Parental Rights’ Terrific Day in Congress

What an exciting day!

You know those mornings when you just roll out of bed, the coffee is perfect, the weather is beautiful, the birds are singing, the traffic is light, you catch every light green…? Generally, me neither.

But for the cause of parental rights, July 19 in Washington, DC, was that kind of day.

That morning, I arrived at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress for a congressional briefing on the issue of “Hidden Foster Care,” sponsored by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) and the members of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. The program featured a panel of Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Andrew Brown, Maryland lawyer and kinship foster parent Aubrey Edwards-Luce, and Columbia University Law School professor Josh Gupta-Kagan, author of 2020’s “America’s Hidden Foster Care System” for the Stanford Law Review.

I was part of a coalition of about 30 parental rights and family defense lawyers, activists, and organizations there to educate Congress on this problem in America’s family courts—a coalition that includes the guests on the panel that morning. (Furthermore, your Parental Rights Foundation was one of three organizations to split the cost of sponsoring the breakfast and briefing.)

In attendance were several congressional staffers, but also at least half a dozen members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. And that was only the start of our day.

With the briefing completed, our coalition partners divided into teams of three or four, with each team going to visit congressional or Senate offices throughout the rest of the day. Each team was made up of politically diverse partners to show the bipartisan nature of our concern over Hidden Foster Care and our support for a legislative solution.

What Is “Hidden Foster Care?”

When a state or local Child Protective Services agency (“CPS”) initiates an investigation of abuse or neglect, they consider whether to take the child(ren) into foster care. This requires the investigator to get court approval to remove the children, and a judge exercises oversight of the child’s placement and the plans for family reunification. This is what “foster care” looks like.

Sometimes, though, CPS wants to avoid standard foster care, so they offer the parents an alternative: rather than send their children into foster care with a stranger, they will let the parents enter a “voluntary plan” to place their children with a close friend or relative.

On the surface, it looks like a good move. And in some cases, maybe it is. A child will generally be less traumatized living with relatives they know and love than with a stranger.

But there are a lot of problems with this Hidden Foster Care system, starting with the lack of judicial oversight. This is one of the reasons we call it “hidden”: because it doesn’t show up in the courts. No judge oversees the removal, the plan of reunification (if there is one), or the question of whether a parent’s rights have been observed.

There is also the very real problem that, while CPS calls it “voluntary,” there is nothing voluntary about it. Yes, parents have to sign off on it, but they are often told, very clearly, that if they don’t agree, their children will be taken away anyway.

We don’t actually know how big these problems are, though, because there is very little data on the practice. And that’s another reason we call it “hidden”: because without data, there is also no congressional or other legislative oversight.

The Need for Data

State foster care agencies are required once a year to report data to the federal government so that we know how many children are in foster care, how long they have been there, what causes sent them there, the demographics of the families involved, and so on. 

But with the Hidden Foster Care alternative, states are not required to report anything at all. A few states report anyway, and from them we extrapolate that this hidden system may have just as many children in it as the standard foster care system.

Imagine: Foster care in America may involve twice as many children as are currently reported, and we don’t know anything about the other half! 

We don’t know why they are separated from their parents, who they are living with now, or how long they will be in their out-of-home placement.

They could be separated from their parents for weeks, months, or even for the rest of their childhood. We simply do not know.

Bipartisan Agreement in DC!

This was the issue we took to Congress. And it was an exciting day, as we found lawmaker after lawmaker, from either side of the aisle and from either side of the Hill (i.e., Senate or House), eager to help with a solution. Specifically, we asked them to consider a bill Gwen Moore will bring that will call for states to keep and submit data on this Hidden Foster Care system.

That’s not a full solution, of course. But it is a necessary first step. We cannot properly fix the problem until we know what it looks like, how big it is, who it is affecting, and what its outcomes are. Gathering data will answer those questions.

Our aim, across the 28 visits our teams made on July 19, was to find bipartisan, bicameral support. It’s the kind of decision that can take a congressional office weeks to make, but we wanted to educate them and lay the groundwork while we were all in town.

So, you can imagine our excitement when, at the end of the day, we got an email from a Republican senator’s office expressing a tentative interest in being the lead Senate sponsor on Rep. Gwen Moore’s bill!

Next Steps

At this date, the bill has not been introduced. It came back from bill drafting on the day of our meetings, and Rep. Moore’s office forwarded it to our coalition to look over and edit. We have spent the last week doing just that.

Once the language is finalized, though, the bill will be introduced and receive a bill number, with both Republicans and Democrats signing on as sponsors. 

Once that ball gets rolling, there may come a time when we need to ask you to contact your senator or congressman and ask for their support on the bill. So please stay with us, and we’ll keep you posted on that need or other developments on this effort.

(If you’d like to give a one-time gift to defray the cost of the congressional briefing and breakfast, please do so here.)

Thank you for standing with us to protect children, including those lost to outside eyes in the Hidden Foster Care system, by empowering parents!

1 Comment

  1. […] with Josh Gupta-Kagan of Columbia Law School just days after he and I (and many of our colleagues) visited Capitol Hill to educate Congress on the subject of “Hidden Foster Care.” Josh became the de facto expert in […]