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Reform U.S. Child Welfare System


PETER SAMUELSON
GUEST COLUMNIST

Whether Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Americans can support unanimously and with a whole heart the well-being of children. That said, child welfare experts tell us that a threat equal in cruelty and treachery to today's terrorism endangers the safety of children: abuse, neglect and the perils of our nation's child welfare and foster care systems.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 3 million children were involved in reports of abuse and neglect in 2002. Of those children, 896,000 were thought to be victims and, tragically, 1,390 of those victims died. Many more maltreated children die an emotional death and suffer from post-traumatic stress, severe anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Too many contemplate or attempt suicide.

On any given day, a half a million children are in foster care. The dictionary defines the word "foster" with such descriptions as "to bring up, nurture; to promote the growth and development of; to nurse, cherish." Foster care is intended to provide security and protection from an unsafe home.

But too many children become stuck, moving from home to home, and never find permanency. Children and society pay a heavy price for this unstable, precarious reality. The federal government sets standards to protect children and find safe, permanent homes for them. Yet not one state has fully complied with these standards.

Rep. William H. Gray, D-Penn., former majority whip and chairman of the House Budget Committee, who serves as vice chairman of the non-partisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, notes, "The foster care system is in disrepair. Every state has now failed the federal foster care reviews and we've seen far too many news stories of children missing from the system or injured while in care."

Much of the work to put children first involves changing their secondary status under our legal system. First Star, a charity I founded in 1999, is working on three critically important issues for children in the upcoming 109th Congress: To guarantee abused children in all 50 states the right to a competent attorney during court proceedings; to eliminate legal and regulatory barriers that frequently prevent child advocates from exchanging information that can be vital to keeping at-risk children out of potentially dangerous abusive situations; and to increase system accountability.

First Star recently sponsored our third congressional roundtable on children on Capitol Hill, chaired by Reps. Mary Bono, R-Calif., and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif. Members of Congress used this event to draft a letter that urges President Bush to work to eradicate the national plague of child maltreatment. The co-chairs plan to ask every member of the upcoming 109th Congress to join in reforming the current child welfare and foster care system.

As the father of four children, it is my fervent hope that the president will prioritize the rights of all children during his second administration. Likewise, we urge every member of the 109th Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to join in reforming the current child welfare and foster care systems. Their disrepair poses a true threat to our nation and to the safety and happiness of our nation's most vulnerable children.

Let's nurture these children and give them the chance to healthy and bright futures ahead. What better investment can we make?

Peter Samuelson is a Hollywood producer and co-founder and president of First Star, the children's rights legal advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.; www.firststar.org.