Where do the presidential candidates stand on the well-being of America’s children?
By Laura Weidner
Opportunities to Deal
with Child Welfare
This November 4, Americans all over the country will head to their polling places and cast votes for the 44th President of the United States. Professionals concerned with the well-being of our nation’s children may wonder where the presidential candidates stand on such issues. This is especially pertinent considering CWLA’s call for the next president to reestablish the White House Conference on Children and Youth in 2010, focusing specifically on child welfare.
What related legislation have the presidential candidates introduced or supported? How have they voted and what public statements have they made? And perhaps most important–where do they see child welfare going? It’s necessary to consider how Senators Barack Obama and John McCain would, if elected, improve situations and outcomes for vulnerable children and families, as well as improve the systems themselves, including securing a qualified and supported child welfare workforce.
Senator John McCain
Born to a U.S. Navy officer and his wife in Panama in 1936, McCain’s family eventually settled down in Northern Virginia. McCain graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958 and embarked upon a 22-year career as a naval aviator, during which he earned the honors of the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Senator McCain was a prisoner of war for five and a half years during the Vietnam War, experiencing episodes of torture. He retired from the Navy in 1981 and was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Arizona’s 1st Congressional District in 1982 and later to the U.S. Senate in 1986. In the 110th Congress, Senator McCain serves as the Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee and also sits on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee.
Prevention and Intervention of Abuse and Neglect
McCain has said that “America’s most precious asset is its children.” McCain has taken a particular interest and lead in protecting children from online predators. In the 110th Congress, McCain is a cosponsor of the KIDS Act (S. 431), which would require convicted sex offenders to provide for inclusion in the National Sex Offender Registry and keep current any Internet identifiers, including e-mail addresses and instant message names. In the past, McCain introduced the Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act of 2006 (S.4089) that would require sex offenders to register and update all Internet identifiers in a national online database, to be used by law enforcement to investigate crimes against children. Use of the Internet, under McCain’s legislation, would be considered an aggravating factor in sex crimes against children–adding 10 years to any prison sentence.
In 1993, McCain and his wife, Cindy, adopted a young Bangladeshi girl from Mother Teresa’s orphanage and they have personally witnessed the benefits of adoption. According to his website, www.johnmccain.com , McCain views adoption as the ideal first option for “women struggling with a crisis pregnancy.”
McCain is also a member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Caucus, a bicameral, bipartisan caucus of members of Congress dedicated to improving adoption policy and practice and to focusing public attention on the advantages of adoption. He has cosponsored legislation that would prohibit discrimination against families with adopted children, provide adoption education, and permit tax deductions for qualified adoption expenses, as well as remove barriers to interracial and interethnic adoptions. Some controversy was created this summer when in a July 13 interview in the New York Times, Senator McCain indicated that he did not believe in gay adoptions. This raised some concerns and in response, his campaign issued a statement that McCain’s “position on gay adoption is that it is a state issue, just as he made clear in the interview that marriage is a state issue.”
Tribal Child Welfare Issues
As former chairman and current member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, McCain has been very active on tribal issues. In 2006, he sponsored legislation reauthorizing the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Act (S. 1899), which provides funding for child protection programs for tribal communities. The act was first passed in 1990 and is intended to channel child abuse prevention and treatment funding to tribal governments nationwide. Throughout their history, the two grant programs authorized for tribes to prevent or treat victims of child abuse and neglect have not been funded. During a 2006 Senate hearing, both McCain and Senate cosponsor Byron Dorgan (D-ND) noted a lack of accompanying federal funding. The Senate passed the reauthorization, but the House failed to follow through with final action. The Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act Amendments of 2007 were reintroduced in the 110th Congress (S. 398) and have McCain’s cosponsorship.
