A few weeks ago, Congressman Steve Scalise, a friend and colleague from the state of Louisiana, was tragically shot alongside three others during an early morning baseball practice in Arlington, Virginia.
Congressman Scalise was seriously injured in the attack and has undergone multiple surgeries since. Thankfully, he is recovering.
The shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, who was killed by police during the attack, was clearly a very disturbed individual. Unfortunately, he was also a foster parent. According to news reports, Hodgkinson and his wife Sue were licensed by the Illinois Department of Children and Families as foster parents from 1990 to 2003. While the agency refused to disclose details of the Hodgkinson’s 13-year tenure of caring for vulnerable children, the stories that have emerged are deeply disturbing.
In 1996, Wanda Ashley Stock, a child in his care, drove down a country road near the Hodgkinson’s home in Belleville, Illinois and set herself on fire. A decade later, Hodgkinson was arrested after beating another 17-year-old foster daughter in front of neighbors and family members. In 2015, that daughter, Cathy, died of a drug overdose.
When you connect this disturbing history with the terror that unfolded on the baseball diamond, the natural and immediate reactions are disgust and disbelief.
A few of the questions that immediately come to mind are: What was his motivation? How did a man in this emotional state with a history of violent abuse have access to a deadly weapon? More unbelievably, how could a person like this ever qualify to be a foster parent? Even if the Hodgkinsons were deemed competent and able to obtain a license in 1990, what type of review processes were in place to determine their continued ability to serve as foster parents? All of these questions deserve answers.
This is an extremely important issue. In our country today, we have nearly 430,000 children with ages ranging from 1 day to 17 years old who are “in the system.” In my opinion, nothing is more important than ensuring that “our” children in this system of temporary care are placed in the most loving and supportive families possible. Before being placed with foster families, many of these children have been subjected to gross neglect and often heartbreaking physical and emotional abuse. The last thing they need is more of the same from foster parents.
As this incident has captured our attention, it is worth noting that several members of Congress in both the House and Senate, along with elected officials in statehouses across the country, have been pushing to reduce the foster care system’s reliance on group homes and other so-called congregate care settings. Instead, they are promoting more placements in stable homes with loving and nurturing families.
This is the right move. We want children in loving and nurturing families where they have the time and opportunity to heal their brokenness and pain. Make no mistake, being a foster parent is not always easy. It can be difficult and stressful. However, it can be done by properly motivated and prepared families. That is why I remain so committed to lifting up the best foster parent recruitment and support strategies I find.
It is possible to recruit and identify the right families who are capable of providing the home that Wanda and Cathy deserved.
One exciting initiative that does this work is the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which challenges faith-based organizations to identify foster families for children.
One of the programs under CAFO’s umbrella is Project 1.27, which started in Colorado, but is spreading with affiliated churches across the country. Hundreds, if not thousands, of children have been adopted because of the work of this church-based effort.
Another example is the Quality Parenting Initiative, launched as a project of the California-based Youth Law Center. QPI is a transformative approach to strengthening foster care by refocusing on excellent parenting for all children in the child welfare system. QPI is now under way in more than 10 states, including my home state of Louisiana, and in over 65 locations in those states.
Another wonderful initiative underway in my home state of Louisiana is Crossroads NOLA. Crossroads NOLA is a faith-based organization out of New Orleans that has grown from one church to now include 45 churches that not only recruit quality foster parents, but they also recruit several other families within each church to voluntarily support each foster family.
These are powerful examples of how we can do much better at recruiting and identifying foster parents and homes for our children to recover and thrive.
As we hope for Congressman Scalise’s full recovery, I also hope that our elected officials will continue their fight to improve the quality of foster parenting in America. Hundreds of thousands of children are depending on these parents to give them a second chance they so richly deserve.
Mary Landrieu is a former U.S. Senator for the state of Louisiana from 1997 until 2015. She was a co-chair of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Caucus.