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Column: Iowans — and all Americans — should give thanks while remembering others

Q: How does Iowa rank for civic engagement?

A:  As the launching pad for the presidential campaign trail, Iowans are an engaged electorate. In fact, unofficial numbers from the November elections suggest Iowa broke an all-time record for votes cast in a midterm election, reaching nearly 61 percent of the state’s registered voters. It’s also not surprising to learn that Iowans rank among the highest in the nation for donating their time to help neighbors in need.

According to the 2018 federal survey by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Iowa’s volunteerism jumped six spots to reach fourth highest in the nation. The collective 56 million hours of volunteer hours from Iowans last year made a $1.3 billion economic impact. The human impact is immeasurable. From harvest bees to food banks to mentoring, tutoring and coaching, Iowans generously give of their time and talent to lend a helping hand in their local schools and communities. It’s a treasured heritage handed down from one generation to the next.

The civic thread that stitches together Iowa’s close-knit communities starts in the home. Iowans who volunteer and participate in local youth and business organizations, attend public meetings and vote make our communities strong. Strong families make strong schools, strong communities and a strong America. I have long supported public policies to help families succeed, particularly disadvantaged youth and troubled families. Society has a vital interest to empower families to stay together. Raising children, pursuing a career and paying the bills isn’t easy. And yet, tens of millions of moms and dads across the United States would agree the rewards of parenthood outweigh the sacrifice.

During this season of thanksgiving, families will gather together from near and far to count their blessings and enjoy the traditions of the holiday, notably the Thanksgiving Day feast. However, not every child in America has a seat at a loving family’s table. In 2017, 442,995 children were living in the foster care system across the United States. Iowa reported 4,129 foster care youth awaiting family reunification or adoption. Experts say the nation’s opioid crisis is overwhelming child welfare agencies in some areas, including many counties in Iowa.

As founder and co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, I have worked for more than two decades to improve the delivery of child welfare services, raise awareness about the unique challenges facing kids placed in the foster care system and improve pathways to family reunification or adoption.

Q: What federal programs are in place to support foster kids and promote adoptions?

A:  Congress has enacted a number of laws to promote adoptions before and after they are finalized. Families are the cornerstones of our communities and children long for certainty, stability and normalcy in their lives. That’s why I promote adoptions when family reunification is no longer an option.

I started my legislative efforts with passage of the landmark Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. Foster care is intended as a temporary transition for troubled families. While I don’t have all the answers, I do know the answer to the most urgent concern of every child in foster care, no matter what age. They want a loving, permanent family and a forever home. Opening one’s heart and home by adopting a child is a wonderful gift to give. Society ought to especially encourage and support those who choose to adopt children from foster care, many of whom have experienced neglect, trauma and tragedy in their lives.

The federal Adoption Opportunities Program supports the adoption of older children, children who are minorities and children with special needs. It also provides post-adoption services, such as family counseling, respite care and adoptive-parent support groups. A decade ago, I helped steer through Congress the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. This law improved federal efforts to move children from foster care to adoptive homes and included my provisions that made all children with special needs eligible for federal adoption assistance. It made it easier for foster youth to be cared for permanently by their relatives and to stay in their home communities instead of being shuffled from one school district to the next, for example. It also created new opportunities for kids who age out of foster care at age 18 to pursue education or vocational training.

The 2014 Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act required states to reinvest savings resulting from increased federal adoption assistance to support post-adoption services in their local communities. Most recently, the Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law in February. It allows states to use federal child welfare funds to provide prevention services, including substance abuse treatment programs to help at-risk families stay together. It also puts in place accountability measures to protect taxpayers and ensure dollars are spent as intended. In addition, it reauthorizes the Adoption and Legal Guardianship Program to provide financial incentives to states to increase the number of children adopted from foster care.

We are making progress, but there’s more work to do. I’ll continue working to help bring stability to the tens of thousands of children in America who long for a forever family and a permanent place to call home. For those who volunteer with disadvantaged youth or have opened their hearts and homes to adoption, society owes you a debt of gratitude. As so many civic-minded Iowans have shown through words and deeds, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” May God bless all families during this season of thanksgiving as Americans count our blessings of life and liberty and give thanks for food, freedom and fellowship.

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