Q: How has the pandemic impacted foster care?
A: For nearly 15 months, the pandemic uprooted just about everything society took for granted before COVID-19 swept into communities across the country. The highly transmissible infectious disease created unprecedented changes and challenges to life as we know it, from going to work, attending school, filling prescriptions, buying groceries and seeing a health care provider. Closing classrooms and shutting down entire sectors of the economy created financial hardship and untold consequences of social isolation, affecting mental health, and exacerbating addiction and domestic abuse. For children who need society’s social safety net to catch them when their family life is not safe, child welfare services exist within the community to help. Foster parents are an integral thread in the fabric of the child welfare safety net. As the founding co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, I’ve worked for more than two decades to strengthen public policies that give kids who are placed in foster care the best opportunity to have a loving, forever family. Whether that’s safe reunification with one’s family of origin or securing permanency with an adoptive family, policymakers need to prioritize funding, resources and accountability to secure stability for youth who have been through trauma, uncertainty and insecurity through no fault of their own. Like everything else, the pandemic disrupted foster care systems across the United States. Although countless businesses and organizations were forced to close, child welfare agencies, the courts and community partners found a way to continue services for at-risk youth and families. There were hiccups along the way, including delays in achieving permanency, economic hardship and disrupted schooling, but the mission stayed the course. Every child deserves a forever family and a safe, permanent place to call home. Now that we’re seeing more and more light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it’s as important as ever to keep moving ahead to celebrate and accelerate safe reunifications and adoptions so that no child is subjected to abuse or neglect, or bounced from one foster home to the next indefinitely. During negotiations on the fifth pandemic relief package that President Trump signed into law in December, I worked to temporarily boost federal spending on services and assistance for foster youth to ensure there was adequate funding to meet the unique challenges faced by youth during the pandemic, especially for those who age out of foster care with no place to call home.
Q: What changes in law to improve foster care supports and services have you steered through Congress?
A: The nation’s opioid epidemic resulted in an increasing number of kids entering foster care. As the numbers continued to climb, I worked to secure bipartisan solutions with four key goals in mind: to help reunify children safely with their parents; expand prevention services to curb the need to remove kids from their homes in the first place; or, when reunification isn’t possible, to accelerate adoptions; and, provide additional housing, job training, and tuition assistance for youth who age out of foster care. The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 updated the federal financing framework to encourage child welfare agencies to implement policies that would achieve those four benchmarks. The Family First Act emphasizes family care over group care environments by supporting services to help keep families intact and limits federal payments to two weeks for placements not in foster homes or qualified residential treatment programs. It also created a competitive federal grant to support state efforts to recruit and retain high-quality foster families. These families serve as front-line caregivers for kids who can’t safely remain with their biological moms and dads and provide physical, emotional and educational support for children placed in their care. In 2019, my Family First Transition Act extended flexibility and resources for states, territories and tribes to build up their child welfare prevention services that are evidence-based, including more help for mental and behavioral health services, substance abuse prevention and treatment, in-home parent skill-based programs and guidance for kinship services. I’ve heard directly from teenagers who share their life experiences in foster care. They’ve participated in policymaking discussions I’ve hosted that have informed my work on legislation to improve foster care services and outcomes. Every single one wants what every child in America wants and deserves: a permanent place to call home. For those who age out of foster care without a forever home, society is obliged to help give these young adults a spring board to a strong start to independence and a fair opportunity to achieve their full potential in adulthood.