The article was previously published on Roll Call.
Presidential candidates are quick to complain that an extended campaign means giving the same rote answers to the same rote questions, the same stump speech to the same political reporters. But if the candidates take advantage of this time, the campaign is actually an opportunity to have a discussion about a national crisis that, to date, has gone under the radar: how our next leader plans to care for the hundreds of thousands of at-risk children and families across the country. The current challenge is twofold.
First, the federal government is struggling to make its budget work. That means elected officials from both sides of the aisle are looking for cost-savings opportunities, and those primarily come from cuts to social and children’s services. At the same time, failures of basic institutions, such as families and schools, mean that children are fending for themselves at a younger age. In short, the family protective system has fewer and fewer resources to support children who are tougher to handle at increasingly younger ages. The result shouldn’t surprise anyone. The foster care system today is essentially a black hole for the nearly half a million at-risk children. Law enforcement may remove a child from an abusive environment, for instance, but the system then shuffles — and reshuffles — the child between three or four foster homes. Each of these environments has its own rules and each culture change deprives the child of a third and fourth chance at stability.
This fragmented system ultimately provides fragmented care. In the past, government leaders have cited the fragmented care as a reason to further cut — rather than invest in and fix — services for children and families. Of course, with fewer resources, children with serious behavioral, emotional and mental health challenges are sent to lower-cost options, such as welcome centers and foster parents, in which they do not have access to trained staff and structured, family environments. These policies only further disadvantage the already disadvantaged. At-risk children and families cannot afford to continue along in this cycle. But the next leader can flip the script by taking three common sense steps:
- Individualize the Plan: From current prescriptions to past experiences, care providers currently struggle to understand the lives of the kids they serve. That makes developing a successful plan even more challenging. But leaders need to provide support services across the spectrum. Sometimes simply providing a child with a safe after-school program and mentoring can be enough to turn a life around. For other children, it’s a private residential home with trained and certified mental health personnel. A one-size-fits-all model just won’t work.
- Prioritize Life Skills: At-risk kids struggle to navigate the basic reality of life, human interactions. For the last century, Boys Town has focused on providing children with a safe space in which they can learn basic social skills and how to build and maintain healthy relationships. Remember, none of us learn these life skills overnight; they take a life time. The system should prioritize these skills so that children can learn to adapt and overcome to the challenges they face.
- Transcend the Political Divide: This is tough during primary season, but both sides of the political spectrum get children’s services right and wrong. Liberal voices promote less restrictive services, such as welcome centers. Conservative voices promote smaller budgets with more accountability, primarily focused on foster care. Both are partially right, but both fail to understand that neither approach will work all the time. We need leaders brave enough to embrace a child welfare policy because the research actually proves it creates a better future for kids, not because it is part of a larger political ideology.
Candidates and political pundits are talking at one another about delegate counts and upcoming primary rules. But no one is focused on providing real solutions for the thousands of at-risk children and families. This year’s presidential candidates should use this once-every-four-year platform to address how they plan to turn these challenges into opportunities — for the good of the children and for society at-large.