05.24.06

Working Toward Better Outcomes for Children in Foster Care

Mr. SCHIFF. Mr. Speaker, this week I introduced the Fostering our Future Act of 2006, along with my colleague, the distinguished gentlewoman from Pennsylvania (Ms. Hart).

This is 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 support and reform. 20 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, behavioral and educational challenges faced by these youth. The doubling of the foster care population since the early 1980s compounds 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 resilience and courage. Imagine what it is like to be 8 years old, neglected by your parents and then taken away from them. You are told that you must live with a family that is not your own. You would be confused by court proceedings that govern your future and frightened that you might be transferred to yet another home. You would certainly feel alienated from your peers who talk about mom and dad. Imagine what that must feel 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 adulthood prepared to live a happy, healthy and productive life. We have a responsibility to these children to meet these goals. Anything less is unacceptable.

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

The Pew Commission found that State dependency court systems were failing to sufficiently track cases and train personnel, because they do not receive Federal funds to do so. Inner-agency collaboration and performance measurement where they exist have been inconsistent both within and between States and tend to focus on bureaucratic needs rather than outcomes.

I was pleased earlier this year when under the leadership of the Ways and Means chairman of the subcommittee, Mr. Herger, the committee passed legislation that included $100 million in new funding to improve our foster care system. These funds have been allocated to improve juvenile and family courts, help track and analyze caseloads, train judges and other court personnel and bolster collaboration between State courts and State child welfare agencies. While this is a critical first step, it is time we implement the rest of the court-related provisions recommended by the Pew Commission, and this legislation we introduced will do exactly that.

Our State foster care system struggled to retain qualified dependency attorneys who are often burdened by substantial debt. A recent survey found that one-third of practicing dependency attorneys graduated with over $75,000 in outstanding loans, and 44 percent of them currently owe more than $50,000. High turnover among dependency attorneys has led to a dearth of experienced lawyers who have a comprehensive understanding of the system and maintain valuable relationships with their young clients.

The Fostering Our Future Act that we are introducing responds to these shortcomings. It encourages Statewide interagency collaboration and data sharing. It ensures effective representation is available to children and families. It establishes a loan forgiveness program to attract and retain qualified child welfare attorneys. And most importantly, by focusing on child welfare outcomes, this legislation will keep the needs of children and families rather than the needs of bureaucracies 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 it deserves. Foster care plays a crucial role in the Nation's child welfare safety net, but it is in desperate need of change and support. I call on my colleagues to join us working for the day when all of our Nation's children are protected, nurtured and loved. And I invite you to join me in that quest by co-sponsoring the Fostering Our Future Act of 2006.