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Children First Plan for Foster Care

This Children First plan for foster care is personal. My grandmother, Victoria, who helped raise my brother and me, moved to the United States as a 7-year-old orphan. She was raised by relatives that took her in and loved her as their own daughter. My grandmother worked her entire life as a maid, a cook, a babysitter so that we could help others through public service.

There is no higher calling than doing everything we can to help the most vulnerable among us, which of course includes children and families in foster care.

As a young attorney, I practiced family law and saw firsthand the turmoil children endure and the inherent tensions within the foster care system. We can do better as a nation to serve each other and build a country where everyone counts. This Children First plan for foster care is an important part of that vision for the future.

Nearly 450,000 children are in foster care in America, separated from their parents for their own well-being and awaiting reunification with their family or placement with new adoptive parents. It’s the responsibility of all us to care for them in their time of most desperate need. An estimated 90 percent of children in foster care have experienced trauma. They need health care, support services, and the love only a family can provide. American families that volunteer to become foster families deserve not only our gratitude, but the full support of the American people.

Every child deserves a safe, caring family that enables them to pursue their highest potential. Yet too often, children in foster care have crisis level outcomes. Young people who age out of the foster care system are at increased risk of experiencing homelessness, incarceration, and poverty. While 58 percent of foster youth graduate high school, compared to 89 percent of the general population, only 30 percent of them pursue higher education and less than 3 percent will actually complete college. LGBTQ youth are more likely to enter foster care and confront discrimination within the system. The families and workers providing care are inundated by an increase in children entering foster care, in part due to the opioid crisis, and we need additional resources to fulfill their mission of quality care for every child.

That's why I'm proposing a new Children First plan for foster care to invest in our nation's most vulnerable children, keep families together by prioritizing prevention, and improve the system for foster children to have a better future.

As president, we will build off the Family First Prevention Services Act and prioritize the prevention of neglect and child abuse in the first place. We will invest an additional $10 billion a year and more than double the resources for primary prevention services such as well-trained and well-paid social workers to help children and their parents stay together. We will emphasize kinship care for children to remain with their relatives and move to a team model of evaluation so that children are only removed from their birth parents as a last resort. Overall, our goal should be to reduce the number of children entering the foster care system by addressing the root causes -- deprivation, substance abuse, and a lack of social services -- and keep families together. Throughout this presidential campaign, I have been intentional about how different issues intersect and done my best to connect the dots between different policies to lift up the most marginalized communities. In a Castro administration, we will proactively advance the welfare of children.

Children’s safety will always be my top concern, and in certain circumstances that means removing a child from a dangerous situation and placing them into the care of loving foster families. I want to make sure that all children have the best possible care in the foster system, free of fear and protected from harm. First, I will take executive action to eliminate the discriminatory rules that prevent LGBTQ families from fostering or adopting. This is state-sponsored discrimination that will not be enabled by federal funding. Not only are these policies bigoted, but they also exacerbate the shortage of foster families. Second, we will strategically recruit foster families to support all children, including older youth, siblings, people of color, children with disabilities, non-English speakers, and LGBTQ-youth, that have the hardest time matching with a foster family. By building out this additional capacity, we will reduce the use of group homes and congregate care, providing tailored care and greater stability. Throughout the entire foster care system, we will invest in training for workers and families to provide trauma-informed care. After a child is separated from their parents, we have a responsibility to provide the best care possible.

Children in foster care also deserve the same opportunities as anyone else to get an equitable education and prosper. This starts with the choice to stay with their foster families until age 21 and the federal investment to make this opportunity possible. Over 23,000 youth age out of the foster care system every year, too often without the support they need. Over 20 percent of youth who age out at the age of 18 instantly become homeless, with few options to pursue higher education and find meaningful work. These are not failings of the generous foster parents; it is a failure of a system that does not fully protect the most vulnerable. Twenty-two states have already extended the time that children may remain in foster care with positive results. Our Children First plan aims to boost graduation rates and college completion through fully funding transportation that maintains continuity in school attendance, targeted interventions such as life-coaches and expanding Family Unification Vouchers, and new investments in tuition-free universities and job training. I am also committed to ending the child-welfare to juvenile justice pipeline, the over-policing of youth, and the criminalization of poverty. We can ensure that every child and family has a chance to succeed.

The true measure of a nation is how we treat the most vulnerable.

