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Official portrait of President Donald J. Trump, Friday, October 6, 2017. (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday directing the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department to further assist foster children with what the department says are bipartisan measures particularly needed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Both HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Lynn Johnson, who serves as assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, portrayed the latest effort as part of an unprecedented level of support from the federal government.

“Since the president took office, we have focused on promoting adoption unlike any previous administration, and we’ve begun to see results,” Azar said in a press release. “The president’s executive order lays out bold reforms for our work with states, communities, and faith-based partners to build a brighter future for American kids who are in foster care or in crisis.”

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Johnson told Fox News the department will add new benchmarks to reviews it conducts on local organizations “so that we can look and see — are you using external sources, are you moving paperwork, are the children moving forward faster.” Johnson said she was unaware of any penalties associated with organizations not complying with federal requirements.

Reports have surfaced indicating that the coronavirus hit foster children especially hard given fears families might have surrounding potential transmission from bringing new people into their homes. Family courts have closed down as well, prompting HHS’ interest in things like virtual hearings to expedite childrens’ cases.

The stress of transitioning from foster care to legal adulthood — never an easy task — has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated local economies and further complicated the process of finding a new home and job. And because of the pandemic, the teachers, coaches and other adults whose watchful eyes once proved a helpful barometer of foster children’s well-being are now kept at a distance.

Jeff Sprinkle, a longtime court-appointed foster child advocate in Georgia, estimates that under normal circumstances, 17 adults are engaged to some extent in the lives of each of the foster children he helps. That has shrunk drastically, he said, according to the Associated Press in May.

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Trump’s signature came as the administration faced scrutiny over another effort undertaken in May to improve foster care data collection by, in part, trimming provisions related to sexual orientation. “Now more than ever, vulnerable children need support,” a letter from several Democratic lawmakers read.

“Yet, the Trump Administration chose in the middle of a global pandemic to plow ahead with a rule that undermines the core mission of the child welfare system to protect and care for kids,” it continued. “This isn’t abstract numerical data collection. This is about making sure Congress has the tools it needs to ensure the safety and well-being of vulnerable children.”

More specifically, HHS maintained an Obama-era directive that caseworkers determine whether those issues played a role in family breakdown. But it removed the former administration’s mandate that caseworkers ask minors about those aspects of a foster

child’s journey.

Wednesday’s order has been months in the making as HHS sought input from foster children and state officials across the country.  HHS reports that around 430,000 children are currently in the foster care system, with nearly 124,000 who have a plan for adoption but haven’t found a “forever family.”

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Still, Johnson says Congress needs additional action to help families prevent children from being placed in the foster system in the first place. She claims that current law prioritizes working with placing children who are in the foster system, while Congress should allow more flexible funding for assisting families as a way to prevent their children from entering the system.

Regardless, HHS says it already has state-level cooperation from Republican (Arizona,Texas, Ohio, Georgia, and New Hampshire) and Democratic (Louisiana, Oregon, Kansas, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania) governors alike. The department says it plans to follow up with 20 additional states across the country — asking them to do things like work more with non-profits and mention foster adoption in speeches throughout their states.

“We are grateful to President Trump and his administration for their commitment to strengthening and improving America’s foster care system through this executive order,” Lousiana Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “I look forward to continuing to work closely with our partners at the federal level to set more adoption records in Louisiana and find permanent homes for our children.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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