Forever Families for Forgotten Kids

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The new executive order offers renewed hope to children who want nothing more than a family to call their own.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast year, I met with a group of students who had endured the foster-care system. Anthony was moved from foster home to foster home for 18 years — his entire childhood. Another, David, had entered foster care at eight years old. He was placed in seven different inpatient facilities within six months. Both expressed their hope that no child would ever have to experience what they had.

This week, President Trump signed an executive order to help kids like Anthony and David. The order, which will decrease the time that children spend in foster care and help them find loving families, is desperately needed to give some of America’s most vulnerable kids a better shot at a better life.

The foster-care system is full of despair. Of the more than 437,300 children currently in care, over 125,000 are waiting for their forever family. More than 50 percent have been in foster care for two years — or more. The kids left behind are usually those who need love the most: children over the age of nine, siblings who want to stay together, and kids with disabilities.

Worse, every year, around 20,000 young people age out of foster care without any legal connection to a family. The results for these young adults are terrifying: Researchers who have conducted longitudinal studies find that four in ten will experience homelessness; more than 25 percent will end up incarcerated; and 71 percent of the young women will be pregnant by age 21.

So how does this order help these kids find their forever families?

First, it elevates the role of faith-based groups and “bridge organizations” — non-profits that create long-term relationship between local churches and caseworkers. Local child-welfare agencies tend to be overwhelmed, and three in ten of the nation’s caseworkers cycle out every year. These outside groups can provide additional support and expertise to help adoption programs function properly.

The order directs that basic, local data be available to these organizations. For instance, they might know that there are 125,000 kids nationally, but they need to know how many kids in their county are waiting for adoption. How many families do they need to recruit? How long does it take the average family to be certified as a foster family? How long do they stay certified? Simple data can answer all these questions — and recruit better-prepared families for kids in foster care.

These non-profits also fill many gaps. After they recruit new families, they help those families navigate bureaucratic hurdles to be certified as foster and adoptive parents. They also provide a community ready to supply these families with cribs and clothes, support groups, and respite care. Such communal care is essential to help children who have experienced trauma and neglect.

Second, the order brings new resources to the families that open their homes. It will ensure that families receive flexible — including online — educational options that directly address the unique challenges from what these kids have experienced. It will also connect families with much-needed trauma-informed therapy. And the order will open up new funds so biological, foster, and adoptive parents and children have the quality legal representation they desperately need to navigate the complicated foster-care court system.

Finally, the order doubles down on federal oversight to ensure that states meet their statutory obligations. When states don’t meet their obligations, kids linger in the system for too long.

For instance, states are supposed to complete an intensive family search within the first 30 days a child enters foster care. If completed on time, this search can connect children with kin, which can minimize trauma and increase stability. Yet many states routinely blow past the 30-day window, sometimes by more than a year.

States are also supposed to move for a Termination of Parental Rights (a necessary legal step before adoption) if a child is in care for more than 15 of 22 months. Yet many children, even when they live with the family ready to adopt them, wait for years for this final legal measure that brings the security of their forever family.

The order requires that states which don’t track and meet these statutory timeline requirements face federal enforcement — meaning that states could see the penalties in their federal funds.

This new order offers renewed hope to children who want nothing more than a family to call their own. Hundreds of thousands of children could benefit — children who deserve better than what happened to Anthony and David.

Leslie Ford, founder of Ford Policy Solutions, served as a special assistant at the White House on the Domestic Policy Council, 2018-20. Her portfolio included foster-care policy.

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