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In our opinion: Rethinking foster care through the lens of family relationships

Utah Foster Care trainer Liz Rivera teaches during one of the eight, four-hour long classes required to train and educate potential foster parents Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2016 at the Utah Foster Care Foundation in Murray.
Utah Foster Care trainer Liz Rivera teaches during one of the eight, four-hour long classes required to train and educate potential foster parents Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2016 at the Utah Foster Care Foundation in Murray.
Luke Franke, Deseret News

Finally, civil leaders are realizing the nurturing strength and financial advantages of home life and family relationships.

There are two demographic groups whose needs disproportionately impact the economic well-being of the country: the young and the old. With the dependency ratio (the ratio of the young and the old compared with the working-aged population) set to rise sharply over the next 15 years, it is gratifying to see efforts to address the needs of these two groups in a more cost-effective and socially beneficial way. Specifically, we have encouraged recent legislative initiatives trying to address care for the young and the old, who, for a variety of circumstances, are often the most vulnerable and at times dependent groups within modern society.

The Family First Prevention Services Act sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, along with three other senators, represents a bipartisan effort to address the pressing needs of the young who are impacted by disrupted family structures. Whether it be a result of addictions, mental health problems, criminal activity or tragic accidents or fatal diseases, the number of children separated from their families is both a social catastrophe as well as a dangerous economic tsunami.

The proposed legislation would give states greater discretion in using foster care funds to not only provide treatment and services to struggling families, but also to help family members who are charged with caring for the children of relatives.

Most often, impacted children are fed into the foster care system among complete strangers and in unfamiliar surroundings. Despite the many dedicated and committed foster families who host them, they often struggle in school and are vulnerable to criminal elements and lack strong pro-social networks and connections.

For many years the foster care system was focused on quickly removing children from home environments that were considered dysfunctional and placing them in “safer” foster care homes. However, over time, compelling evidence suggests that in many cases children would be better served if they were able to remain with relatives, even if they are not their parents. The state could better incentivize such arrangements if kin are given access to resources that would help them manage the added responsibilities.

These measures hold great promise for potentially improving the outcomes of the foster care program as well as reducing overall costs. As Lutheran Services recently stated, the legislation “would be an historic shift in federal policy in support of keeping families safely together, so that more children can reach their full potential, lead abundant lives, and contribute to their community.”

This initiative follows a similarly historic shift in the care for the elderly disabled. The cost of caring for the elderly disabled is expected to become one of the larger and faster-growing entitlement costs as baby boomers move into their declining years.

Under previous legislation, services to this group had to be provided in a licensed facility to qualify for federal funding. More recent legislation passed within the last year, however, allows these services to be provided in home-based environments, allowing the elderly to remain in their own homes, the homes of family members or their local communities. As Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and co-sponsor Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) explained, the bill “is centered on the belief that it is better for individuals and their families to receive both medical care and long-term social services and supports in the home and community whenever possible.”

Both the young and the elderly will be better served by the recognition that the home and its attendant family relationships often provide the best environment for care and nurturing. Enabling home-based care through loving kin and other service providers benefits not only the young and the old but is a cost-effective service to society in general.