- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Cases involving abused and neglected children should be a higher priority in the court system and the federal government should overhaul the way it pays for foster care, according to a report released yesterday.

The foster care system is “unquestionably broken,” said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care.

If federal child-welfare programs and state court systems make some key changes, many problems plaguing the system could be resolved, says the 16-member commission’s report.

The report recommends about $35 million annually in court improvements, including better tracking of foster-care cases, more training of court child-welfare personnel and improvements to the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.

It calls for about $345 million annually in new or refocused federal spending, for a total investment of $2 billion over five years.

In 2002, about 534,000 abused and neglected children were in foster care. Almost half of all foster children spend at least two years in state care, in at least three different placements.

Courts handle the crucial decisions of whether a child enters foster care, is ultimately reunited with parents, or is adopted or placed with a legal guardian, said commission member Maura Corrigan, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

If state supreme courts set up a system to work closer with family courts, children’s cases could be tracked more efficiently, she said. Courts also should invest time and money in child-welfare training, positions and salaries.

Federal child-welfare policies should also be updated, according to the commission report. For instance, foster care and adoption assistance should be give to children regardless of family income or whether they are part of an Indian tribe. Also, permanent legal guardians of foster children should become eligible for assistance.

A new grant program, using existing and new funds, would allow states more flexibility in its decisions in serving families, says the report, which was underwritten by Pew Charitable Trusts to the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute.

Many members of Congress, including Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican; Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat; and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat welcomed the report, as did some child advocacy groups.

However, Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform objected to the idea of putting foster care administration and training funds “in the same pot” with funds for child abuse prevention. It would “force everyone to fight for a piece of the pie,” he said.

Former Rep. William H. Gray III, Pennsylvania Democrat and vice chairman of the commission, said the commission’s mandate is fulfilled with the report.

“Our next job is to go out and sell” its recommendations, he said.

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