Co-Authored by Jess Dannhauser, President and CEO, Graham Windham
"Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged. Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery. We will assign them an "angel" who will be their guide through the process." When Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, Massachusetts, made this promise to his constituents in May 2015, he inspired 56 police departments in 17 states to adopt similar attitudes toward addiction (New York Times).
What a contrast this is to the 1990s when, on the heels of the crack cocaine epidemic, thousands of predominantly poor, Black families, were ripped apart as parents struggling with substance abuse were prosecuted and their children placed in foster care. These children entered an overwhelmed system where many of them remained until age 21. Imagine how different the lives of these children could have been if their parents had received "angels" and treatment instead of prison sentences.
Typically, about 75 percent of the child neglect cases nationally involve parents who abuse alcohol or drugs. Today, even in the communities with high levels of substance abuse, we are seeing lower levels of entry into foster care than in the past. Culturally, we are starting to view substance abuse as a health concern, instead of a criminal concern, and, as Campanello demonstrated, law enforcement isn't too far behind this shifting perspective.
Some claim that the reclassification of substance abuse as a health problem is being driven by racial demographics. Heroin and prescription abuse is highest among Whites, who are least likely to have their children removed into foster care and most likely to receive treatment assistance instead of prosecution. We know for sure that racial disproportionality in child welfare continues to be a significant problem. It is not a thing of the past. We must use this and every moment to ensure that all families get the treatment and help they need.
Certainly, there are cases of parental substance abuse when treatment is not enough to keep children safely in their homes. When foster care is necessary, the system must provide children and parents with high quality support and strive toward reunification. Concurrently, we must move expeditiously to ensure that children have families (birth, family guardianship and/or adoptive) and do not languish as wards of the state. Too many children in our foster care system still grow up without a stable adult relationship and without a community. These children age out of our system without a place of belonging and without the confidence to navigate the real world. This does not have to be. They are incredibly capable young women and men who have the potential to thrive when given a stable, loving family and opportunities to succeed.
As we noted in our article "Feds Finally Putting Families First," Congress is finally realizing that in most circumstances rather than removing children into foster care, we should be focusing our resources on keeping children safely with their own families by providing services, such as substance abuse treatment, that will help keep children out of state care. If passed, the Family First Act, a bi-partisan legislative initiative from Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator Ron Wyden, will expand federal funding for earlier intervention and critical services to help keep children safe and supported at home with their parents or other family members who can provide for their safety and well-being. While it won't solve all of our challenges, it certainly will contribute to fewer unnecessary placements into foster care nationwide, moving us a step forward on racial disproportionality and keeping us from repeating the mistakes of the past.
While funding essential interventions prior to removing children into foster care, the Hatch-Wyden Family First Act creates a much needed national standard for residential treatment by defining medical and clinical expectations. The Act funds 6 months of post-residential aftercare to help ensure young people and their families continue on a path toward success after they are reunified. There is also direct relief to states. Current federal foster care funding is tied to a defunct formula that has financially penalized states. Because of this formula, each year, states and local taxpayers shoulder a greater share of the burden of paying for local foster care. Finally, the Act will move our well-intentioned, but often overwhelmed national child welfare system toward a system that is evidence-based and trauma-informed.
Among the interventions proposed in the Families First Act are targeted services for pregnant and parenting teens in foster care, substance abuse treatment for parents and children, in-home parenting skills training, crisis intervention, mental health treatment, short-term financial assistance for families and support for kin who step forward to care for children.
The Family First Act will not right the wrongs of the past. This Act will not fully address the persistent poverty leading to the high levels of child neglect among Black and Brown families, nor will it reverse the unconscionable disproportionality of Black, Native American, and in some states, Latino children removed into foster care, who often stay in care much longer than their White counterparts. The Family First Act is, for the first time, an effort by the Federal Government to substantially invest in pragmatic, early intervention for all families to prevent unnecessarily destroying families, while concurrently elevating the clinical, medical, and treatment standards for children in child welfare. That is something we can and should get behind.