A Vision for Children in America That Everyone Should Get Behind

June 27, 2012

By Rutledge Q. Hutson

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Recently, the Washington Post reported a moving and important story of homeless families seeking assistance. These families, in search of housing assistance, are being turned away because there are no beds. They are also being warned that they may be reported to Child and Family Services for possible investigation of child maltreatment if they don't find a safe place to spend the night.  Those quoted in the story, from the Director of Human Services to local legal service providers to housing advocates, all agree this is not the best way to keep children safe.

In fact, the best way to help most children is to help their families, not remove them from those families - even when those families are struggling.  This is why CLASP's approach is about developing and advocating for policies and practices, within and outside child welfare agencies, which support children and their families.  If we develop adequate supports and services for families to access when needed, the necessity for more intrusive interventions like foster care will become rare.  

Historically, the nation's approach to child welfare has been about "rescuing" children from "evil" parents who physically or sexually abuse them.  While it's critical that we protect children from abuse, the "removal or do nothing" approach is too simplistic.  Nearly 70 percent of maltreatment is neglect.  Helping parents meet their children's basic needs; helping them resolve substance abuse and mental health issues, often arising from their own trauma; helping them find safety from domestic violence - these are all interventions that allow most parents to care for their children and avoid the trauma of separating children from everyone and everything they know and love. 

Also critically important, research increasingly shows such proactive approaches are not only more effective but less costly than years of foster care.  Investing in services that support families is not only the right thing to do for children, it is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.   

Yet, the nation's child welfare system is designed to remove children from their families, not provide a broad spectrum of family supporting interventions at scale.  We must flip this approach on its head.  We need to align federal child welfare financing mechanisms so they keep children safely in their homes, address children and families' needs when foster care is necessary so that children can quickly and safely return home, and find and support alternative families for children when they cannot return to their families of origin. 

To bring about this change, CLASP is working with nearly 40 other national organizations to build consensus for child welfare financing reforms that support alternatives to foster care whenever such interventions can safely keep children with their families.  It may take some time to get a financing structure in place that supports this vision, but there's progress being made.

Over the last two years, CLASP has worked on reinstating child welfare wavier authority, which allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to waive certain requirements in federal child welfare law for particular states, provided the cost to the federal government is no greater than what would otherwise be incurred under existing law.  As I testified before Congress, the proposal initially circulated in 2010 did not offer comprehensive enough solutions and enacting waiver authority had the potential to derail growing bi-partisan momentum for such solutions.  I also testified that if waiver authority was enacted, the law needed to require states using waivers to report better data so we know what works for all children who came into contact with the child welfare system and know how much it costs to provide these interventions.  In this way, waiver authority would advance the vision of helping families care for their children.  In the end, Congress reinstated waiver authority with a number of additional requirements, including many of those we recommended, that will give us better information and yet ensure that waivers do not delay progress toward reforms. 

Last month HHS issued guidance on how it will determine which waiver applications to approve.  In the guidance, HHS restates and clarifies the requirements of the law and encourages states to focus on approaches for which there is some evidence of effectiveness.  Building on another directive in the law that requires states to focus on improving the experience for children in foster care, HHS encourages states to focus on improving the well-being of children by addressing trauma they may have experienced before or after entering foster care. 

While many advocates, myself included, had concerns about the initial proposal to reinstate waiver authority, what passed and the manner in which it is being implemented set the stage for more comprehensive reforms that will truly make a difference for children and their families.

All children deserve a nurturing environment in which to thrive.  All parents need help providing that environment.  Some parents can get the support they need from family, friends, local community-based organizations, doctors, teachers and child care providers.  Other families will need services and supports from public agencies.  CLASP believes most children can thrive in their own homes if we offer their parents the supports they need; if we listen to what the parents identify as important and build upon the strengths the parents already have; and let them care for their children.  As a nation, we should support families so they can nurture and raise their children.  That is a vision for our nation's children that we should all get behind.

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