Preventing child abuse and neglect fatalities
© Greg Nash

A loving home is critical for the next generation to thrive and become productive members of society. Close-knit, supportive families serve as the building blocks for safe schools and solid communities. Strong families are an essential thread in the social fabric of America. Unfortunately, not every household fits the bill. When neglect and abuse put children at risk, society has a responsibility to intervene and protect their well-being.

National Foster Care Month has been recognized for more than 20 years as a time to celebrate the voices of foster youth and to bring awareness to the challenges that they face. During this month, organizations in Iowa and across the country work together to support and recognize youth in foster care, as well as put forward solutions to help our nation’s kids. As the co-founder and co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, I’m an engaged and active voice in this fight. I’ve led policy forums and briefings, and enacted federal reforms to improve foster care services for the better part of two decades.

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Recently, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, together with the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths (NCEAD), led a briefing on how to help prevent child fatalities resulting from child abuse or neglect. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, there were an estimated 676,000 victims of child abuse and neglect in 2016, a 3 percent increase from 2012. More than 8,500 of these children were in my home state of Iowa. Nationally, an estimated 1,750 children died as a result of abuse and neglect. Most often, the perpetrators of abuse are parents of the victims.

In 2016, 61 percent of children who entered foster care did so due to neglect or abuse. Although the foster care system can be life-saving by providing children who are victims of abuse with a safe environment, too often foster youth are subject to more neglect and abuse at the hands of their foster parents. In 2016, there were over 1,500 victims of child abuse committed by a foster parent, and 1,498 reported victims of child abuse suffered at a group home or residential treatment facility.

In order to prevent child abuse and neglect, and especially the tragedy of child fatality from these causes, federal child welfare policy should encourage the placement of children in the best possible environment. It is clear that the best place for children to grow and thrive is in a safe, loving, and permanent home, whether that is with biological parents, adoptive parents or a relative.  

For many years, promoting policies that keep children safe and make adoption from foster care a reality for kids across the country has been one of my priorities. In 2008, I introduced the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which provided additional federal incentives for states to move children from foster care to adoptive homes. That legislation also made it easier for foster children to be permanently cared for by their own relatives, and to stay in their home communities.

In 2011, I worked to reauthorize grants that support families who struggle with substance abuse, and that improve the well-being of children who are not in their homes or are likely to be removed because of parental substance abuse.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed late last year, preserved the Adoption Tax Credit, making it easier for families who want to adopt children in foster care to do so. Also last year, I introduced the Strong Families Act of 2017, legislation to prevent child abuse and improve maternal and child health, among other things.

Most recently, Congress passed the Family First Act, which redirects child welfare funding typically only available to states after a child has been placed in foster care to prevention services designed to keep families together. Parental drug abuse is a strong indicator of child neglect and abuse, and the Family First Act authorizes states to spend federal child welfare dollars on substance abuse treatment counseling, among other services designed to prevent children from having to be placed in foster care in the first place. If we can work to prevent child abuse and neglect from taking place, we can reduce the number of children in foster care, and reduce instances of child fatalities.

Along with my colleagues on the Senate and Congressional Caucuses on Foster Youth, and the dedicated people working on this issue, such as the NCEAD, an alliance of prosecutors, pediatricians, social workers and child and family advocates who are on the front lines in the battle to make children in Iowa and our nation safer, I will continue working to find solutions and secure better outcomes for youth in foster care or at risk of entering foster care.

Children in Iowa and throughout the country deserve an equal opportunity to pursue happiness, complete their education and live the American Dream. They shouldn’t have to worry about abuse, neglect or whether they will live long enough to achieve their goals. Child fatalities should never happen, and they are preventable when state and federal legislators, child care workers, volunteers and loving citizens work together.

Grassley is the Senate Judiciary chairman.