Monday, March 08, 2010

From Donna Butts: Help for children here and abroad

The children of Haiti are the most visible, most raw symbols of that earthquake-ravaged country’s persistent needs. Their stories of injury and loss continue to haunt us long after the news segments fade. Their anguished faces remind us that the devastation we view from the comfort of our homes is a daily reality for them.

Understandably, many well-intentioned Americans have been moved to open their homes as well as their hearts to Haitian children. Agencies are overwhelmed by requests from families who want to end the suffering they see on their television screens. Church groups are holding seminars. Nonprofits are raising money for rescue missions. Pending legislation in Washington D.C. seeks to bring Haitian children to the U.S., placing them in foster care before matching them with parents.

Philanthropists, politicians, and pundits have been weighing in on whether adoption is the appropriate response to this crisis. In the midst of news that has become an international controversy, however, lies a larger truth. All children deserve a permanent, loving home with a family that will protect, nurture and guide them.

Natural disasters dramatically threaten the survival of families and children. So, too, can the challenges of life here at home. The scenes of loss and terror, the long and laborious journey to stability, play out not only in Port-Au-Prince, but in neighborhoods, towns, and cities across America.

Even as our nation’s attention is focused on the plight of Haitian children, we must keep in mind the critical importance of strengthening the safety net we have established for children in our own country who have experienced abuse or neglect.

More than half a million children across the U.S. are currently living in foster care. Although foster care is intended to be a temporary refuge until families can put their lives back on track, children spend more than two years, on average, in the foster care system. Each year, thousands of youth turn 18 and “age out” of foster care with no permanent family to rely upon.

Adoption is one of several options for children in foster care who cannot safely remain at home. Legal guardianship by a relative is another. Almost a fourth of children in foster care live with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives. Foster children who have been placed with relatives are more likely to live with their brothers and sisters; stay connected to their communities, culture, and heritage; and less likely to change schools. All of these are factors that lead to a healthy, productive adulthood.

Today, in state capitals across the nation, lawmakers are crafting strategies to protect vulnerable children and strengthen support for families by implementing the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act of 2008. The Fostering Connections legislation aims to increase the number children exiting foster care with safe, permanent, loving families through adoptions and guardianships with relatives. You age out of a system, but you can’t age out of a family.

Fostering Connections is a vital, and urgently-needed, step forward to benefit children and families. We must show our state lawmakers that the passion we have for the people of Haiti – evidenced in the millions of dollars given in personal and corporate checks, government commitments, and offering plates – is matched by the passion we have for children in the U.S.

Our determination to protect and provide for Haiti’s children is a shining example of the human spirit. Let us harness that energy to protect children in need on American shores, as well.

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