McCain also supports granting tribal governments direct access to federal Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance funds. Currently, most federal funds–including Title IV-E–that could address the needs of children from tribes that come into contact with the child welfare and foster care systems are not provided directly to tribal governments. Legislation has been introduced over the last several years to change that and provide equitable access, with the 110th Congress’s effort being the Tribal Foster Care and Adoption Access Act (S. 1956)–of which McCain is a cosponsor.
As president, McCain would work to reform the health care system by restoring control to individuals and families to obtain their own insurance. Employer-based coverage would still exist, but families would also have the option to instead receive a direct refundable tax credit to purchase their plans.
During the debate over reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in the 110th Congress, McCain stated that he strongly supports the central purpose of SCHIP, but was concerned that the bills passed by Congress would further erode private health coverage of children. He also wants to ensure that SCHIP covers the lowest income children without other coverage first.
McCain views reauthorizing Indian health care programs as a top priority. During the 110th Congress, McCain stated that he supported the majority of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 (S. 1200), particularly those that furthered Indian self-determination, but took issue with certain components of the bill that would impact unborn children of patients to the Indian Health Service.
McCain believes that there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education. McCain thinks that parents should be empowered to choose their child’s school, that schools must be held accountable for student progress, and that if a parent is unsatisfied with performance, students should be allowed to change schools. McCain supports the mission of No Child Left Behind and appreciates how the law has uncovered the realities of how students perform against a common standard, but would work to improve the legislation.
Senator Barack Obama
Born on August 4, 1961, Obama spent most of his younger years in Hawaii, but lived for a short period in Indonesia. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago for three years and later graduated from Harvard Law School. Obama thereafter returned to Chicago to practice law and was elected to represent Illinois’s 13th District in the Illinois Senate in 1996. After eight years of work at the state level, Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. In the 110th Congress, Obama sits on the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs, Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees.
Prevention and Intervention of Abuse and Neglect
Obama has stated that he is “committed to preventing child abuse and supports proven and effective means to combat the tragedy of child abuse.” In April, he signed on as a cosponsor to S. 2771, CWLA-supported authorizing legislation for the new president to reestablish the White House Conference on Children and Youth in 2010. The conference would focus on issues of child welfare and examine a cross section of critical topics that affect the well-being of America’s most vulnerable children and families, including permanency, health and mental health care, education, substance abuse, housing, juvenile justice, workforce issues, tribal access and services, and strategies to help families while also preventing abuse.
Along those lines, Senator Obama cosponsored Dru’s Law, which created a nationwide sex offender database and required greater monitoring of sex offenders who have been released from prison. This bill passed the Senate in 2005 and was incorporated into the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, signed into law in 2006 (P.L. 109-248). In the 110th Congress, Obama is a cosponsor of the KIDS Act (S. 431) that would require convicted sex offenders to provide for inclusion in the National Sex Offender Registry and keep current any Internet identifiers, including e-mail addresses and instant message names.
Obama also cosponsored the Combat Meth Act, which was incorporated into the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 and signed into law in March 2006 (P.L. 109-177). In addition to tightening controls on the sale of ingredients of methamphetamines and enhancing criminal penalties for methamphetamine production and trafficking, this legislation provides money for grants to states that provide comprehensive services to aid children who are living in a home in which methamphetamine or other controlled substances are unlawfully manufactured, dispensed, or used. Competitive grants may also be given to states, territories, and Indian tribes to facilitate or enhance collaboration between the criminal justice, child welfare, and state substance abuse systems in order to carry out programs to address the use of methamphetamine among pregnant and parenting women offenders to promote public safety, public health, family permanence, and well-being.
Obama has also shown commitment to protecting women and children who are victims of domestic violence. He cosponsored the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VOWA) that was signed by President Bush in early 2006. This most recent reauthorization of VOWA creates new programs directed specifically at children and youth exposed to such violence and would allow for more funding and a public awareness campaign to combat this social problem. In the 110th Congress, Obama reintroduced, along with Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act of 2007 (S. 1626). This legislation would provide $25 million a year for partnerships between domestic violence prevention organizations and fatherhood or marriage programs so that staff could be properly trained in domestic violence issues, more services could be offered to families plagued by domestic violence, and best practices could be developed for domestic violence prevention.
