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7 Ways Congress Can Honor Children on Universal Children’s Day

| November 20, 2017 |

Countries all around the world are celebrating children’s rights today. Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the United Nations establishing November 20 to be Universal Children’s Day and the 27th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child being adopted by the UN General Assembly. Globally, countries have used this treaty as a framework for putting the rights of children at the forefront of policy decisions and making progress in improving the health and well-being of millions of children.

Here, in the United States, we can be doing a lot more to ensure that children are thriving and support their rights. Below are seven ways that the federal government can do to improve the lives of children:

  1. Ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We still haven’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child treaty or adopted a similar child rights framework recognizing that children in the United States have rights. Children should be guaranteed to have their basic needs met, access to healthcare, a right to education, and freedom from any type of abuse or neglect. Without a federal framework, jurisdictions will continue to apply uneven standards, creating further disparities in outcomes for child well-being.
  1. Pass the Child Poverty Reduction Act and the Homeless Children and Youth Act. Currently, 18 percent of children are living in poverty in the U.S. with children experiencing poverty at a rate that is 62.5 percent higher than adults. Child and youth homelessness continues to skyrocket–in the 2014-2015 school year, the U.S. Department of Education identified 1.2 million homeless students, which is a 34 percent increase since the recession ended in the summer of 2009. Congress must pass the Child Poverty Reduction Act of 2017, which would establish a national target to reduce the number of children living in poverty in America by half in ten years and eliminating child poverty in twenty years, as well as institute a process to identify the most effective interventions to meet this target. In addition, Congress should pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2017, which would allow communities to use homeless assistance funding to target the most vulnerable homeless children, youth and families in their community, regardless of the form of homelessness. No child in the United States should have to worry about where they will be sleeping on any given night.
  1. Reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). 9 million children depend on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a program designed specifically to meet the health and development needs of children. CHIP funding expired on September 30, 2017, and has not yet been reauthorized. Congress must reauthorize this vital program as soon as possible to prevent children from losing their health coverage. Ensuring that youth experience a healthy childhood helps them thrive and succeed as adults.
  1. Pass the Family First Prevention Services Act. There has also been an increase of children entering the child welfare system due to the opioid epidemic and substance use issues. These experiences can lead to lifelong struggles for families and children affected. Families need supportive environments to care for their children and access to treatment services and supports. The Family First Prevention Services Act would allow families to stay together by providing mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and in-home parenting skills for families at risk of entering the child welfare system.
  1. Reauthorize the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV). MIECHV provides funds for developing and implementing voluntary, evidence-based home visiting programs that improve maternal and newborn health; reduce child injuries, abuse and neglect; improve school readiness, improve family economic self-sufficiency; and improve coordination and referral for other community resources. The funding for MIECHV also expired on September 30, 2017 and must be reauthorized to continue to make significant impacts in lives of young children and families.
  1. Pass the bipartisan DREAM Act and support refugee children programs. A quarter of Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients have U.S. born citizen children. With the Trump Administration ending the program, many of these children live in fear that their families could be ripped apart and they may have to live with one parent or a relative if their primary caregiver is detained or deported. Many of these children also saw DACA as a beacon of hope that they could apply for when they came of age to pursue their educational and career goals and bring them out of the shadows. Congress should pass a clean DREAM Act to allow immigrant children and children of immigrants to live without fear. In addition, many children are fleeing gang violence, rape, and economic instability in Central American and coming to the United States, where we must ensure they are treated humanely and given access to services to help them rehabilitate from the trauma they have faced. Ending protections for refugees ignores the rights of these children to live in a safe environment.
  1. Reject tax reforms that harm children. Congress should make sure that tax reforms are not made on the backs of children. The current proposals that are being discussed in the House and Senate take away much needed resources for low-income families with children. The well-being of children must be considered in making far-reaching policy changes.

The list above is just a few ways that Congress can honor Universal Children’s Day to make a difference for kids in the United States. Our children are the future and it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that they have rights and are given every opportunity to thrive and succeed.

New Groundbreaking Report Confirms High Prevalence of Youth Homelessness in the US

| November 15, 2017 |

Advocates working to end youth homelessness have known for a long time that there are many more youth experiencing homelessness on their own than get reported in national databases.

