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New Foster Care Law Seeks To Increase Stability

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David Crary, Detroit News, October 14, 2008

For many thousands of America's foster children, prospects for a permanent home and stronger support will be brighter under a new law that bridged Washington's partisan divide and is touted as the most significant child welfare reform in decades.

Its title is a mouthful -- the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. And it has raised some questions: Will budget-strapped states embrace some of the options it offers? Why didn't it include initiatives to help curtail child neglect in the first place?

Nonetheless, the bill -- signed with little fanfare last week by President Bush -- is widely viewed throughout the child welfare community as a remarkable achievement by a Congress often incapacitated by partisanship.

"This is a historic moment for foster children and families," said James Brown, president of the Child Welfare League of America, calling it the most significant foster care legislation since 1980.

The act is striking for its breadth. Among its major provisions, it will:
Provide more financial incentives for adopting children out of foster care, especially older youths and those with special needs. One example: Federal adoption assistance for special-needs children will no longer be limited to those who come from low-income families.
Allow use of federal funds to assist children who leave foster care to live as legal guardians of relatives -- a step that will help an estimated 15,000 children. In the past, such "kinship care" -- which experts view as preferable to foster care -- was generally not eligible for federal aid.
Allow direct federal foster care funding to tribal governments, so more American Indian and Alaskan Native children can receive services while staying in their own communities. Previously, the tribes had to go through state agencies for this funding.
Allow states to provide federally subsidized foster care services to young people up to age 21, instead of 18.
Require child welfare agencies to make "reasonable efforts" to keep siblings together when they enter foster care, and work harder to ensure that foster children receive a stable education and proper health care.

"It takes a comprehensive look at child welfare and what we can do to improve it, rather than just Band-Aids," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

On any given day, more than 500,000 children are in the U.S. foster care system, including 125,000 waiting to be adopted.

The bill envisions about $3 billion in new costs over the next 10 years. It won bipartisan support in part because congressional budget analysts determined that savings -- for example, less spending on foster care casework -- would offset the added costs.


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