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The Legislative Role in Child Well-Being

Nina Williams-MbengueNina Williams-Mbengue, Program Director, Children and Families Program, National Conference of State Legislatures

Summary: In this article, the author informs readers about the legislative changes passed by states to improve social and emotional well-being of children and youth in foster care. In a second article, "The Child and Family Services Reviews and Child Well-Being," she explains the challenges states have faced and strategies they have pursued to improve outcomes on the child well-being reviews.

While there has been a dramatic decrease in foster care caseloads in recent years, the federal Administration on Children and Families and other key child welfare stakeholders are working to encourage states to address the social and emotional well-being of children and youth in care. In addition to an improved understanding of the devastating and long-term effects of children’s exposure to violence, child maltreatment and trauma, there is now good evidence of effective, evidence-based programs that states can develop to significantly improve these children’s well-being.

State legislators—in their oversight capacity of child welfare systems, and working in partnership with courts, child welfare administrators and others—can be instrumental in encouraging collaboration among stakeholders—including child welfare, health, mental health, education, courts, law enforcement, faith-based and community-service organizations. Working together, these partners can develop statewide well-being frameworks; mandate evidence-based, trauma informed services; determine outcomes for children and families; and assess the social and emotional well-being of children involved in state child welfare systems.

In recent years, state lawmakers have crafted policies around child well-being in a number of areas including screening and assessment; health and mental health; children’s social and emotional needs; and prevention and early intervention. Below are a few recent examples of such legislation identified through the National Conference of State Legislature’s annual tracking of child welfare–related legislation. For more legislation, please visit NCSL’s “What’s New in Child Welfare.”

Screening and Assessment of Children in the Child Welfare System

Lawmakers in several states have addressed the issue of bringing the appropriate screening and assessment of children to the attention of public child welfare systems. For example, in 2011, Michigan lawmakers enacted a bill that required the Department of Human Services to use a standardized assessment tool to ensure greater cooperation between Human Services and the Department of Community Health, and to measure the mental health treatment needs of every child in care. In that same year, Minnesota required that county boards must arrange for or provide mental health screening for children in care. In 2010 Minnesota legislators stipulated that all children referred for treatment of severe emotional disturbance in a treatment foster care setting or residential treatment facility undergo an assessment to determine the appropriate level of care prior to admission.

Health and Mental Health

In response to the federal Fostering Connections and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, lawmakers in several states have enacted laws related to the oversight and coordination of children’s health care. In 2009 California required a plan for the oversight and coordination of health care services for foster children, and Oklahoma created a “Passport Program” to include educational, medical and behavioral health information for all children in care. See additional examples of legislation related to health and mental health.

Additionally, concerns about the overuse of psychotropic medications and new federal requirements for states to develop protocols for the use of such medications have prompted states to examine the use and oversight of psychotropic medications.

Social and Emotional Needs

Studies indicate a high incidence of behavioral problems for children who have experienced abuse or neglect. State legislators have worked to better understand and provide for the needs of such children. For example, in 2010 West Virginia lawmakers established “Jacob’s Law,” which requires that foster children ages four to ten be provided early intervention services; assistance with emotional needs; and medical evaluations and independent advocates. It also required that their foster families be provided training and education, and that the children be immediately evaluated and tested following removal from a home. West Virginia also created a commission to study the residential placement of children who are in need of or at risk of needing social and behavioral health services.

Prevention and Early Intervention

Lawmakers have also examined prevention and early intervention services:

  • In 2011, Washington House Bill 1965 was enacted to identify the primary causes of adverse childhood experiences and mobilize public and private support to prevent harm to young children and reduce the accumulated harm of adverse experiences throughout childhood. The law calls for a focused effort to identify and promote the use of innovative strategies based on evidence-based approaches, and to align public and private policies and funding with approaches and strategies that have demonstrated effectiveness.
  • In 2007, Washington mandated the Children’s Trust Fund to fund research-based home visitation programs and provided funding for a one-time study of child abuse prevention conducted by the Washington Institute of Public Policy.

To view more child well-being related legislation, including those in the areas of education, sibling and family connections, and supports for transitioning older youth, please visit NCSL’s “What’s New in Child Welfare.”

Author biography:

Nina Williams-Mbengue coordinates NCSL’s work on child welfare, which is currently focused on helping state lawmakers in their work to develop policy related to children and families involved in public child welfare and foster care systems. Williams-Mbengue has been a member of the Child Welfare Project for 17 years where she provides a range of informational services to state legislatures through educational session development, publications, research and testimony on issues related to child welfare.

Williams-Mbengue has authored and co-authored numerous NCSL publications. Before joining NCSL, she worked in the Children's Division of the American Humane Association, where she provided technical and research assistance on child maltreatment issues to child welfare professionals, researchers and the general public.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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