Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2009

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With Change Comes Opportunity

As the Obama Administration and a new Congress begin work in Washington, what lies ahead for America's children?

By Elizabeth "Libby" Foster

Last November 4 culminated in the historic election of Barack Obama as the 44th president. His message of change transformed and united Americans, and broadcasts of his victory caused celebrations around the world. Kenya, the homeland of his father, declared a national holiday. People danced in the streets and honked their car horns in major world capitals, and in Chicago over 125,000 people stood in Grant Park to watch Obama accept election to America's highest office. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," he began.

Across the United States, smaller celebrations marked other victories. The Democratic Party took about 58% of Congress, but people on both sides of the political spectrum stressed the importance of unity and support of the new President. "We have witnessed tonight in America a revolution of values, a revolution of ideals," said Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). "There's been a transformation of America, and it will have unbelievable influence on the world." And former President Bush pledged "complete cooperation" in the transition, calling Obama's victory a "triumph of the American story." Then again on January 20, Obama-the son of a white Kansas woman and a Kenyan man-took center stage as he was sworn into the office of the president. Millions flocked to Washington, DC, and along the train route that brought Obama to the inauguration, wanting to participate in the momentous occasion.

The Obama Administration brings with it big expectations, including the prospect of major child welfare reforms. Looking ahead, President Obama and his administration will likely focus on child welfare-related issues such as better health care, combating poverty, and expanding early childhood initiatives. In considering the future for child welfare issues, it is important to take a moment and reflect on the successes of the recent past. The 110th Congress passed two historic pieces of legislation last October that will affect the lives of millions of people in this country, including some of our most vulnerable children in foster care.

Mental Health Parity

In the 110th Congress, many legislators resolutely advocated for the passage of full parity for mental health benefits, as well as substance abuse disorder benefits that were not covered by the 1996 Mental Healthy Parity Act. The passage of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-343) was a long-fought victory. Employers with more than 50 employees who offer mental health benefits will now be required to offer equal coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment as for physical health. Although the legislation became effective the day former President Bush signed it last October, most changes will not take place until January 1, 2010.

Fostering Connections

The most significant child welfare bill of the past three decades, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (P.L. 110-351) was introduced in the House by Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Jerry Weller (R-IL). In the Senate, Finance Committee chair Max Baucus (D-MT), ranking member Charles Grassley (R-IA), and John Rockefeller (D-WV) were the leads on the legislation. It was passed by bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and House and signed into law by former President Bush on October 7, 2008. "This is an historic moment for foster children and families," said Christine James-Brown, President and CEO of CWLA, shortly after the law passed. "Not since the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 has this country had a bill that speaks directly to the needs of the more than 513,000 children in foster care."

Implementation of the new law began immediately. Over the past several months, CWLA has examined the legislation and assisted member organizations with interpreting it. Additionally, CWLA is working on collecting resources to support its member agencies with each phase of implementation. "We are going to be able to take better care of America's most vulnerable children because of the major reforms contained in this legislation," said Rep. McDermott. "And, we are clearly telling these children that they are not alone in America, and they can grow up in a loving, caring home with a chance at the American Dream."

The de-linking of eligibility for adoption assistance from the no-longer-existing Assistance to Families with Dependent Children standards is an example of how the law will be phased in over time. Starting this October, de-linking will begin for children 16 years old and older. For every year following, the age of children will drop by two years and continue until eligibility for all children is de-linked by 2018.

Youth-related provisions in the law include the expansion of foster care for youth up to age 21 and providing new case management procedures to ensure youths' smooth transition out of foster care. Although many states already have programs that allow youth to stay in foster care after they turn 18 years old, they have had to finance these programs without assistance from the federal government. The Fostering Connections Act offers states the option of extending foster care until 21 years old. New programs that promote a safe and stable exit from care are called for in the law, and states will be able to receive federal funds to finance such programs.

It is critical for the new administration to implement this bill in a timely and orderly fashion so that public and private agencies will be able to enhance their services and improve outcomes for children and families. CWLA has been working diligently to create a White House Conference for Children and Youth in 2010. That conference would play a critical role in assuring the efficient implementation of P.L. 110-351.

White House Conference on Children and Youth

It is important to understand the White House Conference would not be a singular event, but rather a series of meetings across the country. As James-Brown explains, "It's an opportunity to bring people in communities together to think about not what is the child welfare system per se, but how can we do a better job of providing safety and permanence and well-being for our children."

