The presence of caring adults and stable and nurturing homes is critical to promoting healthy development in children. Yet according to America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S., a report authored by First Focus and Save the Children, when it comes to the Permanency & Stability of children, America fails with a D grade. This grade, calculated based on our performance on policies affecting juvenile justice, child welfare, and children of immigrants, suggests that America can do more to promote the well-being, safety and security of America’s children.

With respect to the juvenile justice system, the U.S. is failing to serve the needs of our youth. On a given day, nearly 70,000 youth are held in residential facilities, most of whom have not committed violent crimes. There are also significant racial disparities within the juvenile justice system, as African American youth are six times more likely to be held in detention than Caucasian youth. These facilities are not successful in helping youth, as made evident by the 50-70 percent re-arrest rate for this population. In addition, the number of youth held in adult jails is troubling; in 2010, about 7,560 youth were serving time in adult jails. Since there are no national standards for the treatment of youth in adult jails, they are often placed among the general population. This puts youth at risk for a number of negative consequences, such as increased risks of violence and solitary confinement. These experiences can impact a child’s life trajectory; as such, it is critical that we work to improve our juvenile justice system, and begin to address the high rates of re-arrest, existing racial disparities, and utilization of adult jails for youth.

Our child welfare system serves children and families at risk of abuse and neglect or where abuse and neglect has already occurred, and its goal is to ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of children in foster care. While in recent years, we’ve seen progress, there is still work to be done. Data suggest that the recent economic downturn has left more children vulnerable to abuse and neglect; for instance, a recent study found that mortgage delinquency were associated with an increase in children’s hospital admissions for physical child abuse and traumatic brain injuries suspected to be caused by child abuse. Now more than ever, more resources are needed to identify and provide assistance to families that are at high risk for child abuse and neglect. Addressing the limitations of our current funding streams would be an important first step. Currently, the government spends 10 times more on foster care than on preventative services for children and families. Clearly we need greater investments in prevention. One potential solution is to allow states to directly access federal funds, such as those under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, to invest in programs such as prevention, early intervention, and post-permanency services.

We also need to continue efforts to improve access to services for youth aging out of the foster care system. Youth aging out of foster care often do so without the tools needed to live successful independent lives. While in most states, youth age out of foster care at age 18, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 allows states to extend care to age 21. This option would greatly benefit youth as they transition into adulthood

Another group of children that need our help are the children of immigrants. A major success for these children came on June 15, 2012, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s announcement ofDeferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). However, the parents of these children are still at risk for deportation. Today 4.5 million U.S. citizen children live in mixed legal-status families with at least one undocumented parent, and therefore are at risk of being separated from that parent as a result of immigration enforcement measures. Children and families suffer when a parent is arrested, detained, or deported, and a lack of coordination between child welfare agencies and the immigration enforcement system can result in the inability of detained or deported parents to meet child welfare case plan requirements. This results in children who are risk for being placed in foster care and being permanently separated from their parents, a fate no child wants to face.

The problems present in our juvenile justice, child welfare, and immigration services provide us withample opportunities to reform these systems. For instance, within the juvenile justice system, racial disparities present from arrest through sentencing can be addressed. We also need to create national standards that regulate youth admittance into adult jail facilities. For youth that do enter or are at risk for entering the juvenile justice system, there needs to be a greater investment in community-based rehabilitation, counseling, and preventative services to bring these youth back to being successful members of our society.

In order to promote the success of children in the child welfare system, the system’s focus needs to shift to fostering resiliency and promoting child well-being. The Promoting Accountability and Excellence in Child Welfare Act, introduced in 2011 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) represents an important first step, providing states with incentives to increase the well-being of children and families within the child welfare system. Greater investment is also needed in proven effective front-end services and supports for children and families in the welfare system, such as the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. In addition, we need greater investments in programs that foster innovation in the child welfare system. Title IV-E Waivers, which allow states to waive eligibility requirements set by the 1996 Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program, are a great vehicle for innovation, and allow states to use funds to provide services not currently allowed due to eligibility requirements.

Lastly, America needs to ensure that immigration enforcement and child welfare policies promote family unity. To do this, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to revise immigration enforcement policies to minimize family separation. Immigration enforcement and child welfare services also need to work together to ensure that families, along with trained social workers, judges, and lawyers, are educated about existing policies and the unique needs of these families. There have already been some successes with the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Successes like these, along with other suggested policy recommendations, will allow America to increase the permanency and stability of all of its children.