Our Indiana adoption lawyers have learned that as 2016 finally and mercifully comes to an end, the 114th Congress, which had been for all practical purposes inactive prior to the November elections, finally started passing some important measures. A billion dollars to combat the opioid addiction epidemic won the approval of both parties. Cancer research and the National Institutes of Health received some badly-needed federal funds, and coal miners obtained some additional healthcare coverage. One group, however, was “left behind” once again: children who are at risk. Senators didn’t even get to vote on a proposal aimed at a complete reform of the nation’s foster care system.

Foster care in the United States formally began in 1853 when Charles Loring Brace, a pastor and the director of the New York Children’s Aid Society, was concerned about the disturbing number of immigrant children sleeping in the streets of New York City. He advertised for and found families who were willing to provide homes for these children. As a result of Brace’s work, state governments became involved in foster home placements and helping foster parents with their expenses.

Today, according to the New York-based nonprofit group Children’s Rights, more than 400,000 children are in foster care in the United States. On average, kids remain in the system for two years, and but seven percent remain in foster care for five years or longer. In 2014, more than 22,000 new adults “aged out” of foster care without permanent families – increasing their chances of homelessness, unemployment, addiction, or incarceration as adults.

WHY WAS FOSTER CARE REFORM BLOCKED IN THE SENATE?

A comprehensive reform bill, the Families First Prevention Services Act, moved easily through the House of Representatives, where it passed unanimously. However, the Senate was allowed no opportunity to vote on the proposal. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina opposed the legislation. Attempts to attach the bill to other pieces of legislation were rejected at Senator Burr’s request by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

At the last minute, Senator Burr acted to kill the foster care reforms because of opposition from the Baptist Children’s Homes (BCH) of North Carolina. The legislative proposal is designed to help keep families together and keep children from ending up in foster homes, which would mean fewer children in the group homes operated by BCH, which receives $4,500 per month per child for each child in their care.

With operations in every North Carolina county, BCH holds $45 million in assets, according to tax filings. A 2013 tax return shows that BCH President Michael Blackwell was paid about $230,000 that year in salary and other compensation. Reducing the number of children in foster care isn’t the only provision of the Families First Prevention Services Act. The proposal would require more training and scrutiny of prospective group home parents. After one BCH “house mom” was charged with smoking pot with foster kids and sleeping with a teenage boy in her care in 2015, BCH officials said, “the safety of the children we serve is always our first priority.”

WHO CAN BECOME A FOSTER PARENT?

Those who are seeking to become foster parents in the state of Indiana are carefully scrutinized and must attend pre-service training sessions. Indiana foster parents must be at least 21 years old and licensed by the Department of Child Services. An additional fifteen hours of training is required each year to retain the license. The requirements for foster parent licensure in Indiana include:

• Passing a criminal history, fingerprinting, and a background check
• Owning or renting a home that meets basic physical safety standards
• Financial stability
• Medical statements from a doctor for all household members
• Successful completion of training requirements including first aid and CPR training
• Home visits from a Department of Child Services Regional Licensing Specialist
• Completing all necessary forms and documents
• Personal references

Prospective foster parents in this state can have many of their questions answered by an experienced Indiana family law attorney. When a biological parent is no longer in a child’s life, those who are interested in the guardianship or adoption of a minor child – whether they are step-parents, grandparents, or foster parents – will need a family lawyer’s advice and services. Most of the people seeking to become guardians or adoptive parents will face few if any legal barriers in Indiana, but every situation is different. In most cases, an Indiana family law attorney can handle a guardianship or adoption smoothly and expeditiously.

From a political angle, what is so exceptional about Senator Burr’s opposition to the Families First Prevention Services Act is that it’s directed against the most senior and most powerful senator in his own party, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a forty-year veteran of the Senate. Senator Hatch said that he still hoped to move the bill through the Senate before the end of 2016. “I can’t imagine anybody voting against it,” Hatch told the Huffington Post.

Currently, federal funding is available for group homes and other foster care settings only after children are removed from their homes – but not for preventing abuse or neglect in the first place. The Family First Prevention Services Act would let the states use federal foster care funds for mental health services, in-home parenting programs, and substance abuse treatment programs for parents struggling with addiction.

WHAT STATES HAVE THE MOST CHILDREN ENTERING FOSTER CARE?

Supporters of the legislation point to substance abuse as a leading reason for the rising numbers of children entering the foster care system. The Associated Press recently reported that the number of children in foster care has been climbing steadily in recent years and that five states account for nearly two-thirds of the recent increase. Indiana is one of those five states. What Indiana, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota have in common is rising numbers of parents involved with substance abuse.

In a lengthy defense of his position posted to the Independent Journal Review website, Senator Burr insists that the Families First Prevention Services Act “could have serious unintended consequences for foster children across the country, especially when it comes to keeping brothers and sisters together,” and that the proposal may “inflict even more harm on children who have already experienced a tragic loss.”

Where does the foster care system in the United States go from here? If the numbers of children going into the system are rising while the available funds are declining, foster care is hurtling toward a crisis. Will the new Congress act to avert a foster care crisis? As 2017 begins, there’s simply no way to know, but foster parents and everyone who works with children at risk will be watching the new Congress closely.