There are no specifics yet, but over the past month, Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) has stepped up his emphasis on the need for reforming how foster care is financed.
As the Chairman of the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which has jurisdiction over legislation related to foster care spending, Reichert will be a key player in the ensuing debate over the degree to which the foster care system should be responsible for preventing child maltreatment and abuse.
With a personal history of trauma, an understanding of the importance of hearing from current and former foster youth and experience preventing gang violence as the former sheriff of Washington’s King County (Seattle), Reichert has a unique perspective on the system and the change he would like to see.
Last month, three members of Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, including Reichert, visited Seattle. The first day was spent at the downtown headquarters of Casey Family Programs, a charitable foundation, which doles out $100 million annually in foster care-related grants nationwide.
“I know there are some things the Federal Government needs to do,” Reichert said during the convening, while pacing in front of a group that included former foster youth, court officers, state legislators and Caucus colleagues Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.). “Jim [McDermott] knows what they are, Karen [Bass] knows what they are. Comprehensive finance reform, yes. I think it’s gonna happen.”
Just a week later, Reichert and McDermott joined Casey CEO William Bell in writing an Op-Ed calling for foster care finance reform in the Seattle Times. The Op-Ed attributed a 22 percent reduction in overall foster care numbers since 2006 to preventive strategies that are keeping families together. But, the opinion piece lamented a funding system wherein the lion’s share of the $7.6 billion in annual federal foster care funding is only available for children who were removed from their biological families and pulled into foster care.
“Rather than promoting innovative and proven approaches that better serve children and keep them safe, the bulk of federal funding can be spent only on maintaining children in foster care,” the Op-Ed read.
Reichert wasn’t able to pinpoint a date for a bill in an interview with the Chronicle, but he was clear about what he wants to see.
“The timeline is going to be tough for me to pin down for you, but as we’re moving forward I think everyone recognizes that we’ve got to reform the system to address the preventative needs versus just maintaining foster homes,” he said. “We really need to kind of shift I think our financial efforts and our volunteer efforts and just all of our efforts in general toward taking a look at how kids become foster kids and how we might be able to prevent that by holding families together.”
Reichert, who had a long and distinguished career in law enforcement before coming to Congress, shared his experiences in preventing crime and his frustrations about the general inability of lawmakers to focus on long-term solutions because of fear of up-front costs.
“The effort in community policing was prevention and people saw all kinds of positive results occurring when we applied more community policing,” he said. “They saw the gangs diminish, kids weren’t joining the gangs, more kids were graduating from high school and they said,‘You know what, you don’t need those funds anymore for preventative care, we’re going to cut those back.’”
“And what happens? Gangs come back again, kids become more involved in gangs, and you end up paying more. This is really the point I wanted to make too, is that you’ll end up paying more at the back end. So if we could find a way to convince people, and I think especially legislatures, that if you put the money up front, then you are actually going to end up spending less money than if you waited for things to happen.”
Reichert made a parallel with his own life. As a teenager, his father became a “real mean drunk,” and started beating his mother and siblings. He ran away.
“I’m fortunate, I didn’t end up on the street, in jail and that’s the thing that people can’t see: that our family could have been helped when all this was going on and I wouldn’t have run away and had the potential of being a foster child.”
Over the past 25 years, since the founding of the California Youth Connection, the nation’s first foster youth-led advocacy organization, youth have increasingly been given a seat at the table when it comes to policy decisions that affect the system and themselves.
During another stop on the same Seattle Listening Tour, former foster youth Ryan Cummings evoked the mantra spoken by many youth involved in advocacy: “Nothing about us, without us.”
Just a couple of weeks earlier, Cummings had been one of 41 youth from all around the country who participated in the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth’s second annual Shadow Day. The man he shadowed: Rep. Dave Reichert, who pushed a meeting so that he could talk in more depth with Cummings.
“If we don’t talk to those kids… who have survived the system and have ideas on how we can reform the system to work for kids,” Reichert said, effective reform, “isn’t going to happen.”
As for specifics on what finance reform would look like, Reichert was still unsure.
“We’re not working on any specific funding mechanism, but we are having those discussions and I think at this point, it’s almost the same sort of answer I would give you if you asked me about tax reform. Everything is on the table right now.”
Daniel Heimpel is the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change and the founder of Fostering Media Connections.