Today, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago released a groundbreaking report that provided hard evidence to back this up. In their report, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, researchers found that each year over four million young people in the U.S. experience homelessness on their own. This breaks down to 1 in 30 youth (ages 13-17) and 1 in 10 young adults (ages 18-25).

These youth and young adults are living in extremely precarious and often invisible situations. Two-thirds of the youth reported couch-surfing or other less visible forms of homelessness at some point. This was particularly true in rural communities, where the rate of youth homelessness was just as high as in urban and suburban communities.

These less visible forms of homelessness mean that youth are often invisible to public systems, putting them at high risk of harm, abuse and neglect, including trafficking. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, runaway/homeless and unstable housing statuses are among the top five risk factors for human trafficking.

These numbers are devastating and these youth and young adults deserve an immediate, robust, and cross-sector response. Solutions must include changing the paradigm of federal homeless assistance in the U.S. as well as building on the programs that are working through increased investment and resources.

Pass the Homeless Children & Youth Act (S. 611/H.R. 1511)

This bipartisan legislation would increase the visibility of homeless youth and allow communities to use federal homeless assistance funds to serve them. Currently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses a narrow definition of homelessness that doesn’t include couch-surfing and other less visible situations, so many homeless youth and young adults are excluded from receiving critical homeless assistance services. The Homeless Children & Youth Act would restore local decision-making so that communities can identify less visible homeless youth and work with other systems to connect youth with developmentally appropriate services.

Reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs provide vital services to homeless and runaway youth such as emergency housing with crisis intervention, basic life necessities, family interventions and when necessary, longer-term housing options including maternity group homes.

Yet these programs are long overdue for reauthorization. The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act will soon be reintroduced in Congress and will not only reauthorize these programs, but improve their effectiveness in stabilizing homeless youth across the country, whether they are in urban, suburban or rural communities.

Support Homeless and Foster Youth in Accessing Higher Education

We know that higher education is a critical gateway to help these youth & young adults find stability and escape homelessness. Yet too many homeless and foster youth face barriers to higher education and if they are able to attend a college or university, they often face hardships that make it extremely difficult to complete their studies and graduate.

Legislation such as the Higher Education Access and Success Act for Homeless and Foster Youth Act (S. 1795/H.R. 3740) and the Fostering Success in Higher Education Act (S. 1792/H.R. 3742) would help homeless and foster youth access higher education through removing barriers to financial aid, as well as increase support on campuses through housing assistance and resources to connect students to services.

Increase Investments to Stabilize Families and Prevent Homelessness

For many youth and young adults who become homeless on their own, they had first experienced homelessness or housing instability with their family. Nearly a third of youth also had come into contact with the child welfare system and nearly half had been in juvenile detention, jail or prison.

This means that in order to break the cycle of youth and young adult homelessness, we need investments in programs and resources that strengthen families and prevent incidents of homelessness, child welfare involvement and interactions with the criminal justice system. We must build on what works, and double-down on programs that provide cash assistance, mental health and trauma-informed care, substance abuse treatment, job training, rental assistance, affordable child care and pre-k, nutrition assistance and more.

For more information and to take action:

House Hearing Highlights Needs of Children in Opioid Crisis

| November 10, 2017 |

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education and the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development held a joint hearing on Wednesday, November 8 titled: Close to Home: How Opioids are Impacting Communities. The hearing exposed the harsh realities that many children and families are facing throughout the nation because of the opioid epidemic and witnesses offered ideas on how to ensure better treatment and support for families dealing with addiction.

There are a myriad of ways the opioid epidemic is affecting children and impeding their well-being. According to Chairman Rokita (R-IN), the number of babies born drug dependent increased by 500% between 2000 and 2014. These babies not only need specialized care, they also are at a higher risk for long term behavioral health issues and learning disabilities. Dr. Cox, Superintendent of Allegany Schools in Maryland, spoke about the increases in absenteeism in schools due to parents not being able to take their children to school because of drug use.

Substance use issues are also playing a significant role of children entering the child welfare system, as parents are unable to care for their children or dying due to overdose. In 2015, 38% of children enter foster care due to the drug or alcohol use of a parent. This is causing more children to live with relatives and kin, who often lack the supports to take care of additional children. Toni Miner, spoke of her own struggles with drugs and alcohol and how she is now a kinship caregiver for her own grandchildren due to the addictions of her children.

