Rescuing Abused Children: Can Congress Help Our Kids?

Report Marriage and Family

Rescuing Abused Children: Can Congress Help Our Kids?

July 27, 1999 11 min read
Tom DeLay
Policy Analyst

I want to thank Heritage for having me here today to talk about child welfare. Child abuse prevention is important to me on personal and professional levels. I find it interesting that many in the media find it puzzling that a conservative like me takes such interest in children's issues. The simple fact is that child welfare has been a one-party issue for too long.

We have allowed the liberal paradigm to define the debate, and the result is the false stereotyping of conservatives as not interested in the suffering of this nation's at-risk kids. I will not accept the notion that my affiliation with conservatism is inconsistent with my passion for reforming the child welfare system. We must begin to see that child welfare--beyond being a moral imperative for each of us as individuals--is significant to the maintenance of civil society.

The breakdown of the family starts with children who are mistreated. Without proper intervention and treatment, these kids grow up to become criminals and, in turn, mistreat their own children. This cycle of tragedy is apparent to anyone who is willing to take a look. It used to be that churches, communities, and extended family would intervene when a parent was incapable of caring for a child. But for the modern family, these options are less readily available and, thus, with the abdication of the alternative caregivers, a government-run foster care system was established in many cases to the further detriment of our children.

My wife, Christine, and I became involved as foster parents when, as a volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Christine tried for two weeks to find a home for an adolescent girl who had been kicked out of her last foster home and couldn't find anyone willing to take her. We realized if we didn't do it, nobody would. We have two adolescents now, and continue to look for ways to reform a system we believe to be inherently flawed. I am more convinced now than ever that the social problems that take their toll on society in terms of crime and higher taxes will be less burdensome if our motto is prevention instead of cure. Children are not, and cannot be seen as, simply another liberal policy issue.

As a conservative legislator, addressing child welfare is the truest expression of my convictions. The challenge before us at the federal level is to craft legislation that will alleviate the suffering of our children while simultaneously giving states flexibility with standards, decreasing the tax burden by spending money wisely, eradicating the culture of dependency, and stimulating volunteerism and community involvement.

This all can be done, and I want to talk to you about some of the initiatives this Congress has considered and is considering that I believe will do all the above.

So often we talk about this issue in terms of projections and numbers. But first, let me tell you a story that might bring the reality of a typical foster child into focus:12-year-old "Jason" was in the back seat of the car with his 8-year-old sister, "Jane," 2 years ago this month. He closed his eyes as the car wove and sped through intersections, and plugged his ears to block out the screams of his mother in the front passenger seat. His father was drunk, and was attempting to drive the family home from the store. He was angry with the children's mother for questioning his ability to drive while intoxicated, and was burning her thigh and arm with a cigarette lighter. The car ended up in a ditch, and the children, when it was discovered that their bodies were covered with similar burns and multiple, intentionally inflicted bruises, were placed in foster care.

When the social worker began interviewing the children, she asked Jason about his relationship with his father. "He doesn't give a damn about me," he said, his voice cracking. He went on to describe his father's brutal treatment, stopping his words only long enough to illustrate them by pointing to the numerous scars all over his small body. The social worker soon discovered that the child had been in and out of foster homes for years. His father had established a pattern of showing remorse in court for his behavior, reuniting with his children, and then physically and emotionally abusing them again. Jason, not surprisingly, was failing in school, had taken to shoplifting, and was starting to use alcohol himself.

This is an actual case Autumn, a member of my staff who is a former Child Protective Services worker, investigated in Virginia. Not only is this story real, it's not an exception, and it is not as bad as it could be. My wife, Christine, a CASA volunteer, has had six cases in the past few years that have been worse. This case depicts for us the failure of government to intervene effectively on Jason's behalf and underscores the need for the reform of a system that unwittingly contributes to the cycle of violence, neglect, and delinquency that threatens our future by destroying the lives of our children.

The court, social services, and law enforcement had to send Jason home with his dad time after time under the federal mandate that requires that states to make "reasonable efforts" to reunite families that have mistreated their children. Time after time, Jason's father beat him up; and, time after time, Jason was removed from his own home and sent to live with strangers (and different strangers each time) in foster care. Jason is now 14, and without stability in his environment; and, with the stripping away of any trust or respect for the authority figures in his life, he becomes a statistic--an "at-risk" child who, by virtue of his age and emotional problems, is considered "unadoptable" by the time the state decides his father's parental rights can be terminated.

So what happens to Jason now? He stays in foster care because his mother won't leave his father, and there are no relatives who will accept him, either. Statistics show that, with his history, Jason is likely to drop out of school, use alcohol and drugs, father children at a young age, abuse his own children, and become a felon. The cycle of destruction begins again, and our tax dollars are used to support Jason from foster care to prison, however long that process takes. How can we help Jason?

First and foremost, an all-out effort must be put forth to encourage adoption over foster care. There are many capable, caring couples looking for children to nurture. Of course, we know that there are too many young ones who desperately need a home. New efforts should be concentrated to bring these couples and these kids together to make permanent families. After all, caring families--especially adoptive ones--are better than government programs.

As with most social problems, program costs often skyrocket without any evidence that they are even working. Oversight of these large programs is often lacking, and so are fresh ideas. Sometimes, it is clear that the most effective reform by the federal government is simply to cut red tape and make it easier for local communities to improve situations they understand best. One size does not fit all, and each state and community will have different needs that must be met accordingly.

