By Theresa Covington, director of the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance

During National Foster Care Month this year, the groundbreaking show “Sesame Street” introduced a new character to support children living in foster care. Karli is the newest muppet and lives with her “for-now” parents Dalia and Clem.

Sesame Street is known for launching national conversations on difficult issues like autism and the challenges of growing up in foster care.

According to national statistics, on any given day, there are nearly 443,000 children living in foster care. In 2017, that number had risen to more than 690,000 children living in foster care. The majority of those children live in foster care, on average, for two years. Six percent have spent five or more years living in foster care. Over 40 percent of all children in foster care are under the age of six.

Juliette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of social impact, said in a statement about the introduction of Karli, “Fostering a child takes patience, resilience, and sacrifice, and we know that caring adults hold the power to buffer the effects of traumatic experiences on young children. We want foster parents and providers to hear that what they do matters – they have the enormous job of building and rebuilding family structures and children’s sense of safety.”

But challenges remain. There is no question that the foster care system is overburdened. According to a recent report from Fostering Media Connections and The Chronicle of Social Change, at least half of the states in the U.S. have seen their foster care capacity decrease between 2012 and 2017. Either these states have fewer beds and more foster youth, or any increase in beds has been dwarfed by an even greater increase in foster children and youth.

Despite these challenges, child welfare advocates are encouraged by the recent shift among policymakers to provide more front-end resources that would prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. These resources place an emphasis on keeping families together by providing the types of interventions, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, that can help families before they reach the crisis stage.

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) is the first step in providing this continuum of care. It enables title IV-E funding to support promising mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment provided by a qualified clinician, and in-home parent skill-based programs, for up to 12 months for candidates for foster care and for pregnant or parenting foster youth.

U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), co-chairs of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, also introduced two bills in honor of National Foster Care Month. The Supporting Adoptive Families Act would help prevent children from entering the foster care system by providing additional pre- and post-adoptive support services. The bill also directs the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to award grants to eligible entities to develop and implement state-sponsored post-adoption mental health service programs for all adopted children.

The Safe Home Act would address cases in which adopted children have been given away by their adopted parents without going through the child welfare system—many of which have resulted in the mistreatment of these children—by defining such conduct as a form of child abuse and neglect.

It will take all of these resources and more to build a 21st Century Child Welfare System that can ensure every child has a forever home.

About the Author

Theresa Martha Covington is the director of the Within Our Reach Office funded by Casey Family Programs and housed within the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She is the director of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, a position she has held at the Michigan Public Health Institute since 2003. Formerly, she served as a commissioner on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.