Sidelined in the final sprint

As the United States prepares to elect its next president, the
Adoption Equality Bill continues to make its way through Congress.
The little-known bill will iron out anomalies in how groups of
adopted and fostered children receive federal funding. The welfare
reform in 1996 gave rise to these anomalies and the new bill comes
after eight years during which states have patched and mended by
dipping into funds from other programmes.

The bill is a small candle in the gloom that surrounds US
children’s services. That reforms are few is perhaps unsurprising,
even though children’s services could directly affect around 73
million US citizens. But of course under-18s do not have the vote,
and adults in families most in need of state and federal funds and
services are less likely to vote.

Probably only half the eligible electorate will go to the polling
booths on 2 November, and the turnout will be even lower among
those on the lowest incomes.

Amid the campaign razzmatazz, where policies struggle for airtime,
one fact sticks out: neither the Democratic nor the Republican
party refers in its manifesto to children’s services. At best, the
Democrats want improvements in after-school and day care and
increases in child credit, the criteria for which would also be

In the run-up to election day both parties are fighting on
traditional grounds. On the domestic front, elections can stand or
fall on matters such as health, education, tax cuts and, now,
homeland security.

The Democrats have published a three-page critique of the failings
of their opponents on some critical matters affecting children –
from greater poverty to tax credits for working families, literacy
programmes to education – but children’s services don’t get a
mention. And when it comes to saying what they will do as opposed
to what the Republicans have done (or not done), the Democrats are
long on promises on health and education but short to the point of
invisibility on children’s services.

Jan Flory, director of services at the Children’s Aid Society, one
of the US’s biggest child care agencies, says: “It’s a common theme
here that child and family issues are often seen as poor people’s
issues. Poor people don’t vote, and they don’t make large campaign
contributions. Education and health affect the entire population so
they are more universal societal issues. Although even here there
are many class distinctions, so that universal health is not a
reality and quality public education is uneven.

“Legislators are subject to immense lobbying efforts by interests
which can provide vast sums of financing for campaigns. Child and
family organisations can never hope to match that kind of
influence. So these issues must have a kind of moral high ground or
public outrage over a well publicised tragedy such as a child death
before public resources shift. Even then it is not for ever.”

Yet every year brings more than 2.5 million allegations of child
abuse and neglect, 900,000 of which are substantiated and 30 per
cent of which concern physical and sexual abuse. There are also
about 1,300 deaths, although that number may be falling. Twelve
million children live in poverty, five million in extreme

Wider society has a deep effect on children’s well-being. In the US
about half of marriages end in divorce and 60 per cent of children
will spend part of their lives in a single-parent household. Two
million children have a parent in jail (50 per cent more than 10
years ago).

The country is large and diverse, and its governmental system –
substantial powers at state level, with severely limited
possibilities for intervention by the federal government – hampers
comparisons with the UK. Even more than in the UK, provision rests
with the private and not-for-profit sector. The number of
organisations involved is unknown but the 1,200 members of the
Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), which includes state
agencies in its membership, are only a fraction of the total.

There is no federal inspectorate or nation-wide standard-setting
system. A few states have their own inspections and a few have
accreditation schemes. The federal government limits itself to an
audit system to ensure that funds have been spent as they should
and in recent years has begun a review – but that is of the general
state of child welfare and not an assessment of individual

To return to adoption, there are 554,000 children in foster and
residential care at any one time and a further 500,000 living at
home under supervision, but about 800,000 go through the system
each year. Forty thousand American children are adopted from care
each year and 126,000 currently await adoption.

Although most US children are adopted by people they know, a $43m
adoption incentive programme aims to increase the number adopted by
awarding states bonuses for each child for whom a permanent home is
found. A separate $50m adoption opportunities programme provides
discretionary grants for demonstration projects which eliminate
barriers to adoption and provide permanent homes, particularly for
children with special needs.

But the kind of money devoted to children’s services is small
change next to other domestic and education programmes. An increase
in the transport budget, for example, can be larger than what is
spent on children’s services in total. President Bush’s tax cuts
alone will transfer $1,700bn from federal coffers to the wealthiest
Americans by 2014. As John Sciamanna, senior policy analyst with
the CWLA, puts it: “If they give you [children’s services] $100,000
they think they’re giving you the moon.”

Yet more money is not the only issue which the CWLA would want the
successful candidate to take with him into the Oval Office. There
is also the poorly stitched patchwork of eight main federal funding
programmes for children’s services, each with its own rules, policy
interpretations and different administering agencies. Access to
them and how they are administered vary from state to state. This
alone makes the planning, creation and sustaining of services

Bush’s big social policy initiative – announced in 2001 – has been
the use of federal funds to stimulate faith-based organisations.
Sciamanna says it is too early to tell how this will affect
children’s services, but adds: “Many of our members are leery and
asking if this is a way of simply moving around costs because Bush
is not willing to provide more money.” At best, he says, it is a
diversion from the fact that children’s services need more federal

The league sees much of its role at election times as not only
about raising awareness among candidates but also about informing
its members about voter registration and postal votes so that they
can get those with whom they work to the polls.

Flory says decent paying jobs for low-income families and universal
health care would be her big election wishes. She would also like a
minimum income for all families and children “but I don’t even see
that on the horizon”.

Getting politicians to talk about children’s services, let alone do
something, is difficult. In the primary elections, now almost lost
in the mists of recent history, Democratic contender John Kerry
referred to prevention and Bush spoke about child mental health. If
the nation’s children and families in need sit unnoticed at the
bottom of the pile, it is because they are also at the bottom of
the electoral agenda.

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