• Mercy Corps and Medical Teams International Provide Ebola Status Report to Sen. Wyden

    Oregon-based groups describe their work fighting Ebola; offer perspective on the threat the disease poses

    With the swirl of uncertainty, anxiety and saturation news coverage surrounding Ebola, Sen. Wyden decided to seek out experts to learn more about the disease and the efforts underway to combat it both here and overseas.

    Ron didn’t have to go very far. The Portland area is home to Mercy Corps and Medical Teams International – two world-class organizations that are on the frontlines in the battle against Ebola in West Africa.

    On Thursday he met in Portland with Craig Redmond, senior vice president of Programs at Mercy Corps and Joe DiCarlo, vice president of programs at Medical Teams International.

    Both these organizations have staff on the ground in West Africa doing difficult and heroic work under very tough conditions. The work they and others are doing in this battle cannot be praised and recognized enough.

    It also means Redmond and DiCarlo have valuable first-hand knowledge of what’s working and what’s not as we battle the disease. They know what changes are needed and most importantly, they can offer clear-headed suggestions for how to talk about this serious public health threat.

    What they told Sen. Wyden only reinforced some important points:

    • Ebola is dangerous but the likelihood of people in everyday life in the United States becoming infected is miniscule since the only way to contract Ebola is by coming into direct contact with body fluids of an infected person. The recent cases in Texas have highlighted changes in hospital protocol, education and infection control that should add additional protections and assurance that the disease is being contained.

    • And while we must be vigilant and fully prepared, people living in Oregon need to keep in mind some absolute facts: There are no direct flights to or from countries affected by the outbreak, which adds additional layers of security from the disease.

    • The federal government is providing more robust screening of passengers from countries affected by Ebola. In the very unlikely event that Ebola reaches Oregon, state and local health departments have been working closely with the CDC to establish effective quarantine and isolation procedures.

    A key challenge for Mercy Corps and Medical Teams International is training community health workers in the affected countries with a special focus on prevention and getting vital health information on the ground to trusted community leaders.

    Both organizations also stressed the need to make sure badly needed supplies are not held up by Liberian officials in Liberian ports. As Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Wyden told officials he would follow up to see what steps must be taken to loosen that bottleneck.

    Solving the bottleneck is important here because, while the cases in the United States are an alarming wake-up call, health officials - including one from Mercy Corps and Medical Teams International - agree that the way to end the epidemic and protect us all is by extinguishing it at the source in West Africa.

    Mercy Corps, for example, is providing crucial assistance in helping educate people in Liberia about the best ways to respond to Ebola and protect themselves. Public health experts agree that this is essential to breaking the chain of infection.

    Medical Teams International, meanwhile, is providing medical supplies and training for community health workers to help prevent the spread of the virus. This is equally crucial to stopping the chain of infection and to stabilize the populations in West Africa as much as possible until the full weight of the international response is in place.

    After the briefing, Sen. Wyden met with a standing-room only gathering of about 125 workers from both organizations, fielding questions for nearly an hour.

    He told the gathering that he was there to “listen and learn” in a non-politicized setting.

    And he praised both Oregon-based groups for their heroic work and the stellar reputations that both carry worldwide.

    "Your organizations are both synonymous with trust," Wyden said. “All of you in your program make us so proud because this is a chance for Oregonians to help and for Oregonians to send a message about what our values are all about.

    Asked about the potential that a downturn in the stock market might spark economic uncertainty, Sen. Wyden said to loud applause that he will preserve the charitable deduction - crucial to organizations like Mercy Corps and Medical Teams International - as part of tax reform.

    It is not a loophole,” he said. “It is a lifeline.

  • This bill improves the daily lives of children in foster care and builds bridges to permanency

    The level of attention an issue gets on the floor of the House or Senate or the nightly news doesn’t always correlate with the importance of an issue. A perfect example is a bill that passed through both the House and the Senate called the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. The legislation represents months’ worth of bipartisan negotiations between the two chambers. 

    Last December, the Senate Finance Committee passed three important bills on different aspects of the child welfare system –

    1. The first improves the federal adoption incentives program that rewards states for improving the rates at which they move children in foster care to stable, permanent relationships through adoption and guardianship;
    2. The second ensures state and federal agencies that oversee child welfare systems have plans in place to identify and serve victims of trafficking while also promoting age appropriate activities and normalcy for children and youth in foster care;
    3. The third is a child support enforcement bill that will increase the amount of child support collected on behalf of children.

