Amid the politicking and financial fights, Congress actually passed a significant piece of legislation for troubled families in September.
It affects you, for instance, if you have been thinking about taking in your messed-up sister's kids. Under the "Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008," which President Bush signed Oct. 7, you can more easily become their paid legal guardian.
Other changes allow states to keep critical services flowing to foster youths until they turn 21 and letting tribal governments get child-welfare funds directly. (Previously, states pulled the plug on a lot of foster kids on their 18th birthdays, and a lot of tribes didn't take the funds because they had to go through state bureaucracies.)
I have some lingering concerns, but first some accolades for the new law.
"This is the most significant legislation relating to adoption and foster care since the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997," said Tom Atwood, president and chief executive of the National Council for Adoption.
He and other adoption advocates are happy states will continue to get (even bigger) bonuses if they increase the number of adoptions from foster care each year.
Adoption advocates also are pleased that states will be required to tell all prospective adoptive parents about the $11,650 adoption tax credit. (Before, not all parents were told about the credit, especially if they were adopting foster children). Also, within a few years, all children adopted from foster care who have special needs will be eligible for federal adoption assistance. (Currently, only foster children adopted from poor families come with subsidies.)
Over at the Pew Charitable Trusts and Kids Are Waiting campaign, child-welfare leaders are glad more adults who agree to be legal guardians of young relatives can get federal subsidies similar to foster parents. In the past, kinship-care guardians got far less or nothing at all.
All of these new policies "will help judges and other professionals ensure that more abused and neglected children can leave foster care to join safe, loving homes," said Michigan State Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan, a member of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, which made key policy recommendations to Congress.
Here are my thoughts. I understand the merits of kinship care, and I see the built-in safeguards in the law to make sure relatives are fit and willing. I still wonder, however, about the wisdom of paying families to take care of their own relatives. It seems like it opens a Pandora's box a little wider. After all, wouldn't everyone like to get some financial help to raise their kids?
I also worry about oversight of kinship families, especially in light of the checkered track record of (overworked, underpaid) child-welfare workers. Will the kinship agreement cause a family rift? Will the troubled parent keep on drugging and drinking because the kids are safe with family? If Grandma becomes the legal guardian, will she let her daughter (or son) take the kids just because she (or he) shows up sober?
I also am perplexed about states getting bonuses for increasing the numbers of adoptions of foster kids each year. When the bonus policy was created in 1997, there was an admitted "backlog" of thousands of cases where the kids were free for adoption but still sat in foster care.
That backlog is virtually gone, so why is the goal still "more" adoptions each year from foster care? (Most foster kids return to their homes, by the way.)
I would think the foremost priority would be preventing kids from entering foster care - which is why we already spend serious money educating young people on (a) how to avoid drugs, unwed pregnancy and gangs, (b) how to have competent relationships, marriages and family life, and (c) where to get family preservation services when needed.
I raise these concerns, not because I think this new law is mistaken, or policies such as kinship care or adoption are wrong, or that good people aren't doing the best they can. I just worry about those unintended consequences. It always seems that when adults make mistakes, the kids end up paying the price.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.