WASHINGTON ― In the waning days of 2016, a moribund Congress has woken up. A long-sought measure to spend a billion dollars to combat the opioid epidemic won bipartisan approval and is headed for passage. Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer-cure “moonshot” was funded at more than a billion, and the cash-strapped National Institutes of Health got an infusion of federal money.
Big Pharma got a few things it had been looking for in the 21st Century Cures Act, as did the mental health community. Coal miners whose health care was running out got $45 million so they can stay covered. President-elect Donald Trump got a waiver for his secretary of Defense pick, retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who would otherwise be legally barred from serving because he hadn’t been out of the military long enough.
The military got some goodies, including money for new helicopters, in a spending bill made public Tuesday night. The bill, a continuing resolution (CR), is must-pass legislation because without it the government shuts down. The CR and the Cures bill were two of the last, if not the last, vehicles out of town before Congress shuts down for the session and 2017 mayhem takes over.
One group of people, accustomed to being forgotten, were once again left behind: foster kids.
The Families First Prevention Services Act, a sweeping reform of the broken foster care system, passed the House by a unanimous vote. In order to move it through the Senate, it was initially included in the Cures Act, but it was stripped at the request of Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. Young people who’d been through the foster system rushed to the Capitol on Monday to try to save the bill and get it attached to the CR, but, sources said, Burr continued to object, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) agreed to keep it out.
(Watch a video of the former foster children on the Hill above, but skip the first seven minutes or so to get to their part. The Huffington Post’s in-depth story on the bill from last week is here.)
Burr’s last-minute objection to a bill that has been nearly two years in the works came after an outcry from a network of group homes in his state, the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina. The new legislation would help fund services aimed at preventing kids from winding up in foster care in the first place, which would mean fewer kids for group homes run by Baptist Children’s to house. A current contract obtained by The Huffington Post shows that BCH charges the state roughly $4,500 per month to warehouse a child in a group home.
That money adds up. BCH provides services in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties. According to its tax filings, it holds assets of $45 million, with liabilities of just over a million. A tax return from 2013 has Baptist Children’s President Michael Blackwell making roughly $230,000 per year in salary and other compensation.
The new foster care bill would not only shrink the supply of kids headed for group homes, it would also require more qualified staff to work in them ― what BCH calls “house parents.” Last year, a 26-year-old “house mom” was charged with smoking pot with her kids and sleeping with one of them. BCH officials declared themselves appalled.
Sen. Thom Tillis, Burr’s North Carolina colleague, has supported him in his effort but has stayed in the background and did not join a letter Burr began organizing last week opposing the bill. “There’s always some bad actors, but on the whole they do a pretty good job,” Tillis said of North Carolina’s group homes. “What we were unclear on if it passed in its current form is if the states would have a safety valve to say, hold up, we would like to be able to opt out or have some kind of waiver to have more flexibility, and that’s what Senator Burr was chiefly concerned with.”
Burr has been publicly quiet on his opposition to the bill, but in negotiations, according to Senate sources, he has pushed for a series of exemptions that would allow more kids to remain in group homes.
From a Senate perspective, what is most striking about Burr’s move is that it is directed against a senior member of his own party, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is also the chairman of a powerful committee on which Burr is a member. A number of senators raised objections to the bill over the summer, but those objections have been dealt with and withdrawn.
Hatch told HuffPost that he still hopes to get unanimous agreement to move the bill through the Senate, which would require the consent of Burr. “I can’t imagine anybody voting against it,” Hatch said.
HuffPost readers: If you want to weigh in on the debate over the reform of foster care, below are two options, the first pro, the second con.