By Marian Wright Edelman
While we rarely hear good news these days about Congress, I have some to share. Continuing a long tradition of bipartisan leadership on behalf of abused and neglected children, last month both the House and the Senate passed and the president signed into law the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980/P.L. 113-183). This new legislation improves the child welfare system to prevent children and youths in foster care from becoming victims of sex trafficking and protects foster care youths who are already victims.
It offers new hope of permanent families for children and extra support for those youths who end up aging out of foster care. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) and many other children’s advocates strongly supported this bill, and we applaud Representatives Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sander Levin (D-Mich.), Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah, and Representatives David Reichert (R-Wash.) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) who led the charge in responding to some of our most vulnerable children’s needs.
There are more than 400,000 children in foster care, and though intended to be temporary, the average length of stay for children in foster care is nearly two years, with nearly one-third staying longer. Too many of these youths – more than 23,000 – end up leaving foster care without permanent families. These youths are particularly vulnerable to child sex trafficking.
While there is no good national data, there are state and local statistics that confirm how vulnerable children in foster care are to being victimized. For example, in Connecticut, 98 percent of child victims of sex trafficking were reported to be involved in the child welfare system, and in New York for 85 percent of the child victims, there was a similar pattern.
The new federal law requires child welfare agencies to determine appropriate services for these youths who are trafficked and provide new data on youths who are victims of trafficking. Agencies also must report to law enforcement about agency children who are victims of trafficking or have run away from foster care, which adds another layer of protection for those at special risk of being victimized. It establishes a National Advisory Committee on the Sex Trafficking of Children and Youth in the United States.
The new law encourages more opportunities for youths in foster care to lead “normal” lives by making it easier for their foster parents to allow them to participate in age- or developmentally-appropriate extracurricular and enrichment activities that currently often require permission from the child welfare agency. It empowers older youths in care by giving them a voice at the table when decisions about their futures are being made and making sure they are advised of their legal rights and provided essential documents, including a birth certificate, Social Security card, and driver’s license or state ID, which they’ll need to successfully transition from care at age 18 or older.
CDF applauds how the new law helps promote permanent families for more children in foster care. It extends funding for Family Connection Grants and will prevent children from lingering in long-term foster care. It improves the Adoption Incentive Program and adds fiscal incentives for the first time for states that move more children from foster care to legal guardians. It also requires states to fund post-adoption and post-guardianship services to keep children from re-entering foster care.
The new bipartisan law shows good things can happen when members of Congress work together. CDF is looking forward now to joining with others to ensure many more children in foster care truly benefit from these improvements and end up in safe permanent families.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.