- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Across America, nearly every month, there is at least one case of abuse or neglect of a child in the child welfare system splashed across the front page.

Most recently, it was the news from New Jersey that four boys adopted from foster care were discovered apparently starving in their parents’ home. Reports that the parents were receiving publicly funded adoption subsidies led some to question whether unfit adults were adopting children to collect public dollars.

Every year, thousands of families adopt children from foster care and provide them with a loving, permanent home. Clearly, something went horribly wrong in this case. But we won’t fix the problem by just laying blame or limiting our questions to adoption policies.

The overlooked policy question from this tragedy is: How do we ensure that child welfare systems — the public agencies and courts charged with protecting abused and neglected children — have the necessary tools to meet the nation’s goals of safety, permanency and well-being for these children?

The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care is asking that question.This blue ribbon panel is crafting recommendations to improve federal financing of foster care, adoption and other child welfare services, and to improve court oversight of children in state custody.

Today, decisions by state agencies and judges are influenced by which services the federal government will pay for — and which ones it won’t pay for.Federal dollars flow easily to pay for foster care for poor children.But they are much less available for services to help families stay safely together, reunify after a period in foster care or establish safe, nurturing adoptive homes.

As a result, the average foster child spends three years in foster care, in three different homes. Many have longer stays and even more placements.While foster care is necessary to protect some children from serious harm, lengthy stays in multiple placements are a cruel form of protection that has lasting negative effects on children.

The damage to children stemming from these perverse financial incentives is compounded by challenges facing the courts.Judges decide whether to place or keep children in foster care, send them home or terminate parental rights, so that a child is available for adoption.Yet, crowded dockets and limited court resources often allow judges only fleeting inquiries into children’s needs and circumstances before they must render a decision.Additionally, most courts lack the management tools to analyze and address sources of delay in their caseloads or track special needs among the children they oversee.The results are continuances and postponements that may needlessly prolong a child’s stay in foster care.

Caseworkers, judges, administrators and advocates have told the commission that the combination of greater flexibility and greater accountability would strengthen the ability of child welfare agencies and courts to serve children better.Expanding state options for using federal funding would enable courts and agencies to provide children and families with supports and services tailored to their specific needs.For some children in foster care, adoption will be the route to a loving, permanent family.For others, it will be reunification with their birth families or a permanent home with a legal guardian.

Accountability helps ensure that states use their flexibility well.Public agencies and courts should have clear, measurable goals for which they should be held accountable, so that taxpayers can assess how effectively public officials are protecting the children in their care.

Our work is informed by many expert voices — but it is illuminated by the voices of children. Two months ago, members of the Pew Commission met 23-year-old Luis. He had been neglected by his birth mother, abused by her boyfriend, then ignored by the state that placed him in foster care. Thankfully, a loving family adopted him as a teenager. Luis got right to the point. “Everybody deserves a family,” he told us. “You have a right to love and to be loved.”

That love can’t be bought with money or ordered by a court.But with a better financing structure, stronger court practices and greater accountability all around, our child welfare system can do a better job of getting children the loving families they deserve.

Bill Frenzel and Bill Gray are former congressional colleagues and the chairman and vice chairman of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care.

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