National Hub Started for State Child Welfare Reform

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A group of nonprofits will work with the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation to establish a national hub for state child welfare reform assistance.

The State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center (SPARC) will be led by national advocacy group First Focus, and will focus on helping a handful of states make large strides that “could inspire policy change on a national scale,” according the Casey’s announcement of the project.

“In this economic climate, state budget cuts across the nation are draining resources from programs that provide critical services to vulnerable children who need safe, strong and permanent families,” said Lisa Hamilton, vice president of External Affairs at the Casey Foundation.

SPARC will over the next five years provide technical assistance, offer networking opportunities for child welfare leaders, and proliferate evidence-based guidance on policy and reform strategies. Nonprofit organizations Child Trends, ChildFocus and the North American Council on Adoptable Children, and policy expert Yali Lincroft, will assist First Focus with SPARC.

The interests of SPARC focus mostly on youths who have already been removed from their families and placed in foster care. Casey lists several front-burner issues in child welfare as priorities. Among them:

-Permanency for older youth: Texas is currently in court with nonprofit litigator Children’s Rights, which in March 2011 filed a lawsuit accusing the state’s child welfare system of failing to transition foster children back home or to other permanent situations in a timely manner.

-Educational stability: The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed in 2008, requires child welfare agencies to help foster youths stay in their school of origin if they wished. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions recently passed a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would require school districts to help with that effort.

-Post-adoption services: There is little data or research on the success of adoptions, and the frequency with which they fall apart after finalization. Meribah Knight, reporting for the Chicago News Cooperative of The New York Times, looked last week at cases in which adoption is not the happily-ever-after it’s cracked up to be.

-Improved legal services for children and families in the system: In 2009, San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sa exposed the extent to which under-funding and massive caseloads had rendered ineffective the legal representation infrastructure in California’s family court.

-Regulation of psychotropic medications for kids in care: The use of potent mental health drugs with foster youth first made headlines when a 7-year-old Florida foster youth – placed on multiple psychiatric drugs – killed himself. More recently, the Obama administration told states to provide more information about their prescribing practices. The announcement came in December, the day after the release of a Government Accountability Office study of five states found alarming rates of foster youths on psychotropics.

-Services for immigrant children and their families: A study released in November by the Applied Research Center found that thousands of U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants are currently living in foster care while their parents are detained or deported, and many parents are not being given the chance to take children with them even though they have that right.

First Focus President Bruce Lesley did suggest that SPARC will push for improvements in these areas by helping states reduce overall commitments into foster care.

“We can do better for both kids and taxpayers, and SPARC will uplift innovative ideas, including reinvestment of money saved by reducing the number of children in foster care and institutional placements,” Lesley said in the announcement.