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Move the money

EVERY DAY after school, he went up to his bedroom to check if his things had been packed -- meaning yet another move to yet another foster home, one former foster child told members of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care this spring. Another said she "completely disconnected myself from people because I had to" in order to cope with changing schools and foster families six times.

When the nation's foster care system was set up, more kids were orphaned into it than taken from their homes for neglect or abuse. For children today, it doesn't work.

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Foster care can never be the permanent answer; it is intended to be a short-term break as families work to create a safe, secure home for their children or while they wait for adoption or permanent guardianship. And though local and state foster care agencies bear the brunt of public scrutiny, much of their structural problems start at the federal level, with how money is allocated for the care of kids. Congress should change the Social Security Act to give states flexibility in how they spend this money.

Currently, state money for a child in foster care is matched one-to-one by federal dollars. But money spent on family intervention, counseling, reunification, guardianship and adoption is not, except in certain small pilot programs. That doesn't align with Maryland's goal, which is to place children in safe and stable situations, ideally back with their families, rather than letting them languish in temporary foster care.

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The Pew panel, led by former congressmen from both sides of the aisle, is recommending that Congress allocate $200 million -- a part of its foster care pot -- as block grants to states to invest in the many other programs that would help kids attain a stable home life. Further, if states reduce their reliance on foster care, they should not lose funds as they do now but be allowed to divert them to other family programs.

Yet the status quo is so dismal that even those modest steps may fall short. Every state has failed its first federal Child and Family Services Review, which seeks to measure how well desperate families are served by their state agencies. More than a half-million children nationwide are in foster care, about 10,500 in Maryland. Nationally, half stay in foster care for more than a year, and the longer they stay the more likely they are to move from foster home to foster home. Toddlers are the fastest-growing group of kids in care -- and the most likely to stay the longest.

The system is broken. In Maryland, Department of Human Resources' computers cannot adequately track kids in care, local departments of social services struggle with too few workers and too many cases. Children in foster care have babies of their own -- sometimes with results as tragic as the killings of infant twins last month.

Children in state care become everyone's kids, at least temporarily, and they deserve our best effort. Rearranging federal dollars so they can get the help they need would be a solid step forward.


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