Today in the United States, nearly one in five children lives in poverty. In rural communities and big cities, millions of Americans suffer in silence due to the lack of access to mental health care. On any given night, more than half a million people experience homelessness. At the southern border, thousands of asylum seekers are subjected to senseless cruelty and family separations. The moral challenge of our generation and the next president is to lead America into a new direction — and an important part of that future is improving life for children in foster care.

1

Keep Families Together by Prioritizing Prevention

The placement of children into foster care plays a vital role in the child welfare system. However, well-intentioned our foster care system may be, the overriding goal of our child welfare system must be keeping families together whenever safe to do so. Children thrive emotionally and academically when they live in a safe and loving home - and while every case is different, for most children that is most likely with their birth families. Placement into foster care, even when necessary, is a traumatic event. As president, I will prioritize prevention and, building on the progress of the recently enacted bipartisan Family First Prevention Services Act, make unprecedented federal investment in primary prevention services. This platform will more than double the federal commitment to child welfare programs with an additional $10 billion a year investment, decreasing each year as preventative programs reduce the number of youth that require assistance. I will also increase the funding available in Titles I and II of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) by $1 billion each year, providing additional resources to prevent child abuse.

  • Invest in Primary Prevention Services. We need to support families at risk of having children placed in foster care before conditions reach a crisis point. Currently federal funding for prevention services are limited to support children who are designated “candidates for foster care” - in other words for children at imminent risk of separation from their families. As president, I will make federal funds available for primary prevention services such as home visiting services and early interventions, such as pre-natal care and addiction treatment for soon-to-be mothers in hospitals, in order to prevent child abuse and neglect from occurring in the first place.
  • Support and encourage kinship care. In most cases, the caretakers best equipped to care for at-risk children are the relatives of those same children. Every day, aunts, uncles, and grandparents play a crucial role in raising, caring, and protecting children whose parents are unable to do so. Relatives taking care of children outside of the foster care system are crucial to preventing children from falling into the foster care system. Kinship care deserves the same level of support as foster care families. That’s why I will pass legislation to reduce barriers for relatives like grandparents to receive Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance, and other benefits by passing the Grandfamilies Act introduced by Senator Bob Casey and make licensing requirements more transparent and navigable for relatives wishing to provide kinship care.
  • Focus on prevention. Thanks to the recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act, the U.S. child welfare system has taken its biggest step yet towards creating a system that is focused on prevention and family unity. However, many states require technical and resource assistance to implement the law and prioritize prevention services. In addition to prioritizing prevention programs, including by supporting social worker training and compensation, I will pass the Family First Transition and Support Act sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown to ensure that we are prepared to consolidate recent accomplishments.
  • Allow federal dollars to be used for developing new prevention strategies. While there are many effective evidence-based models of prevention, we must also recognize that every community is different and that the best prevention strategies may vary from community to community. There is a shortage of representative data on what works best for children, especially for those in historically marginalized groups. For this reason, I will create new federal grants to support pilot testing new programs to research new methods of prevention and to gather data and evidence. This is particularly important in order to serve vulnerable communities that have not been prioritized in previous research, such as Native Americans, the LGBTQ community, and individuals with disabilities.
  • Adopt Child and Family Team (CFT) decision making models when considering the removal of a child from their family. The decision to remove a child from their birth home will shape that child for the rest of their life. These decisions should not be made lightly, and certainly not solely by a caseworker and their superiors alone. As president, I will pass legislation requiring states that use federal funds to phase in a Child and Family Team model when making decisions about child removal. CFT decision models will require the inclusion of the child or youth themselves, their parents, and, when appropriate, other stakeholders in a child’s life, such as teachers, community leaders, and other relatives so that the child welfare system can make the most informed decisions possible.
  • Build a 21st Century Safety Net. A majority of children who end up in the foster care system do so as a result of neglect, not abuse. This neglect is often a consequence of poverty exacerbating the already intense burdens of parenthood. Many of my other plans, including housing for all, Medicare for all, universal pre-k and child care, and expanding the child tax credit to $3000 a child will lessen the burdens on families across the nation and prevent youth from falling into the foster system. We must also allow for preventive funds to assist families struggling with poverty with their daily needs such as housing support, child care, and food assistance if that is necessary to prevent neglect. No one should lose their child because they can’t afford to feed them.
  • Address the systemic discrimination within our foster care systems by supporting preventative strategies for marginalized groups. Children of color are disproportionately represented in the foster care system. We must acknowledge the legacy of oppression theses disparities perpetuate, recognizing the long history of family separation among communities of color. As president, I will prioritize addressing the disproportionately high rate of children of color being placed in foster care, including by passing legislation creating additional protections for parents in sentencing guidelines and deportation proceedings, supporting diversity in family law judges and the child welfare workforce. I will also fund implicit bias training for child welfare workers and staff at schools and hospitals We must also guarantee universal school lunches to end the idea of ‘school lunch debt’ and the practice of threatening families that have school lunch debt with removal of the child from the family. Additionally, I support child welfare agencies in developing culturally competent preventative strategies for specific marginalized groups and increase federal support to tribal communities, consistent with my commitment to defend the Indian Child Welfare Act.

