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Bush airs plan for foster care

GOP candidate woos skeptical NAACP audience

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ARLINGTON, Va. — George W. Bush will propose spending $2.3 billion over five years to help foster children return to their parents or find new adoptive homes.

Bush wants to give states $1 billion to beef up programs that assist families in which children are at risk of neglect or abuse. The aim is to prevent problems that lead to children being removed from their homes and placed in foster care, the Bush campaign said.

To encourage adoption of children for whom it's unsafe to return home, Bush will propose increasing tax credits from $5,000 to $7,500 for adoptive families, which would cost the government an additional $1 billion.

Bush also wants $300 million earmarked for young people who leave foster homes when they reach 18. They could use federal vouchers worth up to $5,000 to pay for college or vocational training.

The new initiatives, to be announced Tuesday at a Michigan center for foster kids, are part of Bush's three-week "compassionate conservative" tour during which the presumptive GOP presidential nominee will unveil a series of social welfare proposals aimed at assisting low-income Americans.

Bush told a skeptical NAACP audience in Baltimore Monday that he recognizes the Republican Party has not always been seen as friendly toward blacks. He promised to work to improve relations, saying, "Our nation is harmed when we let our differences divide us."

"Some in my party have avoided the NAACP and . . . some in the NAACP have avoided my party," Bush said, pausing between the two statements, drawing laughter and applause. "Before we get to the future, we must acknowledge our past."

There was a disruption just before the Texas governor was introduced when several protesters shouting "Remember Gary Graham" held up signs picturing the Texas death row inmate who was executed last month.

The NAACP has called the execution a "gross travesty of justice," but Bush said after his speech that organization officials told him the protesters were "outsiders."

Bush's appearance before the NAACP national convention was the first for a GOP presidential candidate since his father spoke to the convention during his 1988 campaign. In 1996 Bob Dole caused a flap when he declined an invitation.

"I have been looking forward to this," Bush told audience members, many of whom stood and clapped as he took the podium. In a 20-minute speech before approximately 3,500, Bush said that "racism, despite all our progress, still exists."

Bush's proposed new foster care spending "could mean the difference between a child having to go into foster care or being able to remain with their family," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman.

More than 540,000 children are in foster care — many removed from homes because of abuse and neglect. Some return to their parents, but one in four remain in foster care for three to five years. Some even stay as long as seven years, either because it's not safe for them to go home or because of poor case management.

The foster care system costs $7.5 billion, $4 billion of which is paid by the federal government.

Bush's proposals are similar to programs enacted by Congress in response to harrowing tales of neglect and abuse in some state programs. Under regulations that took effect this year, states must inspect state child welfare agencies, move quickly to find permanent homes for kids and do criminal background checks on prospective foster and adoptive parents.

Those doing a poor job can lose federal child welfare funds. States have complained that the federal government provided no new funds to help pay for the new oversight requirements.

Under Bush's plans, states would receive millions of new dollars for social workers and case managers who would more closely monitor troubled families with a history of neglect and abuse, said Fleischer. "We want to prevent situations from occurring," he said.

Criminal background checks also would be required and loopholes that allow states to forgo the checks would be closed under Bush's plan.

Recent laws have shifted the focus of foster care to protecting children from abuse rather than making their return to their biological families the first priority.

Bush's program would make finding a permanent home for kids a priority — whether that means with their biological parents or in an adoptive home, according to a program summary released by the Bush campaign.

"States should have the resources to help keep children with biological families if safe and appropriate or to place children with adoptive families," the campaign said.