RALEIGH — Rescuing children whose families have broken down is always a challenge: Foster parents and permanent homes are hard to find.
But there is renewed interest in stabilizing those children’s lives among North Carolina legislators of both parties. Earlier this year, lawmakers allocated $6.75 million for two adoption promotion programs, established two panels to explore what works and what doesn’t, and passed a foster care children’s bill of rights.
What remains to be seen is whether those measures are enough to make a difference, especially when families are struggling under economic pressures for a variety of reasons, including state policies that make it harder on the unemployed and those without health insurance.
On the surface, there’s reason for skepticism: The foster care children’s bill of rights is a feel-good document without the force of law. Government committees come and go. And the new money is only a sliver of the more than $100 million in public money alone that is spent on foster care and adoption in this state each year. Yet some call the efforts encouraging steps.
“We’re delighted that the legislature is taking a look,” said Karen McLeod, president and CEO of Benchmarks, which represents private child welfare agencies in North Carolina. “It’s been a long time since there’s been this level of scrutiny.”
It’s been 10 years, in fact, since the General Assembly launched a comprehensive study of adoption and foster care.
Leading the effort
Much of the momentum comes from a handful of female lawmakers with connections to the issue who say they are serious about fixing problems they find and coming up with ways to pay for proven approaches.
Freshman Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Republican from Cary, has been especially enthusiastic. A law professor whose most visible contribution during her first term in Raleigh has been as something of a dry tax-law nerd, turns passionate when she talks about child welfare.
She and her husband were foster parents for 11 years, and she said that’s what drove her into public office.
“I saw things I wish I could un-see,” Barringer said in a recent interview. “Having seen them, I can’t ignore them. My response is to do what I can to make the foster care system better in this state.”
Money where it helps most
The groundwork for the General Assembly session that began in January was laid in conversations among child-welfare advocates and sympathetic legislators.
“For whatever reason, there seemed to be interest in that area,” said Matt Anderson of Children’s Home Society, which ended up receiving money to run the pilot project with the state.
One of the lawmakers the Children’s Home Society and others approached was Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Republican from Raleigh. She ended up becoming one of the key sponsors of a bill funding the adoption promotion fund and a pilot project to improve permanent placement, and create an oversight committee. Avila’s bill was ultimately rolled into the state budget.
Avila said she had already been talking with an organization that helps prepare children who age out of foster care when she was approached. It sounded like a good idea, and she said leaders at the state Department of Health and Human Services were enthusiastic about the bill.
“For children to be in a situation where they get into trouble, to be without guidance and people to take care of them is unconscionable for adults,” Avila said. “That’s why I got interested in seeing that we, as the government, have programs out there. The best thing I can do is find the programs that do the most good and make sure that’s where we focus our attention and money.”
Avila, along with Rep. Darren Jackson, a Raleigh Democrat; Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat; and Rep. Jon Hardister, a Greensboro Republican, also teamed up to successfully shepherd the bill of rights legislation, which was developed by a state advisory group of young adults who are former foster-care children.
The bill, which the governor signed into law, carries no legal weight but symbolizes legislators’ intentions, they say. Sherry Bradsher, the deputy secretary at DHHS who has spent her career on these issues, also said it matters.
“Was it important? Absolutely,” she said. “Young adults from our system presented it. It’s theirs, and it’s in the law, and it means something to them.”
Foster parents needed
About the same time Avila met with the Children’s Home Society, Barringer was finding like-minded legislators in the Senate: Sen. Shirley Randleman, a Republican from Wilkesboro who spent two terms in the House and is a retired court clerk, and Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Greensboro who has a long career in health services.
“That galvanized my determination that we would do something about this,” Barringer said.
The three women introduced a bill that would prohibit schools from using corporal punishment on foster children, which was never voted on but will still be taken up, she said. Barringer also signed on to a major sex-trafficking bill that became law because it protects exploited minors from prosecution. Barringer also co-sponsored a bill to spend $4 million on child mental health programs over the next two fiscal years, which was included in the final budget.
In addition, legislative leaders agreed to create a joint committee to study adoption and foster care issues to find out what the current concerns and possible solutions are. All three of the female senators were appointed to it.
Bradsher said the greatest need is for more foster parents to replace those who become a child’s permanent guardians.
Preventing trouble later
McLeod, from the alliance of private agencies, said advocates also hope the legislature considers putting more money into keeping children out of foster care and out of trouble in the first place.
If county social services departments are unsuccessful in stabilizing children’s lives, she said, what happens next is shifting the cost of caring for them somewhere else.
“That’s a real concern for us,” McLeod said. “We strongly believe we need a greater emphasis on an up-front approach, early on to reduce the number of kids the state has to take into custody. We are willing to pay for prisons to put them in, but it costs a lot less to take care of these children up front.
“It baffles me why we don’t. I think Sen. Barringer and others are really trying to change that.”
Robinson said the legislature’s steps, small as they are, have the potential to help foster children, who have a high incidence of criminal conduct, pregnancy and drug use.
“It’s one of my overall dreams, but I think it’s doable,” Robinson said. “I think the very fact that there’s bipartisan concern, it’s three women – we understand children and the issues in the lives of children – there will be focus to see what we can do to tighten up the system.
“We should make sure we’re doing for those children what we would do for our own children.”
Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO