Congress is moving toward an overhaul of the country's foster-care system, one that reflects a shift in how policymakers and child-welfare experts view the problem of keeping kids safe.
It isn't yet clear what form legislation might ultimately take, and any agreement could be derailed by a dispute over the debt ceiling later this year. All the same, several lawmakers in both parties appear to be in agreement on the basic principles of a reform. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, hopes to move legislation this fall, according to a spokeswoman.
The federal government has long chipped in for foster care for children whose parents are abusing or neglecting them. But some advocates for children say the money would be better spent helping children's biological parents take care of them properly.
Depending on the family, the state could pay for psychotherapy or treatment for a parent's alcoholism or addiction to drugs. Some new mothers need a nurse to talk to them about how to discipline their children without beating them, while others might just need a washer and dryer for the apartment so the kids can go to school in clean clothes.
Keeping a child in her biological parents' home if possible is not only better for the child, but will save the government money, too, lawmakers say. They are talking about helping states pay for some of these other services, beyond foster care itself.
"When you ask a child who has been in foster care how we can best improve the current foster-care system, often the answer will be: You could have helped my mom so that I did not have to go into foster care in the first place," Hatch said at a hearing this month.
Hatch's office has been working with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has sponsored a bill. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) have also introduced legislation.
Shadi Houshyar, who handles foster care for the family-advocacy organization First Focus in Washington, said the discussion on Capitol Hill was "a game-changer for child welfare."
Little data on children who grow up in foster care is available, but current research suggests that focusing on keeping children with their parents will help many of them over the long term.
Joseph J. Doyle Jr., an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied children whose homes were examined by Illinois's investigators 20 years ago to determine how foster care affected their lives as adults. He found that if a foster-care child had been visited by a stricter investigator -- those more likely to recommend a child be removed from a home -- then the child was more likely to be arrested, convicted of a crime and imprisoned as an adult. In other words, while many children must be removed for their safety, investigators often do better by kids when when they give parents the benefit of the doubt.
"There's this traumatic event of being taken away from your parents, and being told that your parents are not doing the right thing for you," Doyle said. "That has to be weighed against the trauma of continued child abuse and neglect in the home."
Experts also say that while you can take a child out of an abusive household, that doesn't mean you've taken the abuse out of the child.
Foster care is sometimes necessary for the child's safety, said David Sanders, who is in charge of public policy at Casey Family Programs in Seattle. Beyond a safe place to live, though, children need counseling, and ultimately, a permanent family that will care for them as they grow up. Without that, Sanders said, many will repeat their parents' mistakes when they have kids of their own, perpetuating addiction, neglect and abuse to the next generation.
"It's so easy to think removing children from their families is the solution," Sanders said. "That's not sufficient."
Dozens of states already have waivers from the federal government allowing them to use money earmarked for foster care for other things. State officials say these experiments have been promising, and research suggests that in many cases, the benefits far outweigh the costs. A study found that one therapy program in the state of Washington, for example avoided tens of thousands of dollars in costs to the criminal justice system and victims of crimes that foster-care children would likely have committed if they hadn't participated.