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Protecting Foster Youth Must Be a Priority All Year Long | Commentary

By Rep. Diane Black Here is a statement members of both political parties in Washington can agree on: Nothing is more important to a child’s upbringing and long term success than a loving, stable home.  

Unfortunately, too many children in my home state of Tennessee and across the country are lacking this basic human need. This May marks National Foster Care Month and is an important opportunity to open a dialogue about the need to reform our foster care system and protect the more than 400,000 children in its care.  

Recently, I had the privilege to meet Zach, a young man from my district who spent nine years in the foster care system. Last week, he joined 63 of his peers from districts across the country in coming to Washington D.C. to educate Congress about the challenges faced by the foster youth waiting on a forever family. Now 20 years old, Zach has triumphed over the odds and is living a full and healthy life but, as he would be the first to tell you, too many others have not been as fortunate.  

For example, we know that foster youth remain at a greater risk for neglect and abuse. An estimated 20,000 U.S. children died from this very cause between 2001 and 2014. Despite this shocking number, many experts agree that child abuse and neglect fatalities are significantly undercounted and the actual figure may be as much as 50 percent higher. Some estimates show the true number of child fatalities may be 3,000 or more a year, the equivalent of more than eight children every day.  

While one lost life is one too many, important work is being done to reduce cases of neglect and build a system better suited to match foster children with loving families. The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities is one such leader working to accomplish this mission. The Commission was established by the Protect Our Kids Act of 2012, which aimed to develop a comprehensive national strategy to reduce deaths from child abuse and neglect. As part of its fact-finding mission, the Commission has visited a number of jurisdictions to study issues around the accuracy of data, risk factors, demographic trends, the effectiveness of federal, state and local policies and best practices for preventing child abuse and neglect.  

Last month, the Commission visited my home state of Tennessee, where they held a meeting in Memphis to hear from representatives of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services  about new efforts designed to strengthen child protection services and stop tragedies resulting from neglect before they occur. During that trip, the Commission also visited a local Child Advocacy Center — one of 750 CACs across the country accredited by the National Children’s Alliance.  

The use of CACs is a promising development in the fight to reduce child abuse and neglect, but we cannot stop there. A coordinated community response that includes educators, public health officials, first responders, and others who come into contact with children and can identify those at risk is needed if we are to significantly reduce deaths and ensure the safety and of the nation’s children both in and out of the foster care system.  

As co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Care Youth, I am working with my colleagues to make sure that the efforts of CECANF and others are matched with a strong voice on Capitol Hill.  

Most recently, I led a bipartisan coalition of House members in introducing the Adoption Tax Credit Refundability Act of 2015. Democrats and Republicans understand the importance of making the tax code work for families that open their hearts and their homes to adoption, not against them. That is why this legislation would make the adoption tax credit fully refundable, removing financial barriers to adoption for families and opening up more opportunities for foster children to find a permanent home.  

With inspiring advocates such as Zach, strong community outreach, and an adoption-friendly tax code we can continue to reduce cases of neglect and match more foster youths with a stable, forever family. Foster Care Month may soon be coming to a close, but ensuring that all children have a safe, loving place to grow up is a cause that should be at the forefront of our minds year round.  

Rep. Diane Black is a Republican from Tennessee. 

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