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Congress Passes Legislation to Help Foster Children Weather Opioid Epidemic

The 'Family First' Law will help families stay together for a fraction of the cost of foster care.

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When the government shut down for a few hours on Friday, February 9th, the Americans that weren’t too busy sleeping collectively rolled their eyes. But there was actually something going on worth cheering for. Within the $400 billion spending bill that passed — depite warnings that it would likely balloon the nation debt — was a landmark legislative measure that will likely help foster children and struggling families everywhere for some time. In the middle of a budget crisis, congress quietly reformed the foster care system, which is under even more strain than usual because of the opioid crisis.

The law, called Family First, will provide matching federal funds for state programs that provide mental health services, substance abuse counseling, family support, and training to at-risk parents. The bill’s passing marks the first time there has been a cohesive effort by the federal government to keep families together and out of the foster care system by spending on preventative measures rather than worst-case scenarios. The legislation is also not limited to a dollar amount; the federal government has pledged to support families who want to explore other measures before their family is torn apart (such as placing children with relatives) and thrown into the foster care system, meaning that there won’t be a bitter fight over a top-line number down the road.

The bill was largely launched in response to an investigation by the Senate Finance Committee into for-profit foster care systems like MENTOR, which found that 86 children had died unexpectedly over the past decade and only 13 internal investigations were made into those deaths. The funding is coming from the Social Security Act, which will open its coffers to families attempting to find ways of staying together. It will also provide therapy and addiction counseling at cost.

Similar legislation was proposed just two years ago in 2016, but was soundly defeated at the urging of North Carolina’s Senator Richard Burr. (He was, in turn, pressured by group home networks and special interest groups that had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.) After all, throwing funding at preventative measures, rather than foster care homes themselves, will mean that foster-care agencies and group homes will receive a smaller piece of the foster care pie. For more responsible foster care providers, it will mean that the system will get much-needed relief from a chronic problem only getting worse.

The bill comes at a time when it is needed most. According to Children’s Rights, an organization dedicated to protecting abused children, there are around 430,000 children in foster care on any given day. Most of those kids are around the age of 9 years old and a significant portion of them are awaiting adoption due to termination of parental rights. As a result of the opioid epidemic, states like Georgia and California are experiencing unprecedented populations of children who are at-risk and entering the system, overcrowding it. Some children have taken to sleeping in caseworkers offices. Many get shunted into for-profit foster care systems that do little to protect the kids who need it the most. Hopefully, with this bill, more money will be spent on keeping families together rather than funding the systems that keep them apart.

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