Congress made progress toward helping Jason and others like him in April 1997 with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in November 1997. One provision of the bill, entitled Termination of Parental Rights, stipulates that states must initiate proceedings to terminate parental rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months, except in specified circumstances. The states' "reasonable effort" requirement has been rewritten to ensure that such efforts make the health and safety of the child paramount. States are not required to make efforts to keep families together in cases of "aggravated circumstances" (such as abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, and sexual abuse), murder, or assault of another of their children. We must continue to press for vigilance in pursuit of early termination and immediate adoption.

Difficult circumstances await Jason--and thousands of others like him--if they are not adopted before age 18. At 18, Jason will be released--or, to use social service lingo, "emancipated"--from foster care. After being bounced from home to home, where at least his basic needs were met, he suddenly will be on his own.

Jason may not have finished high school, is highly likely to be deficient in fundamental living skills like cooking, balancing a checkbook and driving a car, and probably will not be employable. He not only is leaving the only support structure he has ever known, but he also is leaving behind housing and Medicaid as well. Not only is he at risk to become homeless, but he also will be forced to go "cold turkey" off whatever medication he is on--including medication to stabilize his mental health.

In effect, we are sentencing Johnny to failure and chronic dependency on government if we do not arm him with the skills and resources he needs as he transitions out of foster care. We have seen the results time and again: young adults--formerly foster children--on welfare, homeless, and in prison.

I am pleased that the House passed the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 on June 25, 1999, by a vote of 380 to 6. Sponsored by my colleagues Nancy Johnson (R-CT) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), this legislation, by tightening up loopholes in other programs, would double the money available to states to help children leaving foster care to establish themselves as self-reliant adults. Instead of the current "optional" preparedness programs, this legislation would require that states conduct classes and training sessions for adolescents before they leave foster care, and for adolescents who have just been emancipated. Finally, it would ask states to ensure that every adolescent in foster care at age 18 either gets a job or attends college; and it would amend Medicaid law so that the 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds who leave care will still be eligible for coverage.

I testified about my personal experience with our foster daughter on this issue, and I call on the Senate and the Clinton Administration to ensure that this bill becomes law.

Another effort Congress will undertake this year is passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement (CAPE) Act. This bill would work to ameliorate the conditions faced by our children at risk while simultaneously increasing flexibility as far as state access to federal funding is concerned.

Scheduled for consideration before the House in early fall, the CAPE Act was introduced by my friend and colleague, Deborah Pryce (R-OH). I joined her as an original co-sponsor of this legislation, which has been endorsed by groups ranging from the Child Welfare League of America to the Family Research Council.

The CAPE Act would permit state and local officials to use Byrne law enforcement grants for child abuse prevention if they so chose; it would double the earmark in the Crime Victims Fund for Child Abuse Victims from $10 million to $20 million--all of which would come from forfeited assets, not taxpayer dollars. This funding could be used by states for important things such as training for CASA volunteers and Child Protective Services workers.

I believe that the federal government has a very limited but important role to play in addressing the social problems presented by child abuse and neglect. The legislation discussed here today constitutes some important steps toward reform and increased flexibility. The next and most important steps involve you and me on a personal level--in our communities and in our homes.

As private citizens, we must step in where government continues to fail.

In the United States, there are more than 770 court-appointed volunteer programs, with 47,107 volunteers who provide millions of private-sector hours and court advocacy for abused children. In Texas, it is estimated that Court Advocate Programs save the federal and state governments over $80 million a year because we reduce the time children spend in foster care and expedite needed services. What works best are locally based solutions that involve local citizens working with local children on a face-to-face, person-to-person basis.

For the past two years, my wife and I have had three foster kids in our home and have been involved as volunteers for CASA. We believe that, as public figures, we have a responsibility to talk about our involvement with the hope that our stories might encourage others to get involved as well.

Our campaign, "Shine the Light on Children in the Darkness," is an attempt to raise awareness about the opportunities available for people who want to make a difference in their communities.

The bottom line is that every child deserves a safe, permanent home. Foster care is meant to be a temporary safe haven, not a way of life for a child whose parents can get it together for only a few months at a time. Unfortunately, foster care has become a way of life, a culture that must be incrementally changed as we seek to reform, and ultimately replace, this flawed system. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Foster Care Reform Act of 1999, and the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act are springboards for progress.

But more must be done. New ideas need to be formulated. New initiatives must be developed. New efforts must be tried. In the immediate future, we need more private alternatives to the public
foster care treadmill.

The role of the private sector in this effort is often overlooked and its potential is underestimated. There is only so much the bureaucratic machine can do, but there are no limits to the impact each of us can have individually in our communities. The strength of America, the true greatness of America, is in the moral fiber of its people, in the integrity of its leaders--and this is exposed by how we treat those who are most vulnerable in our midst. Today, there are none more vulnerable in our society, none heard less, than children suffering from abuse and neglect. We must be their voice, and we must, as individuals, churches, synagogues, and communities, reclaim the responsibility for them.

In my public career, and in the work of all of you here today, nothing is more important to the future of this great nation than the betterment of all of our nation's children.

Tom DeLay, Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, also represents the 22nd Congressional District of Texas. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984 after serving in the Texas House of Representatives. Mr. DeLay serves on the House Appropriations Committee. The DeLays are foster parents to two teenagers, and they have long been active in Court Appointed Special Advocates.


Tom DeLay

Policy Analyst