Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face
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National Foster Care Month is a time to honor the successes and challenges of the 442,000 U.S. children in foster care. In the summer of 1986 my siblings and I entered foster care in the city of St. Louis. I was seven. My mom suffered from Schizophrenia, but she wasn’t abusive. We lived in poverty. We didn’t have enough food. We lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment. She wasn’t stable and didn’t have access to mental health care. And even though she was college educated, she could not get a job. If she had a job, child care was more expensive than her wages. This was our story in poverty.

One in five children grows up in poverty in the U.S. That’s 14 million children potentially at risk of neglect and poor health and education outcomes. While most people in financial need do not abuse or maltreat their children, poverty can increase the likelihood of neglect, particularly when scarcity is combined with other risk factors, such as mental illness, substance use, lack of health care and social isolation.

Most policymakers don’t know about the stressors that vulnerable families face every day. Overworked, overstressed, under-resourced families make up the majority of all neglect cases in the U.S. These families lack access to good health care and do not make a livable wage. When policymakers hear real-life stories, learn about the basic challenges of parenting in poverty, and meet the people impacted, they are often more willing to invest public dollars in the services that can improve outcomes.

This year marks the 16th annual class of the Congressional Foster Youth Internship Program. The program brings foster youth from across the U.S. to work in congressional offices. With the encouragement and support of my aunt and uncle, in 2003, I was among the first class that went to Washington, D.C. The internship required that we research and write a policy report, making recommendations for policy change. This assignment shaped my life’s mission – to improve the government systems and conditions that impact the lives of poor children, children like me.

Just one year ago, Congress made a historic bipartisan decision to pass the Families First Prevention Services Act, providing the single biggest increase in investment in child welfare history. The funding allows states to invest more in primary and secondary prevention interventions such as home visiting, respite care, and support for young parents. With a focus on prevention, communities can shore up parents and create resiliency that is sure to stop neglect before it starts, and keep families together. Building from there, the House of Representatives has generated good momentum. Two examples are: the March 26 hearing titled: “Strengthening Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect" in the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services which launched the reauthorization of the nation’s child abuse and neglect law; and, the House Appropriations Committee decision to provide for much-needed investments in programs that target children and families via the Fiscal Year 2020 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies appropriations bill.

But there is still more to do. Congress and the administration must press forward. We need a comprehensive plan to fix poverty; there’s support and data backing the need. Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine unveiled A Road Map to Reducing Child Poverty laying out an evidence-backed plan to cut child poverty in half within ten years. Think tanks and advocates are pushing to get Congress to pay attention and pass the recommended policy changes into law. For the sake of all children and their parents, I hope they do. 

Lisa Foehner is the Director of Advocacy and Strategic Messaging at Parents as Teachers National Center, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. Lisa served in the offices of former U.S. Sens. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCongress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ Lobbying world MORE (D-La.) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillIranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Ocasio-Cortez blasts NYT editor for suggesting Tlaib, Omar aren't representative of Midwest MORE (D-Mo.).