President Trump signs order to strengthen US child welfare system

Tackling a lower-profile issue for the White House, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday aimed at strengthening child-welfare programs nationwide.

It comes as child-protection agencies across the U.S. struggle with effects related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar hailed the order as a step toward "bold reforms." The goals are ambitious — curtailing child maltreatment, strengthening adoption programs and encouraging supports for at-risk families so fewer children need to be separated from their homes and placed in foster care.

An advocate for at-risk children and families, University of Michigan law professor Vivek Sankaran, said it was difficult to give an immediate verdict as to whether the proposals are significant or "a lot of fluff with little substance."

Sankaran said he found some basis for optimism in the performance of senior HHS official Jerry Milner, "who is desperately trying to change things" since his appointment three years ago to oversee much of the department’s child welfare work.

The executive order envisions three basic areas of reform:

—Creating "robust partnerships" between state agencies and public, private, faith-based and community organizations. The goals would include development of community-based, abuse-prevention and family support services and holding states accountable for recruiting an adequate number of foster and adoptive families.

—Improving resources provided to caregivers and those in care. The order says HHS will increase the availability of trauma-informed training, support guardianship through funding and grants, and enhance support for kinship care and for the roughly 20,000 young people who age out of foster care each year.

—Improving federal oversight over key statutory child welfare requirements. Among other steps, this proposal directs HHS to advise states on the possible use of federal funds to support high-quality legal representation for parents and children.

Martin Guggenheim, a law professor at New York University who focuses on children’s rights and family law, said he was heartened by the mention of legal representation.

"Rigorous research proves that improving parent representation is one of the best ways to promote the safety, permanency and well-being of children," he said via email. "It significantly reduces the amount of time children must endure the trauma of foster care,"

"But of course we need to see the fine print," he added. "The executive order speaks in broad strokes and I look forward to seeing the details."

According to HHS, there are about 430,000 children now in the U.S. foster care system, including nearly 124,000 who are eligible for adoption,

HHS said its Administration for Children and Families has helped to reduce the number of children entering foster care. For the fiscal year 2019, it expects that entries into foster care will total about 250,000 — down 9% from 2016.

Eileen Pasztor, a California-based child welfare advocate with experience as a foster parent and adoptive parent, said HHS should emphasize the importance of kinship care — the steadily growing practice of placing children with relatives rather than with foster parents who are not part of the extended family.

"But such arrangements only are effective when these relatives — able to provide important cultural identity — have essential financial and other supports," Pasztor said.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused an array of problem for child-protection agencies across the U.S.. Some family court proceedings have been disrupted, at times delaying a child’s exit from foster care to return home. Many biological parents have been denied normally routine in-person visits with children placed in foster care. And some agencies say it’s become harder than ever to recruit new foster parents.

The executive vice president of Children’s Aid, a private agency that provides foster-care services in New York City, said inquiries from prospective foster parents have dropped to around 10 a month during the pandemic, compared to a normal average of 40 to 50 per month.

"Obviously people are concerned about taking in children," said Georgia Boothe. "COVID-19 has tempered their interest."