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Protecting our most vulnerable

By By Johnny Mack Morrow
Abused and neglected children are the most vulnerable among us. We can all agree that a child deserves a stable and safe environment to grow up in, but unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. We should do everything we can to protect children who are at risk.
For many years, the Alabama Department of Human Resources was poorly resourced and had too few caseworkers. There was a backlog of thousands of incidents. Headlines would appear from time to time about a child who had fallen through the cracks.
Things got so bad that 20 years ago child advocates filed a major lawsuit, commonly know as "R.C," named after the child on whose behalf it was filed. The courts demanded that state government revamp its child welfare system, and for the past decade, that is exactly what's been happening.
After years of hard work, planning, and reform, Alabama now has one of the best child welfare systems in the South. We have made such progress that other states, including Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana are now sending representatives to our state to see how DHR protects children.
DHR now works on a policy of a "continuum of care," coordinating a variety of agencies and family services to protect children.
First, the department has a quick response to a report of child abuse, where investigations are started as soon as possible. According to DHR, a social worker sees more than 93 percent of children who are reported to authorities within the first five days. If there is thought to be imminent danger to a child, a social worker is sent immediately to assure the child is safe while an investigation takes place.
Every county has established local committees that bring together DHR, law enforcement, mental health, juvenile courts, and others to address the needs of abused and neglected children. The continuum of care system, from the initial intervention, to the work with families, to coordination among agencies, is truly working to protect children.
One of best ways we know the system is working is that when DHR intervenes in a bad family situation, child abuse in that family stops. Over the past several years in almost all incidents reported to DHR, the child had no prior report of abuse. That means when abuse is found, it is stopped, and doesn't happen again.
One of the most critical parts of the continuum of care system is foster care.
There are several types of foster care, including therapeutic programs and group foster homes. The majority of kids who enter foster care go to the traditional home setting, where kind Alabamians open their doors to abused and neglected children. Foster parents are essential to protecting children and getting their lives back on track. A recent study showed that the lives of children in foster care improved in 96 percent of the cases. Foster parents deserve our gratitude, and hopefully more support from the state in the future.
For years foster parents not only shared their homes, they ended up sacrificing much more because the state gave such little help in supporting these children. For the past several years, the state has provided approximately $14 per day. Try keeping a child in groceries, clothes, and a roof over their head for that sum each day.
A little more help is on the way. Alabama foster parents will get a 5 percent increase in state support starting in November. Stipends will rise from $410 to $446 per month. With more than 6,000 children in foster care in Alabama, the increase will cost $1.7 million, with $1 million coming from the state and $700,000 from federal sources, according to DHR. We'll keep doing what we can each year to help foster parents, but it still won't be enough to repay what they are doing for these children.
The goal is to raise foster family support by 25 percent in the next few years. Yet in Alabama, where taxes are the lowest in the nation, increases can only come in small increments like this year's five percent.
Slow improvement was the same way we rebuilt the child welfare system. It didn't happen overnight. There were many years we had to scramble to find funding for more caseworkers demanded by the courts, and for the safety of our children.
Yet progress is progress no matter how slow. This year a federal judge ruled DHR had improved its handling of child welfare cases, a last step in getting the R.C. case settled once and for all.
Unfortunately, children will continue to be abused and neglected. Yet with an efficient child welfare system that has quick, effective responses, DHR workers may be able to prevent further abuse, save lives, improve futures, and protect the most vulnerable among us.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County.