CWLA has been working intensely on gaining support to reestablish the conference. Sixty-nine members of the 110th Congress and more than 700 organizations have signed on in support. During the 111th Congress, the legislation on the White House Conference was reintroduced in the House (H.R. 618) by Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Congressman Todd Platts (R-PA) with bipartisan support. CWLA will be looking for additional supporters of the White House Conference legislation among the new members of Congress. As a senator, President Obama signed on as a co-sponsor in April 2008, and CWLA is encouraged that this important conference will be part of his agenda.

Approval of the legislation is the first major step in reestablishing this conference. The last session of the 110th Congress ended without a vote, overshadowed by the economic crisis and economic recovery plan. Another priority is continuing the ongoing work surrounding health care for uninsured children.

Health Care

The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) provides health insurance to more than 6 million children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and those who do not have private coverage. As a federal-state partnership, the federal government matches states' SCHIP spending. However, as a capped block grant, there is a finite amount of federal dollars available for the program.

SCHIP was created in 1997 and approximately $40 billion was appropriated for the program's first 10 years. After several attempts in 2007 to improve and expand SCHIP, Congress extended SCHIP through March 31, 2009. The extension made it possible to maintain coverage only for those already covered. Though SCHIP has played a valuable role in ensuring access to health care for low-income children, there are still almost 9 million children without coverage. The 111th Congress has taken swift action regarding health care for children. Both the House and the Senate voted to expand and extend SCHIP, which will provide health coverage to almost 4 million more children.

Throughout their campaign, both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made health care reform a priority. Obama has stated that he wants to create a universal health care system by the end of his first term. Children would be mandatory beneficiaries under his proposed new health care system. Both Obama and Biden voted to re-authorize and expand SCHIP in 2007. As supporters of Medicaid and SCHIP, it is hopeful that major health care reform will start with this administration. Shortly after his election, Obama announced plans to create a White House Office on Health Reform. He asked Jeanne Lambrew to serve as the deputy director. As an advocate for the uninsured, Lambrew was a key creator of SCHIP and is considered an expert on Medicaid.

Federal Medical Assistance Packages (FMAP) are federal-state matching programs for Medicaid. In tough economic times when unemployment is high and Medicaid rolls increase, the percentage of federal dollars can be increased to reduce the financial burden on states for their Medicaid programs. Many members of Congress and advocates, including CWLA, have been seeking a temporary increase to FMAP. The House passed an economic recovery pack-age (H.R. 7110) containing a temporary FMAP increase last September.

The Senate attempted to do the same in both September and November to no avail (S. 3064, S. 3689). Even the state governors asked the federal government for $40 billion over two years to help support their Medicaid costs.

CWLA supports Medicaid and SCHIP as essential programs for protecting the well-being of children. CWLA supports the expansion of SCHIP to include more children and offer more services such as dental and mental health. Looking forward to issues of education and poverty reduction, many opportunities for improvement exist under the Obama Administration.

White House Office of Urban Policy

During President Obama's campaign, issues related to urban centers and poverty became a focus. It appears that the White House will have a new Office of Urban Policy to address these issues. The office will target problems in high-poverty areas and focus federal spending on programs shown to be most effective. Another initiative of this new office will be to create Promise Neighborhoods. Community-based programs that have been proven to address and combat concentrated and intergenerational poverty will be the models for services in the expected 20 Promise Neighborhoods. These programs will offer services for children ranging from recreational activities to academic support.

The Office of Urban Policy will also address the education sector. During his campaign, Obama promised to improve urban schools by offering more service scholarships for potential teachers who commit to working in underserved districts. Obama also made plans to expand early childhood education with a new Zero to Five plan. This plan would require billions of dollars of funding to expand programs such as Early Head Start and create a Presidential Early Learning Council. Other issues to be addressed by the new office include reducing high school dropout rates, ending the cycle of youth violence, expanding high-quality afterschool opportunities, expanding the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and creating the Nurse-Family Partnership, which would provide home visits for low-income mothers.

The Obama presidency and administration brings many possibilities for child welfare. "President Obama exudes the type of leadership, dedication, and commitment necessary to address the needs of neglected and abused children in this nation," says James-Brown. "We look forward to working with his administration and pushing forward on legislation paramount to the well-being of children." There exist some temporary opportunities even within the financial crisis and recovery efforts, however, there is hope that child welfare issues will become a larger priority during the next four years. As President Obama said several months ago, "Today we begin in earnest the work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today."

Elizabeth "Libby" Foster is an intern in CWLA's Government Affairs division. She is a Master's in Social Work student at the National Catholic School of Social Service at The Catholic University in Washington, DC.

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