State Politics

Idaho’s foster system could get an overhaul — if the state can afford it

The Idaho Statehouse.
The Idaho Statehouse. Idaho Statesman file

A bill aimed at improving Idaho’s foster care system is headed to the Senate floor.

SB 1341, also known as the Foster Care Improvement Act, would enact a number of reforms to the system, some more dramatic than others.

Most notably, the bill would codify the common judicial practice of keeping siblings together whenever possible, strengthen support services for newly reunified families, clarify priorities when investigating claims of abuse, establish in statute a new system of Citizen Review Panels across the state and create a legislative committee to oversee child protection.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Abby Lee of Fruitland, described the bill as the “next step” in improving foster care in Idaho.

Because the hearing for SB 1341 was cut short due to a lack of time, the panel was only able to hear two of seven people who had signed up to testify.

Christine Tiddens, community outreach director for Idaho Voices for Children, said her organization especially appreciated the legislation’s efforts to preserve sibling connections and strengthen support and services for recently unified families.

foster care
A 6-year-old boy in foster care gets ready to go to school March 6, 2017, in Twin Falls. Drew Nash Times-News

“Strong wraparound services can really help the ease of this transition,” Tiddens said. “While we don’t want any children to remain in the foster care system any longer than absolutely necessary, we want to ensure that they go home to safe and stable environments with supports readily available if things get tough.”

Some reforms may prove more complicated to enact than others, however. The Department of Health and Welfare fully supports most of the legislation, deputy director Lori Wolff told the committee. But she voiced concerns about the fiscal costs and increased workload expected to accompany new standards for investigating and reviewing cases.

Dr. Robert Ball, senior vice president of programs at the Idaho Youth Ranch, was among those who had signed up to testify but were unable to do so.

Ball told the Times-News that he found the establishment of a legislative oversight committee and strengthened support services for families particularly important.

“I really see this as a great first step in addressing the gaps that we know are in the foster care system,” Ball said. “And then really our ultimate goal should be to reduce the number of kids who are in foster care.”