Block grants and child protections

April 26, 1995

Think of a child you care about, then consider the effect on similar children if the House of Representatives succeeds in changing laws regulating foster care and other ways of protecting children from abuse and neglect.

Would you want the fate of a child you care about to rest with an agency that could not express in writing why foster care is better than the home from which the child was removed?

Would you commit a young life to a system so backward in its record-keeping that it cannot create a computer file of the child's case?

Would you trust a foster care system in which a court orders children to be removed from their parents, but never inquires about their treatment or prospects for being reunited with their families?

All of those problems were common in many states before 1980, when Congress passed major legislation governing federal funds for foster care and other child protective services. Since then, because states have been held accountable for answering questions like those above, fewer children enter foster care systems only to languish for years with no real oversight and little thought given either to reuniting the family or making the child eligible for adoption.

In its haste to pass its Contract with America, the House of Representatives has thrown out this legislation, replacing it with a block grant and regulations that lack important safeguards like requirements for automatic court reviews or a plan for resolving the case. One of the most troubling changes removes federal authority to review state regulations. Yet without federal oversight, there is no guarantee that federal funds will actually help to improve a child's life -- and ample evidence that inertia, together with the meet-the-next-crisis mentality that often overtakes child protective bureaucracies, will turn federal dollars into nothing more than a temporary bandage.

When the Senate takes up this legislation, it also needs to take a close look at the potential consequences of these changes on thousands of young lives. Given adequate funding, flexibility and political will, states can indeed make improvements in their child protective systems. But without federal oversight, many states can also end up making bad situations even worse.

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