On the Introduction of the Fostering Our Future Act

Mr. Speaker, last week I introduced the Fostering Our Future Act of 2005, a bill to help our Nation's foster youth by strengthening dependency courts and requiring accountability. Foster care is a critical safety net for half a million abused and neglected American children.

It is, however, a system in need of drastic reform and greater support. Twenty percent of all foster kids will be forced to wait over 5 years for a safe, permanent family. Even worse, almost 20,000 older youth age out of the system without the assistance of a permanent family every year.

Frequent foster home transfers create turbulence and insecurity that heighten the emotional behavior and educational challenges faced by these youth. The doubling of the foster care population since the early 1980s compounded this problem by creating enormous caseloads and taxing the capacity of foster homes. The end result is that foster kids, through no fault of their own, are more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment, and other life course problems despite their courageous resilience.

Imagine what it is like to be 8 years old, neglected by your parents and then taken away from them, living with a family that is not your own, confused by the court proceedings that govern your future, frightened that you might be transferred to another home and alienated and from your peers who talk about mom and dad. Imagine what that feels like.

These children deserve better. They should be guaranteed physical and emotional safety. They should have continuing relationships with caregivers and loved ones. They should have an informed voice in the legal decisions made about their lives. And they should enter early adulthood prepared to live a healthy, happy, and productive life. We have a responsibility to these children to meet these goals, and anything less is unacceptable.

Practitioners and policy experts have conducted thorough analyses and advanced proposals to overhaul the foster care system. The most prominent is a comprehensive 2004 report by the bipartisan Pew Commission, and identified several areas where the Federal Government can support these kids by strengthening the Nation's foster care systems.

The Pew report found that State dependency court systems are failing to sufficiently track cases, and trained personnel, unlike State child welfare agencies, they did not receive Federal funds to do so.

Interagency collaboration and performance measurement, where they exist, are inconsistent, both within and between State systems, and tend to focus on bureaucratic needs rather than outcomes.

Finally, these systems struggle to retain qualified dependency attorneys who are often burdened by substantial debt. A recent survey found that almost a third of those practicing dependency attorneys graduated law school with over $75,000 in outstanding loans, and 44 percent of them currently owe over $50,000.

High turnover among dependency attorneys has led to a dearth of experienced lawyers who have a comprehensive understanding of the system and can maintain valuable relationships with their young clients.

The Fostering Our Future Act responds to each of those shortcomings. My bill authorizes grants to State dependency court systems to track and analyze caseloads as well as to train court personnel. These grants are leveraged by requiring that the recipient court systems collaborate with the State's corresponding child welfare agencies and track a series of critical performance metrics.

The legislation further establishes a loan forgiveness program to attract and retain qualified child welfare attorneys. By encouraging statewide interagency collaboration and data-sharing by tracking cases and training court personnel, by ensuring that effective representation is available to children and their families, and most importantly, by focusing on child welfare outcomes, this legislation will keep the needs of children and families rather than the needs of bureaucrats front and center.

I commend the child welfare workers of America for the invaluable services they provide and for constantly struggling to get this issue the attention that it deserves. Foster care plays a crucial role in our Nation's child welfare safety net, but it is in desperate need of support and reform.

I call my colleagues to join me in working for the day when all of the Nation's children are protected, nurtured, and loved, and I invite you to join me in that quest by cosponsoring the Fostering Our Future Act of 2005.