The Ways and Means Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support held a hearing on “Making a Difference for Families and Foster Youth.” The hearing was intended as a review of potential updates and changes to the two Title IV-B programs for reauthorization later this year.
The witnesses included William Bell, President and CEO, Casey Family Programs, Kai Cotton, Lead Youth Navigator, YWCA, Weston Charles-Gallo, Advocate and former foster youth, Kevin Copeland, Program Coordinator, Visits to Mom, Lutheran Social Services, and Sharon Pierce, Immediate Past President, and CEO, The Villages of Indiana.
Chairman Danny Davis (D-IL) opened with remarks describing the hearing as a review of the Title IV-B programs as well as a discussion on families and foster care, the implementation of the Family First Act, potential reforms of the Chafee Independent Living Program, and kinship care. Davis also referred to some of the topics of witness testimony which included addressing racial disparities in child welfare, making improvements to legal representation for all parties in child welfare, peer mentoring, and how to help young people and their incarcerated parents maintain connections.
Ranking member Jackie Walorski (R-IN) spoke of the past year’s challenges during the pandemic and the Subcommittee’s efforts to help youth in foster care. She also highlighted her joint work with Congressman Davis to address some of those efforts through the COVOD-19 relief package Congresswoman Walorski then launched into an introduction of one of the witnesses, Sharon Pierce, the now-retired past president of the Villages of Indiana.
She described Sharon as a “rock start,” a description that CWLA would second.
William Bell offered three recommendations in his spoken testimony: continuing the 100 percent match in federal funds for those states drawing down services through the Family First Act—the temporary increase in the match was passed through a Covid-relief package and goes back down to 50 percent after October 1, 2021. He also recommended changes in IV-B to encourage states to have more engagement with families involved in the child welfare system and urged the Subcommittee to increase the funding from tribal governments. The current set aside for tribes in Title IV-B, part 1(Child Welfare Services), is reserved by HHS and based on a tribe’s share of the state’s child population. Under Title IV-B part 2 (Promoting Safe and Stable Families), there is a 3 percent set-aside of mandatory funds and a 3 percent set-aside of appropriated funds.
Kai Cotton, Lead Youth Navigator, talked of how the past year’s efforts to prevent youth from aging out of foster care during the pandemic. She urged Congress to require all fifty states to extend foster care to age 21. It is currently an option and, before the pandemic, had been extended by a little more than half of the 50 states. Last year CWLA began calling for the age to be extended in all fifty states. Cotton discussed the need to have bridges for young people that can help them transform into adulthood. She called for an expansion of Chafee services to age 26, along with extending foster care.
Weston Charles-Gallo talked about his experiences in foster care as a child rejected by an alcoholic father and his mother, who was a victim of abuse. Both rejected him at a young age because he is gay. He now has two fathers adopted by them at the age of 15. He talked about how fortunate he was that they found him, but he also discussed the pain of being rejected not just by his parents but then by various foster parents not prepared to accept him for who he is. He recommended that Congress pass the John Lewis Every Child Deserves a Family Act that would ban agencies from discriminating against children and potential parents because they identify as LGBTQ. He pointed out that children do not select the agencies handling their placements, so those agencies contracted by the states to provide services should not be allowed to discriminate in their decision-making.
Kevin Copeland, from Lutheran Services of Illinois, discussed his program and efforts to maintain the connection between children in care and their incarcerated parents. The topic is of critical importance to Chairman Davis. Copeland talked about the visits and their impact on children’s mental and developmental health who continue to have an attachment to their parents. He talked about the regular comments from guardians who are caring for the children and how important it is for these children to stay connected. Copeland said it is also significant for the parents who are strengthened in their efforts toward successful re-entry once they have been released.
Wrapping up was CWLA member Sharon Pierce. Sharon discussed the significance of partnerships, especially during the pandemic when child welfare, mental health, education, faith-based organizations, and the judiciary worked together to overcome the unprecedented challenges.
In response to a question from Congresswoman Walorski, she described how her agency is able to maintain stable foster care placements with 9 of 10 children staying with one family. Pierce said they made dedicated and ongoing efforts to recruit foster parents so that they are constantly adding to the foster family census and allowing them to have the appropriate placement that fits the child’s needs. At one point, she described it as being on a treadmill of recruitment. During the question-and-answer period, she emphasized the need for more flexible funding through IV-B and the need for evidence-based programs and reality-based services since successful strategies and services are dependent on building strong relationships.
Subcommittee members had their specific areas of concern. Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) talked about discrimination toward LGBTQ youth while Congressman Wenstrup discussed the impact that the opioid epidemic has had in Ohio and the importance of other permanency options, especially adoptions. Congresswoman Gwen Moore advocated for extending foster care to 21 and quizzed William Bell on the lack of funding for tribal governments and how to increase those funds. Congressman Dan Kildee (D-MI) discussed strategies to help youth make it through college and talked about his legislation, H.R.2028 – Fostering Postsecondary Success for Foster and Homeless Youth Act of 2021, which CWLA has endorsed. Congresswoman Carol Miller (R-WV) and Congressman Horsford (D-NV) both discussed the challenges of implementing the Family First Services Act. The Congresswoman said West Virginia had implemented Family First in the fall of 2020, and they were still challenged by the increase in the number of children entering foster care and kinship care due to the opioid epidemic. Congressman Horsford asked Dr. Bell how Nevada could implement the program. Bell indicated that states need to engage each other in the planning process. He also said it would take time to ramp up a new system and approach to child welfare. CWLA is submitting its testimony this week.