Among Congress’ noted champions for disadvantaged and at-risk youth, there isn’t a member with more power than Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the current co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth.
Grassley, in his 36th year in the Senate, chairs the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal juvenile justice policy. He is a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, the source of most child welfare legislation, and he serves on the Senate Budget Committee.
Over the years, he has frequently brought that influence to bear on youth issues. Among the landmark pieces of legislation he helped shepherd into passage: The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.
Recently, he helped push through a long-overdue reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which is closer to a president’s signature than it has been since 2002. On the child welfare side, he is an original co-sponsor and supporter of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which aims to expand federal spending on substance abuse and mental health services for parents while curbing federal funds for certain types of congregate care.
The Chronicle of Social Change: Did you have any interaction with child welfare or juvenile justice when you were younger, or not until you became a member of Congress?
Chuck Grassley: Since I went to the legislature as a young person … serving in the legislature would have been the first time I would have been acquainted with what we used to call ADC, Aid for Dependent Children.
But you’re giving me too much credit. I’d have to say it was 1990s before I really got involved with this foster care issue.
Do you remember why?
Oh yeah, because Sarah Gesiriech [now executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative] did this issue for me. She was from Des Moines. She had been adopted, and she said, “I’d like to work on adoption.” I don’t think we so much thought just about foster care at that time. I want people to think for me, and keep me ahead of the curve. If you wait for me to do it, we’d be behind the curve.
Recently, Iowa’s new child welfare director told The Chronicle of Social Change that he’s looking into whether HHS will let him tie adoption subsidies to medical visits. As you know, they’ve had a couple recent deaths of children who were adopted. Are you all right with states having more ability to monitor and revoke subsidies?
We’ve had some horrendous incidents in Iowa. I wouldn’t want to tell the State of Iowa what to do, but I think it’s quite evident there’s not enough supervision going on. If the state takes the responsibility of taking people out of a home, and putting them somewhere else, there’s responsibility to follow up.
Now would a medical visit make the difference?
I don’t know, but I think we have found enough instances that more supervision is important.
A few years ago we saw you speak at a briefing about Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), which you helped establish as the plan for long-term foster care. You described it as a “last resort” measure that became “an obstacle to reunification or adoption.” Are there any other aspects of federal child welfare policy where you feel like unintended negative consequences have arisen from federal policies?
Yeah, our help for foster care [through the Title IV-E entitlement] probably still does to some extent give an incentive to keep people in foster care. I think we’ve taken some incentive away by doing more adoptions.
But when you get paid so much, a state gets paid so much, for having kids in foster care, and you feel important because you have so many foster care kids under your supervision as a welfare worker, there might be a disincentive to getting people permanency.
You were one of the initial supporters of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which would open up the entitlement to some non-foster care services. It stalled last Congress in the Senate. Do you think there’s any momentum for it now?
Yeah, I think so. I hope it’s relatively noncontroversial.
On juvenile justice: You called a hearing a few years back to figure out what was going on with compliance monitoring at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Are you satisfied that things have improved since they promised to realign?
I think we brought enough attention to it that it does some good, but also legislated some improvement in this.
Any substantial changes so far that you can see?
It’s too early for us to tell you that. Hopefully we don’t have a hearing a year from now and find out something different.