ACROSS America, and in Washington state, we are witnessing a transformation in how to keep children safe from abuse and neglect and provide the kinds of opportunities every child deserves to be happy, healthy and prepared to succeed in life.
For decades, the public perception of child-welfare systems was built upon the notion that we needed to “rescue” children by removing them from their homes and placing them in foster care. As more children were taken into foster care, outcomes were concerning.
Children in foster care need the same thing that all children do to grow up happy and healthy — a safe, stable and permanent family.
We began to consider a different response to at-risk children, one that recognized the importance of engaging their families and communities to keep them safe and provide opportunities to thrive. And instead of despair, we discovered hope.
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Keeping children safe from harm is still the paramount focus. Engaging communities and working with parents and extended families to help resolve the root causes of maltreatment can create stable, safe homes.
Across the nation, child-welfare agencies open investigations involving more than 3 million children each year, including 43,000 in Washington. Timely and more cost-effective intervention could change the course of young lives for the better.
As agencies across the country have focused on prevention and early intervention, the number of children in need of foster care is safely declining.
Since 2006, there has been a 22 percent reduction in the number of children under age 18 living in foster care, to about 382,000. Statistics show the vast majority — 94 percent — do not experience a repeat incident of maltreatment within six months of being returned to their families.
Early and effective intervention can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable children. But challenges remain. The federal government provides approximately $7.6 billion annually to states through its two main sources of dedicated child-welfare funding, Title IV-E and Title IV-B of the Social Security Act.
Rather than promoting innovative and proven approaches that better serve children and keep them safe, the bulk of federal funding can be spent only on maintaining children in foster care.
These restrictive funding rules hinder the ways child-welfare systems work with their communities. For every $6 spent to maintain children in foster care, only $1 is available to be invested in services that safely prevent the need for foster care.
Congress has taken the first steps toward reforming financing of child welfare. The 2011 Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act allows 30 states to apply for an opportunity to invest more of their federal foster-care dollars on prevention and family-focused services. Washington was among the first nine states to be approved and will be implementing promising changes this year.
Last week, a bipartisan group of congressional leaders visited Seattle as part of a listening tour to better understand what is working in child welfare and to help shape thinking about how our federal government can best support it.
Working together, Democrats and Republicans have found common ground in strengthening families. We must now take the next steps and work toward a permanent, nationwide reform of federal child-welfare funding to make sure all children have the chance to grow up safely in a safe, stable and permanent family.
We know what works. We know what’s at stake. We know the rewards. Now is the time to make it happen.
William C. Bell is president and CEO of Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest operating foundation focused on safely reducing the need for foster care and improving the child-welfare system. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott represents Washington’s 7th Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert serves the 8th District.