Capitol Hill Child Welfare Briefings Cover Faith, Kinship and Opioid Addiction

Kinship caregivers and the church community can play a bigger role in supplying homes for youth who have to leave abusive and neglectful homes, and better substance abuse treatment efforts can prevent some kids from needing to leave at all.

This was the message imparted over the course of two consecutive days in briefings on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress and staffers heard from families, faith-based advocates and one of the most famous people on daytime TV, Dr. Phil McGraw.

Sitting before a slate of Congressional members, McGraw discussed the power an addiction to opioid-class drugs – heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone are among the most popular – has over people.

“It’s estimated that opioids hit the pleasure center 1,400 times more powerfully than a typical stimuli,” said McGraw.

An addiction might begin because of use to treat pain or to have a good time, he said, “but people continue to do it for a different reason; to avoid the negatives associated with not doing the drug. The withdrawal is so powerful and painful, users will do almost anything to avoid that pain.”

The path back for opioid-addicted parents, he said, is not through central booking.

“The number one thing for you to take away here is that this is not behavior we can fix by criminalizing it. It needs to be treated.”

He had unflattering words for foster care as well. “Putting a child in foster care should be a last and bad option. Foster care is broken, and it does nothing to reunify the family because it does nothing to repair the mother. … In the 40-plus years I’ve been involved in substance-abuse issues, keeping the family unified should be the absolute objective in everything we consider doing legislatively.”


Dr. Phil encouraged flexible funding and reunification over foster care and jail when it comes to parental addiction.

McGraw seemed to be referencing the tandem of jail and foster care, though, because he stressed support for a reunification-based approach to addressing parental addiction, which implicitly involves some level of out-of-home care.

“If you don’t have reunification as your number one objective, then you need to make it your number one objective,” said McGraw.

McGraw also said there are opioid treatment programs, such as the SHIELDS program in Los Angeles, that permit a mother to stay with her child while dealing with addiction treatment.

More programs would follow suit if it was a caveat for funding, he said.

“Necessity is mother of invention,” said McGraw. “If we challenge programs to do this, they’ll have to do it.”

Recruiting Caregivers

The day before, a separate briefing hosted by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) discussed the role of kin and congregations in bolstering the pool of caregivers available to child welfare systems. [Note: Fostering Media Connections (FMC), which publishes The Imprint, co-sponsored the event.]

Just under 30 percent of foster children in the U.S. are placed with relatives. In Allegheny County, Penn. (Pittsburgh), the number is 62 percent.

“We got there through consistent county leadership, valuing families and being in a state and county committed to youth growing up in kinship,” said Sharon McDaniel, the founder and CEO of A Second Chance, which manages most kinship placements for the county.

McDaniel has amassed a network of assistance for relative caregivers that includes peer supports for adults and youth, and financial assistance with housing.


Eugenia Saunders took in her grandson, then four teenagers, with the help of A Second Chance. Photo by Erica Baker

The effort has produced strong outcomes over a long period of time on two critical aspects of life for youth in care: stability and education. Eighty-nine percent of children placed through A Second Chance reach permanency outcomes within 18 months, and 95 percent of youths who are eligible to graduate from high school do so.

“I don’t think I would have wanted to do this without A Second Chance,” said Eugenia Saunders, who took in her grandson and would go on to adopt four teenagers. “They provided me with several different supports, not just monetary, but support groups, people experiencing the same things as me.”

Saunders said when she lost everything in a fire, it was unlikely she could take in her grandson until the organization helped pay to set her up in a new place.

“Without Second Chance, I wouldn’t have been able to get back on my feet and move forward,” she said.

The briefing also highlighted the recent expansion of Project 1.27, a Colorado-based organization founded in 2004 by Pastor Robert Gellinas. The organization connects with churches to recruit and help train foster and adoptive parents.


Wiebe, Christian Alliance for Orphans: Churchgoers are “fertile source” for foster and adoptive parents. Photo by Erica Baker

“There is not a lot of trust between government and churches,” said Project 1.27 Family Care Manager Rhonda Miescke. “But the church is an avenue” for more caregivers, “and their leaders can speak to it in their churches without any problem.”

Project 1.27 credits 330 adoptions and close to 800 trained foster homes to its recruitment efforts in Colorado. Since 2011, it has set up affiliate organizations in Washington, D.C., and six states: Louisiana, Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, New York and Arizona. [Click here to read The Imprint’s story on the expansion of Project 1.27 and another faith-based venture, Safe Families for Children.]

“We’re seeing the church community as a fertile source” for recruiting foster and adoptive parents,” said Elizabeth Wiebe, vice president for engagement at the Christian Alliance for Orphans. Churchgoers are 50 percent more likely to foster and two times more likely to adopt, she said, when compared with the general population.


Foster and adoptive mother Misty Martin discusses how Project 1.27 drew them in and prepared them. Photo by Erica Baker

Recruitment of more foster families is challenged by the current public perception of the system, two of the briefing speakers said.

“It’s thought of as stealing someone else’s kids,” said Arnie Eby, chair of the National Foster Parent Association. “We deal with lots of negative perception.”

A recent survey by CCAI asked respondents to identify the biggest barrier to becoming a foster or adoptive parent.

“The number one answer was the societal view of child welfare,” said CCAI Executive Director Becky Weichhand. “That really points to the need for greater awareness.”

On the retention side, Eby said a “top priority” for keeping active foster parents happy is better access to child care.

“One way to really help foster, kinship and adoptive parents is fully funded day care,” Eby said, pointing out that this would also enable “single family entities to provide care.”

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