The child-welfare system is "broken." This harsh indictment has been a constant drumbeat in L.A.-area headlines for years. In the last few months, the tragedy of a 5-year-old subjected to horrifying mistreatment grabbed the public's attention. The pendulum started to swing, and demands mounted to address the crisis.
But there are underlying challenges facing struggling families and overwhelmed child-welfare professionals that headlines and an ever-swinging pendulum don't and can't address. Consider just one part of the system: foster care. Los Angeles is home to nearly 30,000 foster youth. We collectively commit to watch over these children when we bring them into foster care, yet too many struggle mightily with the most basic of needs.
Foster youth drift from placement to placement, lack basic healthcare, fail to graduate from high school and have no stable adult anchor. When they "age out" of foster care, most at the ill-prepared age of 18, they often find themselves homeless, unemployed and on the threshold of our justice system.
Although passionate social workers, judges and advocates are dedicated to improving the plight of these vulnerable young people, they battle against inadequate support and inordinately high caseloads -- California dependency judges carry an average of 1,000 cases, and the state's child-welfare workers have caseloads twice the national standard.
All of us pay the resulting price -- in the loss of human potential and the inherent costs associated with generations of youth unprepared for adulthood.
So why aren't we doing more than simply reacting to the tragedy of the moment?
In California, there are positive signs of action. The California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, launched in 2006, will submit its final recommendations for reform next month, including changes in how juvenile courts do business: implementing attorney and judicial caseload standards, ensuring a meaningful voice in court for all participants and implementing court performance measures. The new state Child Welfare Council, with leaders from all three branches of government, is crafting an agenda to tackle lack of coordination, inadequate information sharing and disjointed leadership among the government agencies accountable for children in care. And our new state legislative leaders -- Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Pro Tem-elect Darrell Steinberg -- are long-standing champions of foster care reform.
Yet only limited progress is possible absent federal engagement. Federal money is the largest source of foster care funding, and federal laws control a large number of foster care practices. But for the last decade, federal foster care reform has been nearly nonexistent, with bipartisan bickering blocking visionary reform.
Finally, that's beginning to change.
Last month, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Fostering Connections to Success Act (H.R. 6307) -- the most important child-welfare legislation considered by Congress in a long time.
This legislation addresses some of the most crucial concerns facing foster youth, and, significantly, it would promote proven reforms. It allows states for the first time to use federal money to support foster children until age 21. A handful of states have experimented with that policy, so we know that extending care to the 24,000 youths who otherwise would "age out" each year would enable a much higher percentage of foster kids to become productive members of our communities. Similarly, the proposed law would, for the first time, provide federal financial support for relatives assuming legal guardianship of foster children they have been raising, thereby promoting an established, cost-effective alternative to foster care.
This landmark legislation also would mandate other key improvements in the care of foster children, including creating new federal requirements for educational stability, improving oversight of healthcare of foster children, mandating efforts to place siblings together and increasing federal foster care and adoption aid for tribal governments.
In the coming week, the Senate will consider this legislative package. Hopefully, it will keep alive the chance for real change in the lives of our most at-risk children.
Let's not wait for the next tragedy or scandal. The time to act -- rather than defensively react -- is now. Our most vulnerable children deserve to be more than another dismal headline.