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Building Bridges for Children: A Bipartisan Journey through State Child Welfare Legislation

During my six-year tenure in the Oklahoma State Senate, I was privileged to sponsor bipartisan legislation related to various crucial issues such as health care, education, and criminal justice reform. My most noteworthy contribution came through my work on child welfare initiatives. I collaborated with my colleagues across party lines to establish a foster care system for young individuals involved in the juvenile justice system. Additionally, we addressed the definition of “failure to protect” in legal codes and defined the critical components of a children’s emergency resource center designed to support families in crisis. No other work was as significant to me as my commitment to promoting strong families and ensuring the well-being of children.

Americans across the political spectrum recognize and agree that a safe and nurturing environment is crucial for children’s growth and development. Based on my experience in Oklahoma, despite a growing political divide, legislators from different parties can still come together to pursue this goal and address challenges in the child welfare system.

Bipartisanship serves as an essential unifying force and is a cornerstone of effective governance. Government functions at its best when bipartisan collaboration transcends party lines to find common ground. Working cooperatively fosters compromise, ensures that public policies are informed, well-rounded, and representative of diverse perspectives. This cooperative approach not only strengthens the fabric of democracy but also instills public confidence in the legislative process.

Bipartisanship is a testament to shared values, demonstrating that, despite ideological differences, lawmakers can unite for the greater good. There is no greater good than protecting the well-being of children. New data from the Bipartisan Policy Center—including a national public opinion poll and, released today, a 50-state legislative review—indicates numerous opportunities for state legislators to continue bipartisan collaboration to reform child welfare.

The 50-state review found legislators introduced 567 bills addressing child welfare in 2022 and 2023, with 146 enacted. Of the enacted bills, 58 were introduced by Republicans, 33 by Democrats, and 55 had bipartisan cosponsorship. These results indicate that state legislators from both political parties share concerns about children and families served by child welfare and want positive outcomes for these families. Policy issues of interest to both parties include:

  • establishing the Indian Child Welfare Act in state policy,
  • improving system oversight,
  • narrowing the definition of neglect,
  • improving the reliability and quality of reporting and investigating,
  • improving prevention and family preservation services,
  • strengthening financial support to kinship and adoptive families,
  • strengthening and supporting foster parenting,
  • supporting the unique needs of youth in foster care, and
  • addressing workforce issues.

Prevention to intervention and permanency, providing opportunities for lawmakers to address public concerns, implement system improvements, and deploy effective practices are all areas of bipartisan agreement.

State legislators’ role in implementing best practices, such as kinship care, is essential. Legislation introduced by both parties and available research indicates bipartisan agreement that kinship care is a crucial and compassionate solution, supporting familial stability amid tumultuous circumstances. As an alternative to traditional foster care, kinship care places children with relatives or others with an established relationship, preserving vital connections and cultural ties. Kinship care not only provides a familiar environment but also ensures emotional continuity, minimizing the trauma often associated with removal from one’s biological family. Legislators from both parties recognize the importance of preserving family connections.

A more varied approach to preserving family connections, a common concern among state legislators, reflects differences pertaining to the rights of birth parents. While safeguarding rights for all individuals, including children, should be a priority for all policymakers, parental rights are more likely viewed through a partisan lens. While both parties agree that the system should favor keeping families together, partisanship around parental rights reveals a complex ideological divide. While both parties aim to prioritize the well-being of children, differing perspectives on intervention levels and parental autonomy create challenges. Bridging this gap requires nuanced dialogue to find bipartisan solutions ensuring the delicate balance between parental rights and child wellbeing.

The BPC report also emphasizes the significance of bipartisan efforts to address issues that can influence situations that might lead to a family’s involvement with the child welfare system. The public is aware of the connections between substance abuse, poverty, and a family’s involvement with the child welfare system. There is mounting public concern over the increasing cost of child welfare-involved families, and there is support for focusing on crucial areas, such as access to stable housing and mental health services. The public also calls for protective systems to ensure vulnerable children’s well-being and strengthen family units.

Lastly, the 50-state review puts a spotlight on how crucial the relationship between states and the federal government can be for child welfare policy. In many cases, states have acted as laboratories of reform and offered a roadmap for subsequent federal reform. In others, state implementation of federal legislation provides insight into what does and doesn’t work. The Family First Prevention Services Act, for example, enacted in 2018, prioritizes prevention with the goal of keeping families intact through provision of support services. That shift to prevention sought to reduce the need for foster care placement and improve outcomes for children through family preservation. It marked a significant evolution in how society addresses the complexities of family dynamics and child well-being. Yet implementation of Family First has varied significantly and some states have struggled.

State legislation responds to issues and concerns raised by constituents. Analysis of the aggregate of child welfare bills introduced offers insight into the attitudes and interests of communities across the country.      This 50-state legislative review provides valuable insight for policymakers at every level of government. A key takeaway from the legislative review is confirmation that common ground exists among state lawmakers and that state legislation is aligned with the public’s attitudes about child abuse and neglect and documented by BPC’s recent polling. State legislators and the public care deeply about strengthening families and supporting child health and safety. They embrace the complexity of the task we ask of our nation’s child welfare system and believe that additional reforms are needed to ensure that government and community organizations can effectively meet the needs of children and families. I look forward to supporting BPC in its efforts to cultivate bipartisan support for needed reforms.

AJ Griffin is CEO of the Potts Family Foundation. She served in the Oklahoma State Senate 2013-19.

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