The Idaho Legislature’s efforts to improve our foster care system may be a bright spot of the 2017 legislative session.
I say “may be” because a great deal of effective follow-up by the Legislature and Department of Health and Welfare will be necessary to get the job done right.
For years, the foster care system has suffered from underfunding, understaffing, too much bureaucracy, not enough coordination with stakeholders, and too little attention to how the system is working and what can be done to improve outcomes for foster children.
One judge told me that there are dedicated workers on the front lines, but they are often prevented from trying new approaches by bureaucratic red tape from above--the old refrain that we have always done it this way, so let’s keep doing it this way--even if there is no evidence to show that the old way is the best way.
Following the 2016 legislative session, the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations began a comprehensive review of the foster care system to determine problems and possible remedies. Its report issued this February disclosed, among other things, a worsening shortage of foster parents, insufficient support and services being provided to foster parents, insufficient staff to perform the needed services, strained relationships with stakeholders, and no system-level accountability for child welfare outcomes.
The Office made a number of recommendations to address these deficiencies. It was essential to better compensate foster parents and to give them more say in order to be able to provide the best outcome for their foster kids. More staff was needed to support and serve foster parents and children.
The Legislature provided a substantial boost in funding this session for the foster care program--funding for eight additional staff and a twenty percent increase in compensation for foster parents. Sen. Abby Lee of Fruitland played a significant part in getting this funding increase through a committee vote.
In addition, the Legislature approved House Concurrent Resolution 19, which authorizes an interim legislative committee “to undertake and complete a study of the foster care system in Idaho.” The committee will be co-chaired by Sen. Lee and Rep. Christy Perry of Nampa. Both have worked hard on the foster care issue.
While increased funding will certainly help, the findings and recommendations of the interim committee will be critical in determining the future effectiveness of Idaho’s foster care system. It must be outcome-oriented so that foster children are able to thrive. Foster parents must be listened to and properly supported. Social workers and other staff must have manageable workloads and given some flexibility in carrying out their work.
More intensive effort needs to be directed to older children who have had multiple unsuccessful placements. We can’t simply give up on them and wait for the criminal justice system to take over their custody. The hard work is just beginning and it is incumbent on anyone interested in a better foster care system to keep informed on the interim committee’s work and to provide their input to the committee.
This is Idaho’s chance to get it right.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho attorney general and chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court.