Making Obama’s Last Lap Count for Kids

The Obama administration has demonstrated in recent weeks that when it is committed to an issue, it will go to great lengths to make things happen.

Take criminal and juvenile justice reform. The president recently initiated a number of policy positions, executive orders, and other concrete actions to rectify long-standing inequities in the system and speed critical reform. He has commuted dozens of unjust life sentences declared under racially disproportionate mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

He will leave a meaningful and long-lasting imprint through the My Brother’s Keeper program. He has pushed aggressively for fair treatment of criminal justice-involved youth in efforts to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, which has advanced beyond expectations and will clear the Senate as soon as Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) lifts his hold.

If only our nation’s abused and neglected children and our broken foster care system could capture the administration’s attention and inspire a similar degree of outrage and action.

President Obama can singlehandedly take any number of actions in his remaining months to elevate the needs of this vulnerable community. He has already done some admirable things that indirectly help these children, such as calling for expanded support of the much-lauded Nurse-Family Partnership. He has also helped elevate and address the issue of human trafficking whose victims are far too often foster youth. And the newly minted Every Student Succeeds Act admirably works to address the educational needs of foster children.

But there is so much more to be done directly.

Just last month, the bipartisan Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities wrapped up their two-year term and issued their final report, aimed at stemming the sickening tide of up to 3,000 children dying every year in this country from abuse or neglect. However, although half of the commissioners were presidential appointees, the White House has yet to issue any response or words of encouragement calling for action to follow through with these critical recommendations that could save children’s lives. Given that a statutorily created, independent body such as this comes along but once in a generation to dig deep and shine light on this compelling but far-too-often ignored topic, it would be a shameful missed opportunity for the administration to remain silent.

President Obama can also express fervent opposition to Paul Ryan and other Republicans’ threatened elimination of the Social Services Block Grant program, which, lest our short memories fail us, was once a full-on entitlement. This is one of the few remaining already-anemic streams of support for programs that provide essential support to vulnerable children and families. Additionally, he can argue unequivocally for comprehensive child welfare finance reform that honestly accounts for the continuing federal divestment from foster care through an arcane funding formula from 1996 and provides the real dollars needed for federal and state government to comply with current law.

President Obama has less than a year to crystallize his legacy as a progressive president that went to the mat for underserved Americans. Let’s urge him to take up the mantle of America’s abused and neglected children in his final lap and help each child realize her right to a safe and loving childhood and a future full of the opportunity that every American child deserves.

Amy Harfeld is the national policy director and senior staff attorney with the Children’s Advocacy Institute, housed at the University of San Diego’s School of Law.

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