; 29.4 percent lacked placement reports; and 27.6 percent lacked visitation or other such reports.”

In November, Governor Dave Heineman responded to the many statements, stories, and reports on the topic saying, “I hope everybody realizes what we’ve been doing in the last 40 years hasn’t worked,” Heineman said of child welfare and foster care. “Nebraska has one of the largest percentages of out-of-home placements in America.  […] What is best for the kids is in-home placements, not institutional care.  […]  The idea of reform is to change the system so a large majority of children and families are getting services in their homes, and a minority are being removed from their homes and put in out-of-home placements. The state has opted for a public-private partnership to do that.  […]  The government’s not a very good parent.  I think we have to involve the private sector, nonprofits, charities and others in this effort.  […] It’s real easy to sit there and say, ‘I don’t like the direction this is going,’ but I don’t hear a lot of solutions …”

State legislators are weighing in on this move, saying that there is not enough legislative oversight to the process.  With pressure from constituents wanting to know, “Is it adequately funded? How much private money is being invested? Is it sustainable? And do senators need to address any public policy issues regarding child welfare?”.  The encouraging news is that state legislators are taking action.

Just this month, a state Senator from Lincoln, Sen. Kathy Campbell, who was newly elected to lead the Health and Human Services Committee announced a resolution will be introduced that “would allow the committee to review and evaluate how child welfare reform has been conducted since its beginning, and report to the Legislature.”

Photo credit: FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star

2010 Foster Youth Interns Leave Their Mark on Capitol Hill

CCAI is proud to announce the release of the 3rd annual policy recommendations report authored by the 2010 Foster Youth Internship Class.  Nicole, Sam, Jeremy, Serena, LaTasha, Markus, Wendy, Josh, and Victor spent their summer in DC reading reports and analyzing legislation related to 3 major topics in child welfare: Federal Financing, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act.  This report is their way to forever leave their mark on federal policymakers.

These individuals arrived in DC with passion and a purpose: to improve the foster care system for their 463,000 brothers and sister in care.

Markus spent his summer learning about the Adoption and Safe Families Act.  It was 2 years after he had aged out of the California foster care system before he even learned that there is such as thing as foster care adoption.  He spent 16 years in foster care not knowing that kids were adopted from foster care, or that this could have been an option for him.

Wendy chose to spend her summer studying federal financing of the foster care system.  She entered care after years of watching her widowed father struggle with grief and later alcoholism.  Wendy’s frustration was that had her father known about services available to them, she and her siblings could have avoided being placed in foster care.

As you read through the pages, remember the 9 individuals who made themselves vulnerable in sharing their personal stories.  They have spent a collective 81 years in the foster care system and have many ideas to share about how to improve the system.

2010 FYI Hosts Chafee Panel

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee hosted a panel examining how Chafee has been working over the past 10 years.  Nicole Marchman, 2010 FYI and intern for the Majority Senate Finance Committee, took advantage of Chafee’s upcoming review by proposing this event.  She invited a panel of former foster youth to testify on the effectiveness of the Chafee program.  Each panelist was a member of CCAI’s 2010 Foster Youth Internship Class. Nicole also moderated the panel along with 2010 FYI, Markus McQueen.

Barbara Pryor, Legislative Assistant at Senator Rockefeller and  Laurie Rubiner, Vice President for Public Policy for Planned Parenthood served as respondents for the panel. Both served a major roll in passing the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act in 1999.

LaTasha Hayes is finishing her junior year at California State University Stanislaus. She is swiftly approaching the age limit for her Chafee education stipend. LaTasha recommended extending the age beyond 23, which would account for youth who start school later than age 19.

Jeremy Long is a recent graduate from the University of Northern Colorado who has been fortunate to have only one placement during his time in the foster care system. Because Jeremy learned life skills from his foster mother, he didn’t need the funds appropriated by Chafee for adult skills classes. Jeremy proposed a screening for benefits needed by each youth so that no funds would be wasted when they could be supporting another youth in need.

Wendy Ruiz was denied Chafee funding when she started school in 2007 at Los Angeles City College due to budget cuts. In order to keep track of funds, Wendy proposed a database to track funds across states. This accountability would allow to know how many youth they are serving and how many youth are being denied.

Sam Martin grew up in kinship care in Seattle, Washington. Sam is passionate about bringing support to kinship care providers and youth in kinship care. These situations are often in just as much need of funds as foster care families and Sam believes they should receive assistance the Chafee.