Putting families first in our foster care system
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Although our congressional districts are only 90 miles apart, people might assume that a Democrat from Chicago’s West Side and a Republican from South Bend, Ind., would be worlds apart. But when it comes to our most vulnerable children, we have discovered that different paths have led us to the same conclusion. 

Children do best when they can stay safely in their own families. When parents can’t provide a loving home, grandparents and other family members are the next best thing. And those family members — especially grandparents who are opting into a second shift of child rearing — are heroes and heroines who deserve our respect and support. 

In marking Foster Care Month this May, we see much that worries us, but also cause for optimism. As the number of children living in foster care has risen for the fifth year in a row — now at nearly 443,000 children — states are relying on relatives to care for children more than ever before. Approximately one-third of children in foster care are living with grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives.

The good news: they are thriving. Research shows that, compared to those in foster care with non-relatives, children in relative foster care have safer, more stable safe childhoods — as well as better behavioral and mental health outcomes — thanks to fewer school changes and a greater likelihood of having a permanent home. 

The bad news: for decades we have routinely failed to give relatives the support they need to help provide for these children. 

Fortunately, we have an opportunity right now to do better by grandparents and other kin caregivers. Last year, Congress passed bipartisan child welfare legislation called the Family First Prevention Services Act. If states opt in, the federal government will pay half the cost of mental health, substance abuse, and parenting skills interventions for the whole family, so long as research shows that programs can work. That means, for example, that grandparents could get help caring for their grandchildren while parents get help to address substance use disorders and other challenges.

If, after the family receives prevention services, the child can’t return to his or her parents’ care, those months caring for the child will give relatives the opportunity to thoughtfully decide what is best for the family. Will they be able to raise the child outside the formal foster care system with the help of community supports and services, or do they need to become licensed kinship foster parents in order to receive the financial support and structure that comes with it? If becoming a licensed foster parent is the best option, the law helps address barriers that have kept many relatives from getting licensed and deprived them of support they need to put food on the table for their grandchildren.

The law also provides critically needed funds to states to support kinship navigator programs. These navigators have been proven to connect grand families to supports and services in the community to help them succeed, regardless whether they are inside or outside the foster care system.  

Currently, in 23 states more than half of grandparents or other relatives raising children receive no assistance from the child welfare system, despite the fact that one in five live below the poverty line. Even greater numbers of children are raised by relatives who step in to keep from ever coming to the attention of the child welfare system in the first place. For every one child in the foster care system in the care of a relative, 19 are being cared for outside the system by a relative.  

The Family First Prevention Services Act presents an opportunity to change that. All states were offered startup funds to get their kinship navigator programs going. And on a permanent basis, states can receive 50 cents for every dollar they spend on kinship navigator programs. It’s up to all of us to make sure states take those funds and use them well. 

Families are unique in their ability to give our children roots. The Family First Prevention Services Act supports those vital roots and will result in healthy, thriving children. We look forward to working together to help states implement this historic law to protect children and strengthen families.  

Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) and Congresswoman Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) serve as chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support, which has jurisdiction over foster care and other child welfare services funding.