Congress puts families first


March 30, 2018

Editor’s note: The Coalition on Human Needs is participating in the Children’s Blog Carnival, hosted and sponsored by the Children’s Leadership Council.  Today’s post is authored by Donna Butts, Executive Director of Generations United. This post originally appeared on Medium. In the coming weeks, look for additional posts from a wide variety of organizations whose focus is on children.

By Donna Butts
“My grandparents were my heroes and gave me a safe home.” -Senator Tammy Baldwin

As the Family First Prevention Services Act was winding its way through Congress after being included in the bipartisan government spending bill, Senator Tammy Baldwin was sharing her story at a hearing on opioids.

She said she was two months old when her teenage mother brought her to live with her grandparents. With her mother struggling with mental illness, physical pain and an over-reliance on a multitude of prescription medications, her grandparents loved and nurtured her, becoming her “rocks.”

More than 2.5 million children today depend on the same relative rocks the senator did. They all have the potential to become grand successes, like she did, because of their unwavering love and sacrifice.

Sacrifice they’ve usually had to make on their own with little to no supports to help them along the way.

Congress recently took a step up to help the children living in grandfamilies — families in which a grandparent or other relative is raising children.

As part of the bipartisan government spending bill, the Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law.

This long-awaited bipartisan legislation will help grandfamilies in three major ways:

  • Kinship Navigator Programs: It provides partial government funding to help states that elect to offer kinship navigator programs. These are a one stop information source for relative caregivers trying to navigate new systems and access available supports and services in their states for the children in their care.

Navigators help grandparents traverse new terrain so they don’t end up like the Tennessee grandmother who said “I spent all of my retirement savings to get my grandson’s teeth fixed only to find out later he would have qualified for free dental care.”

  • Prevention Services: It provides support for up to 12 months of services to children, birth parents and caregivers of children who are at risk of entering the foster care system. Services include mental health, substance use treatment and prevention services, and in-home skill-based services.

Prevention services could have helped Michigan grandmother Jan and her husband. Their grandson came to them at age two after experiencing significant trauma when he was living with his mother who was addicted to opioids. Because she took her grandson without the intervention of the child welfare system, she and her grandson were both denied access to trauma-informed mental health supports desperately needed to help him heal.

  • Licensing Relatives: It helps address barriers to licensing relatives as foster parents to help more children and caregivers in grandfamilies get the full range of supports and services that traditional unrelated foster parents and children receive.

It would put an end to denying critical help to grandfamilies like that of one grandfather who was denied a foster parent license because one year he caught more fish than his fishing license allowed. He’s not alone. Minor non-violent crimes in their youth have kept relatives from receiving licenses.

The legislation also hits the right note because it prioritizes families for children over group care unless the group setting is short-term, quality and treatment-oriented.

It requires a number of quality improvements to residential treatment settings for children. It includes provisions to reduce the amount of time it takes to help children in foster care move across state lines to permanent families, and it extends and makes improvements to a number of other child welfare programs.

For every child being raised by a relative in the foster care system, 20 children are being raised by relatives outside the system with no parent present in the home.

By conservative estimates, these relatives who keep families together and children out of foster care save taxpayers more than $4 billion each year.

Now it’s up to the states to implement these policies in a way that honors and supports grandparents and other relatives who are putting children first.

They are the rocks. We just need to help them stay firmly in place.


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