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Senators owe vulnerable kids real debate, floor votes

Two significant pieces of legislation aimed at helping vulnerable children and their families were among the final bills considered this month.

One updates the nation’s federal juvenile justice standards for the first time in nearly 15 years. The other dramatically alters federal funding for child welfare services and foster care.  

{mosads}Neither passed. And neither received a vote in the United States Senate.

This is no surprise. When it comes to the nation’s most vulnerable children, senators are exceptionally disingenuous. They are quick to lament the fate of children in foster care and the juvenile justice system, but almost never debate the proposed laws that affect these youth on the Senate floor, or vote for them as a body.

Rather, they allow bills to wither and die, or pass in anonymity, because they don’t deem the fates of vulnerable children important enough to debate in their vaunted chamber. This year was no different. 

Proponents of both bills – the Family First Prevention Services Act and the Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act – are angry that, despite widespread support among professional organizations and members of Congress, both bills were stopped over the concerns of a few. And they are right to be upset about that.

Critics of both bills have legitimate concerns about the implications of the reforms they propose. And they are right to air those concerns, and fight against legislation with which they disagree.

But Senate leaders refused to discuss these differences in an open floor debate, followed by a full vote, despite ample opportunity to do so.

The juvenile justice legislation, which updates standards for how the one million juveniles arrested in the U.S. each year are treated, was marked up by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and was then passed overwhelmingly by the full body. In the Senate, it was twice “hotlined,” a process that allows passage with no debate, but only if all 100 senators sign off.

Both times, the legislation was stalled by the objection of one single senator.

The Family First Act would curtail the use of group homes and put more federal dollars toward preventing foster care, major changes that affect the handling of 3.6 million annual reports of abuse and neglect, and the lives of more than 400,000 children and youth in foster care. It was marked up by the House Ways and Means Committee, then received a House vote.

In the Senate? There was no markup in its committee of origin, the Senate Finance Committee.  

This is especially troubling as Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) were the ones who crafted the original language of the bill in the first place. With them unwilling to push hard on the Senate floor, it is unsurprising that the bill wasn’t debated or voted on.   

Instead, there was a summertime attempt to hotline Family First, which failed over the objections of a handful of senators. This month, as the lame-duck session came to a close, proponents tried to tack it onto the much larger 21st Century Cures Act, and then the continuing resolution bill to temporarily fund the government. Both attempts were thwarted.

Meaningful legislation about juvenile justice standards and foster care financing should not be stifled by a small faction, nor should they sneak into existence through a political backdoor. Yet those are the predictable outcomes if everyone accepts that these are not bills worthy of floor action.

Both bills deserve debate, and votes, by 100 people who are all too happy to fly home and talk a big game about their concern for the future of this country’s children. If that sounds like wishful thinking … ’tis the season for it.

As two journalists who have covered child welfare and juvenile justice for decades, we have invested a whole lot of meaningful words in improving the lives of these young people.

We think that it is about time the U.S. Senate did the same.

John Kelly is the senior editor of The Chronicle of Social Change. He has covered child welfare and juvenile justice for 15 years. Daniel Heimpel is the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, and an adjunct professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Orrin Hatch Ron Wyden

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