Prior to being elected to Congress, Jim practiced child psychiatry in the Seattle area for more than twenty years. He evaluated and treated children in a variety of settings including private practice, residential treatment, and juvenile detention. During his medical career, Jim treated a number of children who were part of the child welfare system in Washington state, and it was this firsthand experience that later motivated him to focus on improving the system as a member of Congress. From 2007-2010, Jim chaired the Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee, and it was from this panel that he was able to successfully pursue legislative reforms to America’s foster care system that have been hailed as the most significant and important improvements to the program in over two decades. Jim knows there’s more to do and he remains focused on improving this system that helps the most vulnerable in our society.
Improving Foster Care
One of Jim’s biggest accomplishments was crafting the "Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act," which was signed into law in 2008. The Act was the product of numerous congressional hearings where Jim investigated the shortcomings of America’s foster care system and heard from countless experts, as well as foster care children themselves, about the best ways to fix the ailing system. It was from these hearings, meetings with advocates, and his work with Republican Congressman Jerry Weller (IL) that enabled Jim to lead the effort that ultimately resulted in the Fostering Connections bill being signed into law.
The Fostering Connections law was comprehensive as it sought to affect change in the nation’s foster care system that had numerous problems and was being administered in different ways in each of the 50 states. The key provisions of the law included:
- Providing financial support to relatives – generally grandparents, aunts and uncles – who serve as guardians to foster care children;
- Increasing the adoption of foster children by reauthorizing and improving the Adoption Incentives program to allow more families to receive adoption assistance, particularly for the adoption of older children and children with special needs;
- Requiring states to maintain a coordinated health and education plan for each foster care child that ensures that they are full-time students and that their medical history follows them if they are moved from one county or jurisdiction to another;
- Incentivizing states to continue providing assistance beyond a foster care child’s 18th birthday by matching state funds with federal dollars for foster care youth up to the age of age 21;
- Providing states with more money to train individuals involved in the child welfare, including court personnel, attorneys, court appointed special advocates, and prospective relative guardians as well as foster and adoptive parents; and,
- Allowing more Native American children to receive foster care in their own communities by providing Tribes with the same direct access to federal funding for foster care and adoption services that states currently receive.
The law was structured in a way that required to states to make changes and meet certain benchmarks over a period of time. In designing the Fostering Connections law, Jim never expected that the system as a whole would transform overnight or that further improvements wouldn’t be necessary.
In the 2008 Fostering Connections law, Jim included a provision that required each state to create a health coordination plan that followed foster care children if they moved from one jurisdiction to another. These health coordination plans had to include oversight of prescription drugs. Since the law has passed, there have been many reports of foster care children being overmedicated or prescribed extremely powerful medications, and Jim recently worked to correct this. On September 30, 2011, President Obama signed a child welfare bill into law that included a provision authored by Jim which required states to create protocols and actively monitor the use of psychotropic medications – drugs that are used to treat mental disorders and primarily act on the central nervous system and affect brain functioning. These powerful drugs should be administered with caution and Jim’s provision strengthens the health coordination aspect of the Fostering Connections law.
Allowing States to
While every state is in compliance with the mandates established by the Fostering Connections law, there are only a handful of states that are going beyond what the law calls for and developing innovative ways to help individuals in their child welfare programs. Washington State, for example, has been particularly active in establishing innovative programs that have reduced foster care caseloads and increased successful outcomes for children. Jim supports these states and successfully worked to renew the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ authority to grant these states the authority to test out new programs and still receive federal financial support. Jim recognizes that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to helping foster care children and he remains committed to helping states better serve this vulnerable population.