The good news is that there are ways to mitigate this problem and witnesses at the hearing made a number of recommendations to the Committee. Dr. Wen, who is the Baltimore City Health Commissioner, spoke about the need for Congress to protect and expand insurance coverage for on-demand addiction treatment and to protect Medicaid coverage.

She also urged additional funding in the hardest hit areas, and funding for early intervention home-visiting programs. In addition, witnesses spoke about the need to reduce stigma about drug use, using peer mentors to help addicted people with treatment, education on the dangers of drugs in schools and other community-based settings, and coordination among providers.

At First Focus, we couldn’t agree more. Ensuring healthcare services for children and families by strengthening Medicaid coverage and reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a vital part of the equation in helping families get treatment and putting them on the path of recovery. We also strongly support home visiting programs and urge Congress to reauthorize the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program (MIECHV) so that women and children can get the help they need before drug issues spiral out of control.

Finally, it is imperative the Congress pass the Family First Prevention Services Act which would allow services for families at risk of entering the child welfare system to get substance use treatment, mental health services and in-home parenting skills.

In 2016, 64,000 people died from drug overdose. Children and families cannot wait. Investments and resources must be made available as soon as possible to reverse this terrible trend.

Annie E. Casey Foundation Releases Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children

| November 3, 2017 |

“What could happen if the 18 million children of immigrants in the U.S. were given a path to opportunity?”

Recently, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2017 report, Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children. The report looks at the intersection of children, opportunity, race and immigration and discusses the barriers to opportunity and well-being faced by children of color including children of immigrants. According to Nonet Sykes of the Casey Foundation, “The data makes it clear: for children of color, a person’s race is a leading barrier to success in the United States.”

First Focus joined child welfare advocates from a broad spectrum of organizations to hear a panel of experts discuss the importance of the Race for Results report and the importance of this as a national conversation in 2017. It is clear that race continues to divide politics and that racially diverse American children continue to fall behind across multiple indicators.

Download the full report here.

In the report, the Annie E. Casey foundation acknowledges that the history of the United States contains numerous examples of mistreatment of people of color, and through decisions made by national, state and local leaders these disparities in access to opportunity were born. According to the report, 43 percent of children in the U.S. live in low-income households with a disproportionate number being kids of color. The report also measured key aspects of child development such as birthweight, early childhood experiences, and education achievement across geographical regions of the United States and found that African-American, American Indian and Latino children face some of the biggest obstacles to opportunity.

Children of immigrants face additional barriers especially in light of the current political climate. It is estimated that 5 million children live in homes with at least one undocumented parent. These kids now live in fear of separation from their families on a daily basis. Additionally, children who came to the U.S. to seek refuge from violence in their home countries are now targets for deportation and fear being sent back to a life of horrific violence. This creates anxiety and toxic stress that adversely affects the mental health of these young people.

Within the context of this conversation it is not only important to understand that these children face barriers to healthy child development, but it is also important to understand that by not increasing their opportunities for education and competitive wage earnings, we are increasing the likelihood of future economic decline. According to the report, indicators for education and early work experiences help assess children’s preparedness to participate in civic and economic life.

Similarly, a recent report by PolicyLink, Bridging the Racial Generation Gap Is Key to America’s Economic Future, highlights the dramatic increase in the gap between the number of seniors of color and the number of young people of color. The report suggests an urgency in policy response to ensure that all low-income children of color and English language learners can access education and supports needed to succeed in the future.

“What could happen if the 18 million children of immigrants in the U.S. were given a path to opportunity?” This was a question posed by Patrick McCarthy, President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. How different might our future look if we chose to embrace the strengths of all children regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigration status?

The strengths of our children are diverse and unique. We must work harder to implement policy solutions to reduce racial disparities and increase opportunities for children of color in the United States. They deserve a chance at a prosperous future and a chance to pursue happiness.

Download the full report here.

Where Does CHIP Stand Now?

| October 10, 2017 |

For families, providers, advocates, state officials, governors, and members of Congress, September 30th was a significant day in the world of CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. That’s the day that the funding for CHIP expired. Over the last twenty years, along with Medicaid, CHIP coverage has brought the children’s uninsured rate to a record low of 5%. Across the country, CHIP covers almost 9 million kids. Though advocates and state officials have been pushing for CHIP’s funding renewal since January, the repeal and replace ACA bills took up all the health policy space in Congress over the last six months.

