A New Effort to Bolster Child Welfare Leadership in State Legislatures

The National Conference of State Legislatures

State legislatures are an ever-changing landscape. Some states cram in a year of policy into short sessions, and the membership is constantly turning over. It can be a tough environment for child welfare issues to find traction, even with widespread concern over increases in foster youth and shortages in foster homes.

One national organization is taking a crack at embedding more state houses with legislators poised to take the lead in this arena. The National Conference of State Legislatures convened its first ever Child Welfare Policy Fellows group this month, an initiative aimed at raising the level of political leadership on family preservation, foster care and adoption in the state house.

The group of 18 state legislators and three legislative staffers gathered in Denver in mid-July for the first of several planned sessions this year. Another in-person meeting is planned for later in the year, as well as at least two remote webinar sessions.

“Lawmakers seek to address these important issues while facing legislative turnover, changing committee assignments, jurisdiction over multiple policy areas and increasing demands on their time and attention,” said NCSL, in a post on its website announcing the fellowship. “NCSL’s Child Welfare Fellows program will provide legislators and legislative staff a rare opportunity to focus intensively on child welfare issues, engage in thoughtful policy discussions, learn from their peers across the nation, connect with national experts, and receive in-depth assistance from NCSL.”

State child welfare systems have become a significant piece of the discussion around how states and the federal government will work together to address the continuing opioid epidemic in America, which continues to claim thousands of lives each year. There were 62,632 overdose deaths in 2016, according to federal data, and two-thirds were caused by prescription or illicit opioids.

Concurrent with (and to some degree, in connection to) the rise in opioid addiction, the number of youth in foster care has increased by 10 percent since 2012.

The first session began with an overview on the child welfare system and the role that state legislatures have in setting its priorities. The discussion then turned to the Family First Prevention Services Act, a major overhaul of federal child welfare funding that will pose both opportunities and challenges for state governments.

The fellows also discussed the family separation issue at the border, trauma and adverse childhood experiences, and heard from Kodi Baughman and Latasha Fuller, members of the National Foster Youth and Alumni Policy Council.

In addition to the planned sessions, NCSL is committed through the fellows program to assist with policy-related research and assistance in bill drafting.

The fellows program was made possible with funding from the Bellevue, Washington-based Ballmer Group, a limited liability corporation that was co-founded by philanthropist Connie Ballmer and her husband, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ballmer Group engages in national-scope projects such as the YAP investment, but concentrates in three regions of the country: Washington State, Los Angeles and the Detroit metro area.

This year’s class of NCSL Child Welfare Fellows includes 11 Republicans and seven Democrats:

Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Ga.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-La.

Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Ala.

Rep. Jean Evans, R-Mo.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Ore.

Sen. David Givens, R-Ky.

Rep. Dafna Michaelson, D-Colo.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Minn.

Sen. Curt Kreun, R-N.D.

Rep. John Mizuno, D-Hawaii

Rep. Ron Noble, R-Ore.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Utah

Rep. Kimberly Rice, R-N.H.

Rep. Tana Senn, D-Wash.

Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Colo.

Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Ind.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Ky.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Alaska

The fellows also include three staff-level people: Kari Nore, staffer for Alaska State Senator Cathy Giessel; Kristen Stiffler, legal counsel for the Nebraska Health and Human Services Committee; Johanna Wakelin, general counsel for Massachusetts State Senator Joan Lovely.
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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.