2

Ensure Best Possible Care for Vulnerable Children

There will be times when, after all prevention efforts have been exhausted, a child’s removal from their birth family is simply unavoidable. In those cases, we must ensure that children who experience the traumatic process of removal end up in a safe, supportive, and affirming home that will not further compound their trauma.

  • End state-sponsored discrimination against LGBTQ families. As president, I will immediately move to defend the Obama administration December 2016 Health and Human Services rule that prohibits federally funded adoption and foster care agencies from discriminating against LGBTQ youth, families, and individuals who wish to adopt or foster a youth and Obama administration regulations collecting data on LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system. To ensure no future President removes these protections, I will pass the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, introduced in Congress by Representative John Lewis and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, which would prohibit any child welfare agency receiving federal assistance from discriminating against any foster or adoption families on the basis or religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status and the Equality Act to prohibit all discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, including by state and local governments against foster youth or their families.
  • Repeal the Title IV-E Lookback Provision that denies up to 60% of youth in foster care federal support. Every year the number of foster children eligible for federal support decrease due to this misguided policy which links a foster child’s eligibility for Title IV-E funds to whether the child’s birth family would fall below the 1996 federal poverty line, which is lower than the poverty line today in 1996. This outdated law prevents thousands of foster families from receiving federal funding to support the children in their care. I will repeal this provision and ensure that every foster family is able to qualify for the federal support they need. The household income of a foster child’s birth family simply has no bearing on the support they need once in foster care.
  • Reduce the use of congregate care. We know that in most cases a loving home is the best environment for a child to thrive. But right now, 13 percent of foster children are in congregate care, such as group homes or institutions where children often do not receive the individual support and attention they deserve. As president, I will set a goal of reducing the number of children in congregate care by half by 2025, providing state and local governments with the resources to place more children in homes with kin or foster families. Recognizing that some circumstances may make some form of residential care unavoidable, high quality residential care with the goal of speedy family reunification will remain available.
  • Support strategic recruitment and retention of foster families to address the foster family shortage. Foster families must be well-prepared to meet the specific needs of the populations in foster care. That’s why I will implement new federal policies to recruit, train, and retain foster families able to care of the needs of youth in foster care, in particular for youth who are members of the LGBTQ and disability communities and those who are English language learners, teenagers, or part of large sibling groups. I will direct child welfare agencies receiving federal funding to increase recruitment efforts to create a more diverse pool of potential foster families, as well as create federal incentives to encourage states to improve its policies that support quality foster parenting, such as peer support networks that provide foster parents much needed support as well as crisis mobile response services that connect youth and foster families to mental health professionals in times of need. I will also direct additional resources towards retaining foster families, by ensuring foster parents have the services and support they need to provide high quality care. To serve youth in foster care, in particular those most vulnerable or marginalized, we must be able to match every youth with a home and foster family who can meet their specific needs.
  • Creating safety and stability for youth in foster care. A sense of stability and permanence is vital for the emotional and physical health of children. Placement instability can compound trauma and worsen the future outcomes of a child in foster care. We need to make foster homes as safe and stable as possible until such time as a child is ready to be reunified with their family. These commitments are crucial to meeting my People First Housing plan of ending child, youth, and family homelessness by the end of my first term.
  • Support continuity in education through transportation. Whenever possible, children in foster care should be able to continue to attend the same school, maintaining relationships with friends and teachers that will be crucial for their health and well-being. I support legislation to fully fund state and local governments’ ability to provide transportation to maintain continuity in school attendance.
  • Provide Trauma Informed Care. Youth in foster care have often experienced intense trauma. This trauma can then present a significant obstacle to their future wellbeing as well as efforts to care for them. As president, I will pass legislation providing an additional $275 million to equip foster families along with social service workers with the training they need to provide proper care to children who have experienced trauma.
  • End the child-welfare to juvenile justice pipeline. Our punitive approach to justice victimizes at-risk youth the most. The over-policing of communities and schools, state and local programs that criminalize youth, and discrimination in the criminal justice system all disproportionately affect youth who have been in the foster care system. I will require states to establish strategies, verified by the Departments of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services, to prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system through proactive policies. The implementation of these policies will guide state-wide use of federal funding, with financial penalties on states that do not implement best practices to protect foster youth from criminalization. I will also increase funding for programs authorized by the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Act (JJDPA) to allow states to improve prevention programs for multi-system youth. As part of my plan for People First Policing, I will enact progressive police reform, including ending support for police officers as disciplinary agents in schools, and the decriminalization of truancy. These reforms will also ensure children, youth, and their families are not burdened with a criminal record.