Failing to pass a funding renewal for CHIP by the end of September seems to have prompted the two mark-up hearings we saw last week, one in the Senate Finance Committee and the other in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Each committee marked up a different bill, but the policies included are closely aligned. The House bill was part of a package of bills that were marked up and all included some type of pay-fors. The Senate bill did not contain a pay-for for CHIP.  Read More

First Focus Statement on the Child Tax Credit

| October 6, 2017 |

via Flickr / berenicegg

Last week, officials from the White House, Senate and House of Representatives (known as the “Big Six”) released a framework for overhauling the tax system in the U.S. The framework states an intention to positively impact working families through a “significant increase” to the Child Tax Credit, yet it provides few specifics.

The few details that are included signal that the improvements needed to the Child Tax Credit to truly have a positive financial impact for children and families with the greatest need, such as full refundability, will not be made. Further, any increase to the Child Tax Credit would be offset by the elimination of exemptions that currently benefit working class families.

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Study Shows Americans Agree: Poor Child Well-Being is a Top Issue

| October 3, 2017 |

Recently the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released national survey results on perspectives of Americans on child and family well-being in the U.S., with a focus on Americans’ attitudes on issues such as social group affinity, optimism on the country’s future, views of government, child welfare and criminal justice policies, and confidence in child welfare institutions.

The survey highlights perspectives from the Southeast and Southwest., where child poverty is highest, and breaks down responses based on race and ethnicity, political affiliation, and generation.

Some highlights:

  • The majority of Americans (63 percent) believe that child poverty is one of the most pressing issues facing the U.S. This includes 73 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of Independents, and 45 percent of Republicans. This is much higher than the percentage of 45 percent of Americans who believe overall poverty is a critical issue.

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Nine Million Reasons to Extend CHIP Funding Now

| September 20, 2017 |

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was originally published on Medium.

In the midst of the chaos that is Washington, D.C., Congress is gambling with the health and well-being of nearly 9 million children, as funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is set to expire on September 30th.

It is not like congressional leadership didn’t know this was coming. Two years ago, over 1,500 groups urged Congress to extend CHIP for through 2019, but in its infinite wisdom, House leadership chose to only extend CHIP for two years and set the date for funding to expire just days from now. In other words, this September 30th deadline was self-imposed, and yet, both the House and Senate are on a path to fail to extend CHIP funding in a timely manner. (In sharp contrast, can you imagine, a scenario where Congress would allow funding for the entire Medicare program to expire in this manner?).  Read More

West Virginia Event Highlights Need to Put Kids First in Federal Budget

| September 19, 2017 |

A Huntington woman reads to a group of children as part of the KidsFest theme “Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies, and Healthy Futures.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was originally published at the Children’s Budget Coalition website.

What does it look like to make children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions? KidsFest 2017, an annual community event led by the United Way of the River Cities in Huntington, West Virginia, is a great example.

This year, KidsFest was held on September 17 at Ritter Park in Huntington, West Virginia. The festivities welcomed local children and their families to enjoy an afternoon of fun, centered around the theme of “Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies, and Healthy Futures.” A wide range of service providers were available to educate children and parents on issues like substance abuse, nutrition, early learning, safety, and more. Children’s Health Fund, a member of the Children’s Budget Coalition, made an especially exciting appearance at this event, bringing their West Virginia Children’s Health Project mobile medical clinic—directed by Dr. Isabel Pino—to raise the importance of consistent access to pediatric care. The Herald Dispatch, the local newspaper, took notice of Dr. Pino’s efforts, featuring her in their front page article about the event.  Read More

Millions of Kids are Food Insecure, But Nutrition Programs Can Help

| September 13, 2017 |

No child should have to worry about whether his or her family will be able to afford to put food on the table. But this was the reality for the 13 million U.S. children who, according to new data the USDA released last week, experienced food insecurity during 2016. For those children, uncertain access to enough healthy food has serious consequences for health, learning, and development.

The fact that 16 percent of US households with children lacked the resources for healthy, consistent meals during 2016 underscores the vital importance of food assistance programs in fighting child hunger. According to the most recent data, children represent nearly half of the participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides low-income households with a monthly benefit for food purchases. In fact, research suggests that participation in SNAP for six months is associated with an 8.5 percentage point decrease in food insecurity in households with children. However, the families that access SNAP benefits often exhaust them by the end of the month, suggesting that current levels are inadequate.

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