Murray Introduces 'Secure and Healthy Families Act'

Aug 02 2002

Bill will strengthen protections for the most disadvantaged families

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – This week, Sen. Patty Murray introduced legislation to strengthen America's families by making some welfare rules more flexible, helping teen parents, increasing funds for counseling, and supporting care givers for disabled children.

Senator Murray's bill would also create a Secure and Healthy Families fund to support such state and local efforts as providing family counseling, income enhancement and teen pregnancy prevention programs, rather than using welfare dollars for marriage promotion as the President has proposed.

"Families in Washington state and across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and children are living in poverty," Murray said. "My bill will strengthen the safety net our most vulnerable families depend on. It is a critical step in our work to leave no child behind."

Helping teen parents to succeed

Current welfare law requires that teen mothers be living in an "appropriate living arrangement" before they can receive any assistance. For some teen parents, this means returning to a violent home in order to obtain funds to feed their infant. Murray's bill provides teens extra time and support to find a safe home for themselves and their child. It also gives these young parents the opportunity to get a good education by counting teen education as work, and not counting the time that a teen parent is in school against their five-year lifetime limit until they are twenty years old.

Supporting victims of domestic violence

In 1996, Sen. Murray secured provisions in the welfare reform bill that gave some states the flexibility to waive federal requirements to help families escape domestic violence. Given that as many as 70% of women on welfare have been subjected to domestic violence, Murray's new bill extends the Family Violence Option to cover all 50 states.

Recognizing that some batterers make it dangerous or impossible for victims of domestic violence to hold a job, this bill allows states to count those women working to overcome domestic violence as working, and to exceed the twenty percent "hardship exemption" if they need to do so to protect victims of domestic violence.

Rewarding Care Giving

Current law contains protections for parents of children under age six who refuse cannot work because they cannot find child care. This bill strengthens that protection by ensuring that parents know their options and extends that protection to parents who have a school age child (up to age 13) and cannot find after school or summer care, as well as to parents who have a sick or disabled child of any age and cannot find appropriate care.

Given that child care for infants and toddlers is the most scarce and expensive, this bill allows mothers to care for their own infants. Current law gives states the option to exempt parents with a child under the age of one from work. This bill requires states to allow a parent with a child under age one to care for their own child, and gives states the option to exempt parents with children up to age three.

Senator Murray's statement follows:

"Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, since the 1996 welfare reform, our nation has experienced one of the longest economic booms in history, but families are still struggling to make ends meet, and children are still living in poverty.

Now, with the recession, working families are facing even more barriers on the path toward self-sufficiency, and states are struggling to maintain their existing programs. In my own state of Washington, we've seen the results of the recession: good jobs are more difficult to find, welfare rolls are up, and state budget cuts have taken a chunk out of childcare and other critical supports for our most disadvantaged families. It is with this in mind that I am pleased to introduce the Secure and Healthy Families Act of 2002.

The Secure and Healthy Families Act will help build on the successes of welfare reform. This bill gives us an important opportunity to reaffirm that we value America's families and that we will protect our children. This bill takes what we know from our own experiences as parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents and what research has proven to be effective to help us move toward the goal of building healthy families. It does not impose inflexible top-down strategies. Instead, it allows states to support work and engage families on assistance. It will help build secure and healthy families in a number of ways.

First, this legislation will create the Promoting Healthy Families Fund that enables the Secretary of HHS to fund state activities to promote and support secure families. For example, the fund would support state and local efforts to provide family counseling, income enhancement programs for working poor families-like the successful Minnesota Family Investment Program, or teen pregnancy prevention programs that help young people avoid the poverty that often comes with these unplanned pregnancies.

Second, this Act will ensure states recognize that secure and healthy families come in all shapes and sizes. The federal government has long led the way in opposing discrimination, and this bill will continue that critical role.

Next, this bill puts in place several provisions to help teen parents build a better future for themselves and their children. The bill encourages teen parents to remain in school by not counting the time that they are in school against their five-year lifetime limit. Under this legislation, a teen mother would also be given the chance to get on her feet, get settled in school, and find a safe place for her and her baby to live without losing assistance.

Mr. President, in families where children are chronically ill or disabled, parents are confronted with special challenges. Most cannot find appropriate affordable care, and cannot leave sick and vulnerable children alone. They run from the doctor's office and emergency rooms - trying to keep their jobs while dealing with the sudden and frequent life-threatening health problems that these children face. This bill would offer support for these families by recognizing that full time care of a chronically sick or disabled child is hard work, and by giving parents the opportunity to meet their children's special needs.

The bill also strengthens support for those families who are victims of domestic or sexual violence. We know that as many as 70 percent of welfare recipients are or have been victims of domestic violence. This bill sends a clear message to states that they must protect these vulnerable families in several ways including: having comprehensive standards and procedures to address domestic and sexual violence, training caseworkers so that they are sensitive to the unique needs of victims of domestic violence, and informing survivors of domestic and family violence of the existing protections to ensure their privacy and safety.

Most states are approaching domestic violence prevention and assistance in interesting and innovative ways. The bill will provide funding for a national study of best practices on the ways states are addressing domestic violence. In addition, states will be able to continue to provide services to domestic and family violence survivors without worrying about federal exemption caps. The bill will allow these survivors to receive the services they need when they are making the transition out of dangerous situations to safe and successful lives.

Finally, the bill would support relatives who take in underprivileged children. A growing number of children, 2.16 million in 2000, are being cared for solely by grandparents and other relatives. Although some of these children are involved with the child welfare system, many more of these children are able to remain outside of the system because their relatives are able to care for them. Last week a young man named Eustaquito Beltran came to my office to talk to me about the importance of supporting foster children. He told me that he had lived in more than one hundred homes since he was a toddler. The results for children like him are heartbreaking. Fewer than half graduate from high school, and many become homeless after they turn 18.

Prior to being abandoned by or taken away from their parents, most of these children live in poverty with families devastated by substance abuse, mental health disorders, poor education, unemployment, violence, lack of parenting skills, and involvement with the criminal justice system. A 1990 study found that the incidence of emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems among children in foster care was three to six times greater than the incidence of these problems among children not in care.

If care by a relative can help children like Eustaquito avoid the foster care system, then we should be grateful for the assistance that relative is offering. Instead, relatives who care for children with support from TANF are often trapped in a Catch-22. If a grandmother takes in her grandchild, but needs support herself and receives TANF assistance, federal time limits and work requirements apply. It doesn't make sense to require this grandmother, who may have worked for years and finally reached retirement, to return to work in order to help her grandchild stay out of the foster care system.

My bill would exempt kinship care families from federal time limits and work requirements to help ensure ongoing support for these children. This will allow relative caregivers to provide the additional supervision and care that children who have been abused and neglected often need.

Mr. President, the strength of our nation lies in how we care for our most vulnerable. Coming together to support victims of domestic violence, children abandoned by their parents, and teen mothers can make it clear that welfare reform is about helping all Americans succeed, not about punishing the needy.

The Senate must focus our crucial federal welfare dollars on programs and practices that create a bridge to self-sufficiency and productivity while keeping families secure and healthy. I am committed to strengthening the safety net our families depend on so that parents have the skills they need to find work and succeed once they are in the workplace. This bill will ensure that children grow up in secure and healthy families. It is a critical step in our work to leave no child behind."