3

Extend Foster Care Support and Expand Educational Opportunity

The transition to adulthood is difficult for any young person. Young adults who age out of foster care face this daunting moment in their lives missing the support that so many other young Americans count on from their friends and family. Our duty to the young people in foster care cannot end when they turn 18. When youth age out of foster care, they often are not financially stable and lose access to many of the resources provided through child welfare programs. We must do everything possible to ensure that young adults in the foster care system have the care and support they need.

  • Allow youth to opt-in to foster care until age 21. It is already recognized that youth who are allowed to remain in the foster care system past their 18th birthday show better educational, living, and health outcomes than those who are not given this option. Approximately 25 states and the District of Columbia already extended foster care beyond age 18, with a majority of these states requiring youth to retain the option until age 21. As president, I will pass legislation that requires every state to offer the option of remaining in foster care until at least 21, providing adequate funds and a phase in timeline for states to build their capacities as needed. These programs will also require educational efforts to ensure youth in foster care make informed choices in choosing whether they continue to receive support after the age of 18.
  • Invest in self-sufficiency, life-coaches, and Family Unification Vouchers. As president, I will fully fund the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and Educational and Training Vouchers (ETV’s) to provide youth currently & formerly in foster care with opportunities to learn, practice, and achieve self-sufficiency as they age out of the foster care system. Additionally, I will designate additional grant funding to support life-coach model programs for foster youth to the age of 26, providing foster youth with a designated social worker who’s committed to their long term growth. I will also strengthen the Family Unification Voucher, a specialized housing choice voucher program that supports youth who have aged out of foster care, and guarantee affordable housing until age of 26. Lastly, as part of my Working Families First Plan, I will pass legislation expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to all dependents, low-income independent students, and workers, which starts at age 25 today, to everyone aged 21 and above, including independent students under age 21 and those under age 25 who were formerly in foster care.
  • Target high school graduation and professional and college preparation. Youth in foster care experience high school graduation rates of only about 50 percent, compared to 85 percent for students overall, are a third as likely to attend college, and far less likely to be prepared to succeed in college. These challenges start early, with disruptions in housing and family leading to long-term challenges in education, including through mental health and learning disabilities. In addition to fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) to ensure schools are well-resourced to support their students, I will invest in technical, vocational, and apprenticeship programs at high schools to prepare students who choose to work directly after graduation and establish college advising and preparation programs to boost readiness for higher education.
  • Ensure tuition and living expenses are covered for foster youth who attend college. Through my People First Education Plan, I have proposed investing in our higher education system to partner with state governments and eliminate tuition for public undergraduate universities. I also know from personal experience the burdens of living expenses in college affordability, which is why I have proposed increasing the maximum Federal Pell Grant to $10,000, the average cost of living expenses at undergraduate institutions, and allowing it to be used to cover living expenses. Foster youth who qualify as independent students eligible for a maximum Pell Grant will cover the entire cost of a public undergraduate education, including living expenses, under my plan. For foster youth that choose to attend small, private colleges that better suit their needs, my plan will work with colleges to reduce the costs of attendance, in addition to the Pell Grant expansion that will cover living expenses.