    The final bill, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, deals with these three different pieces of the nation’s child welfare system that all have a common thread: bringing greater stability to the lives of vulnerable, or potentially vulnerable, children.

    Child sex trafficking is a moral blot on America and I’ve long fought to stop this heinous crime and prevent children from falling victim to predators. This bill helps move the conversation beyond: How do we help victims?  It also asks and provides some modest answers to the question: How do we prevent more children from becoming victims in the first place?

    Importantly this bill improves the daily lives of children in foster care and helps move them towards permanency. It makes it easier for them to be kids - to play soccer, go to camp and do activities with their friends and classmates. The bill includes provisions:

    • Reauthorizing and modernizing the Adoption Incentive Payments Program which awards states for moving foster children into adoptive homes. The bill expands the award pool to also include legal guardianship, thereby recognizing that permanency and stability can come in less traditional forms.  The bill also adds a new award category for adoptions and guardianships for children ages 14 or older, recognizing that too often, older children are harder to place with permanent families.
    • Creating a standard for “reasonable and prudent parenting” and requiring caregivers to use of this standard when determining whether to allow a child in foster care to participate in extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities. Too often, children in foster care are prohibited from engaging in normal, age appropriate activities due to liability reasons, or otherwise. Such prohibitions make it much more difficult for children to create and maintain normal relationships that often create permanency and stability in their lives.
    • Requiring state child welfare agencies to provide training to prospective foster parents on children’s developmental stages and  how to apply the reasonable and prudent parent standard when determining whether a child’s participation in school orextracurricular activities (e.g., field trips, overnight events and sports practices) is age or developmentally appropriate.
    • Providing an additional $3 million annually to the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program to be spent for the purpose of ensuring that children who are expected age out of foster care have the opportunity to participate in age or developmentally-appropriate activities.
    • Stipulating that no child under the age of 16 may have a permanency plan of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA). Currently, states are required to have official permanency plans for every child in their custody and APPLA can be used only when reunification, relative placement, adoption, or legal guardianship are ruled out. We have heard from many advocates that too often, children are “parked” in foster care with this designation, giving them the impression they are unwanted or unadoptable.
    • For young adults who age out of foster care, requiring the state to provide basic documents that are critical for important life steps – from leasing an apartment, to getting a job, or even just visiting the doctor. Without basic documents, young people are much more likely to end up homeless, victimized, or in the criminal justice system. These documents include an official copy of a U.S. birth certificate, Social Security card, driver’s license or other state-issued identification card, health insurance information and a copy of the child’s medical records.
    • Providing funding for the Family Connections Grant program for states to provide kinship navigator programs, intensive family finding efforts, family group decision-making and residential family substance abuse treatment. These programs are important tools in helping find and maintain permanent family connections for vulnerable children.

    Taken all together, these changes will vastly improve the day-to-day lives of America’s foster youth -- kids that we have an obligation to see into a safe, productive, and healthy adulthood.

  • Standing up for the Internet

    If Big Cable has their way, the Internet will look like this: 

    And that's not good for anyone but Big Cable.

    Today is the #InternetSlowdown, a day of action to tell the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect Net Neutrality. I'm participating because the principle of Net Neutrality – the freedom to compete online – is too important for our economy, education, and freedom of speech not to speak out.

    Right now, the FCC is in the process of crafting new rules. Rules that many Americans, members of Congress, innovators, and myself hope will protect net neutrality once and for all. Earlier this year, I submitted my comments to the FCC, making clear that the only way to effectively protect Net Neutrality – the foundation of the Internet – is to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

    Just submitting comments, emailing, or tweeting once isn't enough – for me or for you. We need to keep up the drumbeat. I'm listening to all the grassroots voices and I hope that the FCC and other policymakers are too.

    Like SOPA/PIPA, sometimes it takes days like today to get folks to listen to the Internet's users and do what's needed to protect principles that make the Internet the platform for commerce and speech it is today. Without net neutrality, start-ups will never leave the garage and Big Cable will have free rein to charge companies more to deliver their content at an acceptable speed.

    Join me and the millions of others who have commented to the FCC and tell them to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity and protect the freedom to compete online.

    Check out Battle for the Net for ideas on how to make your voice heard.