Overlooked amidst the recent debate in the child welfare advocacy community regarding the Family First Prevention Services Act is the fact that foster youth advocates are about to lose a key long-time supporter in Congress. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) is retiring at the close of this session.
Admittedly, I am biased after spending seven years working for McDermott in Washington, D.C. However, I don’t think there is another member of Congress who has done more for our nation’s foster youth, both as a legislative champion and as a leading voice in raising awareness about key issues.
Perhaps most importantly, in a field where ideology too often seems to drive the policymaking process, McDermott has always taken the time to research the issues, listen to the youth themselves, identify real systemic shortcomings and gaps, and propose concrete solutions. His senior position on the House Ways and Means Committee has enabled him to advance important reforms during his tenure in Congress.
By authoring the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, McDermott helped expand the Title IV-E entitlement to support relative guardians and enable youth transitioning out of foster care to continue to access vital supports and services up to the age of 21.
A former child psychiatrist, he also sponsored key provisions of the Child and Family Services Innovation and Improvement Act of 2011, including enhanced oversight and accountability over the use of psychotropic medication in the child welfare system. In 2012 he also helped establish the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, a bipartisan Congressional forum for foster care issues.
Now, in his final months in office, he has co-authored a bill to create tax incentives for businesses that hire transition-age foster youth in an effort to improve self-sufficiency and long-term outcomes for this vulnerable population.
Though a liberal Democrat, he has worked across the aisle with Republicans on each of these initiatives, preserving and strengthening the unique bipartisan support that child welfare issues maintain to this day, even in a divided Congress.
His retirement will leave a great void that probably cannot be filled by any single member of Congress. Fortunately, the next generation of leaders has emerged, thanks in large part to the organizing and mobilizing power of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. Still, his loss will be felt by all of us in the foster youth advocacy community.
Thank you, Jim, for your decades of hard work and for all you’ve done to improve the lives of our country’s foster youth.
Sean Hughes is a managing partner at the consultancy firm Social Change Partners.