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.