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Plight of foster children taking center stage in legislature

RALEIGH – North Carolina’s foster kids are not all right.

More than 12,000 children are wards of the state — up about 25 percent over the past five years, Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, told Carolina Journal.

No one can explain the spike, and state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working toward an answer.

Causes for foster placement include population growth, increases in drug addiction, physical abuse, and mental health issues, said Jamaica Pfister, Triangle-area director of the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina.

Barringer, a foster parent for more than a decade, adopted three children from within the system. “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I cannot stay silent,” she said.

She has seen 3- and 5-year-old kids with broken bones. Children who were traumatized after they were locked in dark closets. Some who were abandoned, and some who were sexually abused.

Social services should be priority, but North Carolina’s system is failing, said Barringer, who last month helped introduce bicameral legislation that could fix multiple problems.

The Family/Child Protection Accountability Act, Senate Bill 594, is designed to make social services more efficient and accountable. A 2017 legislative study on Homeless Youth, Foster Care, and Dependency was a catalyst for the bill, said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, a primary sponsor of the House version, House Bill 608.

The Department of Health and Human Services provides funding and broad oversight of the foster system, but each of the state’s 100 counties operate independently, and they arbitrarily enforce policies and carry little accountability.

Heavy caseloads and inadequate training and support overwhelm caseworkers and supervisors, Lewis said.

The result is a nebulous system riddled with inefficiencies. Merging programs from county to county is a first step toward fixing the problem, Barringer told CJ.

“If we can’t hold groups accountable, we are just shuffling cards in a deck. That’s not going to do us any good. We have to have transparency. We have to have accountability. And we have to had standardization, and that standard has got to be very high, because we’re talking about the children.”

The bill would form a “working group” to determine the best way to condense 100 counties into 30 regions by 2022. Barringer said mergers with more affluent areas would benefit foster programs in poor rural counties.

The goal, she said, is continually raising the bar for foster care. Legislators don’t want to standardize social services by undercutting counties with excellent practices.

Two other bills in play would address separate issues within the foster system.

House Bill 386, Intensive Family Preservation Services Funds, would help troubled parents, providing intensive services and helping to keep children in their family homes.

In less-severe situations of neglect or abuse, it’s always better for children to remain with their families, so long as treatment and correction is provided, said the Children’s Home Society’s Pfister.

The legislation would provide more than $13 million to fund those services for the next two fiscal years.

Senate Bill 444, Permanency Innovation Initiative Funds, would give $2.75 million in additional money over the next two years to a program that moves older children out of state care and into adopted homes.

Lawmakers want to reform foster care, Barringer said. “We have tremendous support in the Senate. We have tremendous support in the House. I have tremendous support from Democrats and Republicans in both chambers,” she said.

Child advocacy groups on the Left back the legislature’s plans to overhaul the system. Society has a moral obligation to provide for children who need a safe environment to recover from trauma, said Michelle Hughes, executive director for NC Child.

“While implementing the changes proposed in the Family/Child Protection and Accountability Act will not be easy, the situation at hand demands bold action,” Hughes said. “We are encouraged that elected officials are taking steps to assure the safety of our children, and we believe the Family/Child Protection and Accountability Act is a solid first step.”

Caring for the state’s most vulnerable residents should continue as a top priority for the General Assembly, Lewis said.

“It’s high time we invest in key social services infrastructure to serve the needs of those who do not have a voice. We must not sit idly by while children suffer; instead, we must be proactive and tackle the issue head on with holistic reforms that solve the problem.”

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