Obama is a strong believer in evidence-based home visiting programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership and is a cosponsor of the broader Education Begins at Home Act (S. 667). Home visitation programs–either stand-alone programs or center-based programs–serve at least 400,000 children annually between ages 0 and 5 in targeted vulnerable or new families. Home visitation services stabilize at-risk families by significantly affecting factors directly linked to future abuse and neglect. Research shows that families who receive at least 15 home visits have less perceived stress and maternal depression, while also expressing higher levels of paternal competence. Home visitation programs may also reduce the disproportionality or overrepresentation of children and families of color, while improving outcomes for these families.
Under S. 667, legislation that Senator Obama has endorsed, the Department of Health and Human Services would collaborate with the Department of Education to make grants available to all 50 states over a three-year period, authorizing $400 million for states to implement home visiting programs. An additional $50 million would be authorized over a three-year period for local partnerships that create or implement home visiting programs targeted to English language learning families and another $50 million would be targeted to reach military families through the Department of Defense. The legislation does not dictate which, or how many, home visiting models may be used.
Obama believes that key components of improving the foster care system are to increase the number of foster homes, support better training for foster parents, and increase coordination between law enforcement and child welfare officials so that abuse can be stopped. Obama also views it important to take care of those aging out of the foster care system. To that end, Obama has pledged to invest in innovative job training and development programs so that those leaving foster care will be able and ready to compete in today’s competitive workforce.
Child Care and Head Start
Obama hopes to provide more affordable, high-quality child care. Under the Child Care Development Fund, states receive the same amount of mandatory funds each year. In addition, if states spend an additional amount of their own funds to match the federal dollars, states can draw on federal matching funds. States also receive Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) discretionary funds that do not require a state match. CCDBG funding increased from $1 billion to $2.1 billion between FY 1997 and FY 2002, but has since decreased with the current administration opposed to increases and a lack of Congressional support. Obama, however, wishes to reverse this trend and adequately fund CCDBG.
Obama would also like to help states use their CCDBG quality set-aside funding and federal support in a more effective manner. He would encourage strategic plans that better coordinate 0-to-5 services, quality rating systems with higher standards, better student-teacher ratios, more family support, and more professional development and teacher training.
Obama has pledged to quadruple the number of infants and toddlers participating in Early Head Start, an early education program that fosters children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development while also supporting parents and caregivers. Congress reauthorized Head Start in 2007 (P.L. 110-134), preserving its role as a comprehensive early childhood program that promotes child development.
If elected, Obama aims to sign universal health legislation by the end of his first term in office. Children would be mandatory beneficiaries under Obama’s health care plan and young adults up to age 25 would have more coverage options, such as staying on their parent’s health plan. He also plans to expand eligibility for both Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Obama supported efforts in the 110th Congress to reauthorize and encompass millions more low-income children in SCHIP and called President Bush’s veto of the legislation “unacceptable.” Obama also supports mental health parity and is a cosponsor of the Mental Health Parity Act of 2007 (S. 558).
Obama understands and supports the goal of No Child Left Behind, but believes it is severely flawed in design, has been improperly implemented, and is drastically underfunded. As president, he would significantly reform the law–improving and individually tailoring student assessment and changing accountability mechanisms so that schools are better supported.
To reduce high school dropout rates, Obama finds it critical to start earlier and target and assist middle school students. He has introduced the Success in the Middle Act (S. 2227) that would provide federal support to improve the education of middle school students in low-performing schools.
These stances are presented for educational purposes. CWLA does not endorse either candidate. Images of Senator John McCain are courtesy www.facebook.johnmccain.com; images of Senator Barack Obama are courtesy www.barackobama.com and www.flickr.com.
Laura Weidner is a Government Affairs Associate at CWLA, specializing in health care.