The abuse and neglect that Dave Reichert (D-Wash.) experienced as a child led him down a path to help kids through his law enforcement career. As a lead detective on the infamous Green River murder case in Washington, Reichert witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of foster care, neglect and abuse that led young girls into prostitution and ultimately into the hands of a serial killer.
Since 2004, he’s used his experience to affect change in Congress. He counts passage of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act, signed into law in 2014, among the highlights of his congressional career.
Reichert continues to advocate and direct policy on behalf of underprivileged children. He’s also the grandparent of two children who joined their family through foster- adoption.
When did child welfare first become an important issue for you, and when was the first time in your professional life it made an appearance?
It first became an issue to me when I was a child. I grew up in a dysfunctional home with domestic violence.
In my professional career, I think that my personal life experience inspired me to go into the work that I went into, which was law enforcement, in 1972. Working in the jail, working as a patrol cop in my early years, I really focused on young people.
In my professional life, I focused on that immediately, and also in my personal life I was the youth counselor in my Lutheran church that I go to in East of Kent [Washington]. I did that for 21 years. I worked with the junior high and high school kids — took them on camping trips, ski trips, hiking trips, bible study, Sunday school.
My entire career focused on trying to help kids, especially during the Green River serial murder case. I worked with young women who – back then it was called the prostitution trade, today it’s human trafficking – ninety-five percent of the young girls who were working on the streets back then were foster kids and runaways. My job was not only in trying to find a killer of these young girls, but also helping them.
I’m motivated by the fact that I was sort of in a place that was close to where some of these kids ended up going. I never ended up in a foster care world, and I can’t imagine how that feels. I’m just happy to be in a position over my last few years in my career, both careers, to have the capability of helping them.
What is the most important thing the federal government needs to do right now when it comes to child welfare policy?
One of the most important things we can do is to make sure these young people have a loving, caring home … period. Then the question is: How can the federal government really become involved in developing loving, caring homes?
This is about preventing kids from going into foster care in the first place. But if they go into foster care, then it’s about creating a stable foster home environment where kids can succeed.
What is your opinion of the Family First Prevention Services Act?
We passed it last Congress, and it didn’t go through the Senate. We always want to try and keep kids with their biological parent. That’s really the ultimate goal.
[For example,] I do a lot of work with the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent. They are a national model for taking in drug-addicted babies that are born in the Seattle area.
Most hospitals don’t have the money, the time, the facilities, the tools, the personnel, the training to take a baby, keep the baby there and then do drug withdrawal. It takes months to withdraw these babies from crack cocaine, heroine, whatever their addiction is at birth. Most of the mothers are runaways and moms from foster care, and even the dads we’re able to track down come from that same world.
What Pediatric Interim Care Center tries to do is, as they’re withdrawing from drugs, they work with, normally it’s the moms … they come to the Pediatric Interim Care Center, they rock the babies, take care of the babies, they try to reconnect the babies with the moms. To get the moms to focus on: Here’s my life now, this is my child, and give up drugs because the moms are still addicted. The difficulty is in keeping the moms and the children together.
So, the effort of the Family First Act is to keep kids together. If you couple that with legislation that I passed in 2014 [Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act] … if you can’t keep them connected to the parents, then the next best thing, of course, is to get them in a loving, caring, single foster home where they’re not bouncing all over the place. That’s the way I view Buchanan’s legislation [Family First Prevention Services Act]. It’s not that everybody can be kept with their biological parents, but that’s really always the best option.
What do you think the child welfare system owes a youth who ages out of the system without an adoption or reunification?
The system has failed. I think we have to continue to help them assimilate into the adult world. We can’t just say, ‘Ok, now you’re aged out, goodbye, see you later, you’re on your own.’ There’s still a responsibility then for the state to continue to help them in ways. Helping them get connected with education, help them get a job. I don’t think monetarily, we don’t write them a check, that’s not going to do anything. But I think those support services need to continue to be there until that young person is back on track and is fully engaged and is on a path to success. There is a responsibility to continue serving that individual since the system failed them in the beginning.
But, here’s my hope: We build a system, a policy and process that’s successful and that’s what the efforts of these pieces of legislation … do is to build that process and policy so now when (kids) get to that aging out time, we don’t have those people that have fallen through the cracks, that don’t have that stable home and environment. Because that’s the real goal.