By Shay Bilchik,
President and CEO, CWLA
This July marks 10 years since the eligibility requirements for children seeking foster care services were last updated. Under current law, a child's eligibility for federal foster care assistance is based on whether that child qualifies for public assistance under the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program as it existed in July 1996.
CWLA will mark the 10 years these same eligibility standards have been in existence with a press event on Capitol Hill to remind lawmakers and the public that we've waited too long to reexamine them--and that by linking eligibility to 1996 income levels, fewer and fewer abused and neglected children have received federal support as inflation and the cost of living have risen. In fact, surveys and research show that only 40%-50% of abused and neglected children receive federal support today.
Adding insult to injury this year was a rancorous debate in Washington over the fiscal 2006 budget, which resulted in a $577 million cut to Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance over the next five years. As the article "Budgeting Child Welfare" in this Children's Voice points out, the cuts, as part of the Deficit Reduction Act, will deeply affect child welfare services, particularly in states such as California, where an estimated 4,000 or more children and their kin families could lose benefits as a result. That act also restated the eligibility restrictions tying kids in foster care to the 1996 AFDC requirements.
To explain the need for such cuts, our country's current leadership likes to point out the role a civil society must play in assuming some of the responsibilities for caring for our most vulnerable citizens. This line of thinking contemplates a more limited role for government and more active grassroots, volunteer systems of support for our children who have been abused and neglected, and for their families who are facing incredible stresses in their lives.
The belief is that these volunteers will rise up and take care of the abused and neglected, the homeless, the hungry, the unemployed, the uninsured, and the unattended children during afterschool and evening hours, that somehow this civil society will succeed where it failed 100 years ago--a failure that led to the White House Conference on Children in 1912, CWLA's establishment in 1920, and the creation of the federal safety net designed to ensure the level of safety and protection an abused or neglected child receives is not a byproduct of the happenstance of a child's birth state.
Throughout the 20th Century, lawmakers and children's advocates toiled long and hard to create a federal system of supports for abused and neglected children. Gradually, we moved away from a time when orphaned and abandoned children were housed in infirmaries and poorhouses alongside the aged, infirm, and insane. Duncan Lindsey, in his book The Welfare of Children, describes how, before the great strides made in the 1900s, orphaned and abandoned children were viewed from a "residual perspective":
Without family or resources, abandoned or orphaned children constituted the social "leftovers" (or residual children) who had fallen beyond the economic and social pale. That this may have happened through no fault of their own was of no consequence. They were to be provided for, if at all, as inexpensively and conveniently as possible, enough to satisfy the social conscience but no more. At best, child welfare services were viewed as a grudging handout.
Are we slowly returning to a similar perspective? Is our federal government stepping too far back from its moral and financial responsibility?
Yes, philanthropic and volunteer endeavors can do wonderful things for children in care, such as providing the extras they so often go without--the school outings, the summer camp experience, the college scholarship, or the tuxedo rental for prom. And we have many wealthy individuals in this country who want to help. Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, and other celebrities have done outstanding work on behalf of needy children and youth. Many celebrities, including Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, and Nick Lachey, helped CWLA raise money during a charity auction last fall for children affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
But philanthropy is not a comprehensive means of caring for children who have multiple needs, including shelter, clothing, medical care, education, and full developmental opportunities. Although our celebrity auction raised thousands of dollars for CWLA's Katrina Kids fund, our article "After the Storm" in this issue clearly shows how donations from hundreds of organizations and celebrities to post-Katrina recovery efforts have only made a dent in the needs along the Gulf Coast. So many neighborhoods and families remain devastated that full recovery will only happen with massive, ongoing federal support.
In July, therefore, CWLA will stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, as we have done since 1920, and urge continued attention to the plight of children who lack safe and stable homes. We will emphasize the importance of a balanced support system that includes federal, state, local, and charitable resources, and we will ask our country's leaders to set a course that moves forward and never repeats the mistakes of the past.
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