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Chairman Smith Opening Statement – Hearing on Strengthening Child Welfare and Protecting America’s Children

June 25, 2024

As prepared for delivery.

Families form the bedrock of a strong society, and it is crucial to have systems in place that support children in moments of crisis and keeps families intact whenever possible. 

The Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over several child welfare programs, including Title IV-B of the Social Security Act. This program provides critical resources to states with the mission of preventing child abuse and neglect, supporting family reunification, and promoting adoption for children in foster care. 

The last time Congress reformed these programs in any significant way was in 2008, and the authorization lapsed in Fiscal Year 2021. Over the past year, this Committee has proactively conducted a top-to-bottom review. 

We have held more hearings on the subject than the last eight congressional sessions combined. We have heard from people engaged in the child welfare system day in and day out, including caseworkers, state administrators, and former foster youth.

From our review, it is clear that the child welfare system faces a number of challenges – including:

  • Relatives that take care of children, also known as kinship care, need more help and support;
  • Almost one in three social workers leaves every year leading to a severe caseworker shortage; 
  • Bureaucratic red tape from Washington gets in the way of caseworkers caring for children;
  • Families have slow hearings with family courts and lack access to a lawyer;
  • Unfair barriers facing Native American tribes trying to keep their families together; and 
  • Trauma and mental health issues experienced by older foster youth.

In addition, too many families experiencing poverty are wrongly accused of “child neglect” when what they really need is community support. Poverty should not be the sole reason a child is removed from their homes. 

One particular case from Washington County, Missouri, sticks with me. A mom and four kids were living in a shed with no central heat, no refrigeration, no running water, no beds and little food. Those children went into custody because of these concerning conditions and hygiene difficulties that would obviously accompany problems of this type. 

Three years passed between the time the children were removed from their home and the time the court deemed mom’s living arrangements insufficient, even though she had made substantive improvements to both her housing and transportation situation. The court deemed a 1-bedroom apartment quote “too small” and a 3-bedroom house with her boyfriend’s children quote “too cramped.” This resulted in termination of her parental rights.

In Missouri, the state estimates it costs $30,000 per year to have a child in foster care. This particular case cost the taxpayers $360,000. Spending even a fraction of those funds at the front end could have provided this family with adequate housing, laundry and bathroom facilities, and assistance in obtaining and maintaining employment.  

It also would have kept the children with their mother and spared them the trauma caused by separation.

I’m committed to addressing this issue and appreciate the support and collaboration of Rep. Gwen Moore. 

In some cases, we know living with one’s family is not possible, and we should work to ensure services provided to foster children meet their unique needs and protect them from abuse and neglect. 

For the 19,000 children who age out of foster care each year, we must pursue solutions that support these older youth in successfully transitioning into adulthood. 

A bipartisan coalition of Republican and Democrat members on this Committee have introduced 16 bills aimed at enhancing and strengthening IV-B and supporting community-based organizations dedicated to improving outcomes for American children and families.

We also look forward to hearing from our witnesses today. 

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with one of our witnesses, Ms. Paris Hilton. She shared her story of suffering physical and psychological abuse at a congregate-care facility as a teenager. 

What happened to her should never happen to any child in America. Since that difficult experience, Paris has used her platform to shine a spotlight on abuse in the child welfare system. Standing with her are many foster youth who have also experienced abuse and trauma at a moment when they needed love and support. 

I am grateful to all of our witnesses for joining us today. 

I eagerly anticipate working with members of this Committee on both sides of the aisle on Title IV-B. This reauthorization is crucial to strengthening child welfare and protecting America’s children.