Proposed Federal Legislation Would Suspend the ASFA Timeline, Not Parental Rights, During COVID-19

Recognizing the impact of the pandemic on families and the child welfare system, Representative Gwen Moore of Wisconsin proposed legislation to extend federal timelines for reunification without financial penalties to states. Here, Rep. Moore explains what the proposed bill would change, why it is important and how parents can support it.

Q. What needs to change to support families and prevent family separation?

A. I’m a member of Congress representing the greater Milwaukee area, but more importantly I was a single parent myself, on welfare and food stamps, and I had a child that was placed in foster care when I was 18. This is lived experience for me. Back in the day, I was a member of a welfare rights organization. This work needs to continue because while our welfare system claims it wants to lift people out of poverty, it does nothing of that sort to support families and keep them together. Almost all kids are so much better off with their own parents than they are with anyone else. Yet, we so often judge good parenting by the level of resources that people have. I don’t care if you have a swimming pool, 12 acres and a tennis court, that kid wants to be with their momma or their daddy. That’s number one. And number two: It is so cost effective for us as states and as a federal government to provide wraparound services to keep families together. If we look at it only from the vantage point of money, it is cheaper to keep families together than it is to separate them. 

Q. Why have you proposed legislation to suspend the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) timeline? If passed, what will it change?

A. First, I want to lift up the name of Representative Karen Bass, the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who convened a national foster care initiative and works to keep legislators abreast of what is happening in that space. As a member of the Committee on Ways and Means in the House of Representatives, I am on a Worker & Family Support Subcommittee that focuses on children in foster care. Karen Bass got me into this space and I will never leave it because it is such important work. 

Under ASFA, families face an artificial timeline for reunification. If parents’ kids have been out of their custody for 15 of the last 22 months, states automatically push for termination of parental rights. This was a concept that was put in place because some kids were in foster care forever – they were never going to be out and there was no hope that they were going to be adopted.  It was something that probably had good intent in regards to permanency for children but really has been turned on its head in a way that has not been healthy for families. It is an artificial barrier to parents being able to regain custody of their children, and COVID certainly was not anticipated with regard to this artificial barrier.

We want to suspend the federal timelines so that states will be able to extend the amount of time they have for unification efforts without enduring financial penalties. States will be able to consider the impact of COVID on parents, such as loss of income and housing. Parents have faced unavoidable setbacks while trying to meet these deadlines. I have seen parents scrambling to try to meet requirements to obtain housing and get a job.

The proposed legislation would establish that this is a health crisis worthy of suspending these barriers. It would temporarily suspend the mandate in the Adoption and Safe Families Act for states to file termination of parental rights (TPR). It also specifies that COVID is a compelling reason for the jurisdiction to not seek TPR petitions.

Additionally, it provides instructions to jurisdictions about what special actions they must take in the context of the public health crisis to meet federal requirements of providing reasonable efforts toward reuniting families. It addresses some of the alternative methods of providing services to families who are socially isolated during the crisis. We don’t want someone to lose custody of their children due to unavoidable circumstances associated with to not being able to meet some of these conditions during COVID and also don’t want states to lose funding to implement services because they don’t start TPR processes. It is not a complicated bill. It makes sense. I have corollary legislation to stop the timeline on welfare recipients. Some things just don’t make sense in an emergency.

Q. How can parents and allies push for the bill to pass?

A. They can pick up the telephone, call the hotline (202-224-3121), connect with your representative and say we want you to support the bill, HR 7976.

Q. Why are these changes important for families?

A. Typically, kids are better off with their parents than with anybody else. Everybody has some setbacks in life and certainly COVID-19 has been a dinger for most people. While it is difficult to regain custody of your children under ordinary circumstances, these are extraordinary times. We want to recognize that and give families and states the flexibility that they need to reunite families, because this is in the best interest of kids — in terms of their health, safety, psychological wellbeing, and connection with their siblings. I can’t think of anything more traumatic than family separation. It is just not necessary to separate a family right now because they are homeless. We are talking about the most vulnerable families in our country and their children deserve to be OK and not have a system that abuses them on top of whatever else they have endured. 

We are hoping it will give states and agencies some flexibility with helping families reunify, recognizing it is a health pandemic and a financial pandemic. If part of the program for reunification is seeing your children every other week, that flexibility might mean providing the resources for a parent to take a cab back and forth to visits, recognizing the hardship that would represent. You can put on a mask and a gown and hold your baby. Babies die when they don’t have affection and they need it from their mothers.

Q. Why is this issue important to you?

A. I am a mother, a grandmother and a great grandmother. I represent mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers. My youngest great grandchild is one year old. I can see that when they feel a little insecure, what enables them to be healthy and happy is that they can look around the room and see their mother there.

If the only reason my family is in jeopardy is because I don’t have a job right now, and some food stamps or SNAP or a basket of food every week could help — it is so much more practical, inexpensive and humane to provide that than to send in social workers to separate me from my kids. If all I need is a stipend to turn my gas and electricity on, if that is the only thing and otherwise my kids would be OK, let’s do that. Let’s stop turning this into a punishment.

It is important to me because I am one of them. I don’t care how many titles they give me, I will never forget where I come from. I can’t win enough elections and they can’t give me enough certificates to forget how hard it is.

When I was running for Congress, somebody told me, “You shouldn’t do this. This is too hard.” I said, “Really? Is it harder than raising three kids? It couldn’t be that hard. I have already done the hardest thing I will ever do. How can this be harder than that?”

Q. What is your message to parents impacted by child welfare during COVID-19?

A. Hang on. Having your children is worth whatever you go through. Pain and darkness may come at night but joy comes in the morning. There are people who care — this organization Rise, members of Congress, members of your State Legislature. There is a whole new wave of young people who are being elected to office who are not going for the lie that somehow poor children who need some milk are bankrupting the country. There is nothing we can do that would be a better investment in America than — instead of giving trillions of dollars to rich people — feeding our kids, giving them an education and letting them stay home with their mommies and daddies. There is nothing we could make a better investment in than them.

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