By State Sen. Erin Houchin (R-Salem)

As of this March, more than 14,500 children in Indiana were unable to stay in their own homes because of abuse or neglect. Consider the entire United States, and the number grows to almost half a million.

It is crucial to address the root causes of child abuse and neglect in our state, but it is just as important that we focus on supporting these vulnerable children and the foster parents who take them in. That’s why I authored legislation to give foster parents a stronger voice in court and help improve stability for children in foster care, which passed the Indiana General Assembly this year.

Oftentimes, foster parents care for a child for months, or even years and their experience with the child’s situation can help provide valuable input to the court. Senate Enrolled Act 1 recognizes this and gives foster parents the ability to share their recommendations about a child’s welfare with a court.

SEA 1 also reforms the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) by providing for better in-home placement processes to keep children in the most family-like settings possible. It is emotionally traumatic for a child to be taken out of the care of their parents, even if the child was being abused or neglected. To keep these children in the most stable situation possible, DCS will now be required to attempt to identify all suitable adult relatives of a child at the time out-of-home placement is recommended, if it is determined to be in the best interest of the child for them to remain in the care of a family member.

In addition, SEA 1 creates a “right of first choice” that would require a court to attempt to place a child who has had repeated out-of-home placements with foster parents who have cared for them previously. It is traumatizing for a child to be placed in out-of-home care in the first place, but when it happens more than once it can be especially difficult for the child. Placing them in the care of adults they already have a relationship with will help make this uneasy time a little more stable.

As a former DCS caseworker, I am all too familiar with the tragedy of children being abused and neglected and the sacrifices foster parents make to help take care of them. I’m proud to have authored and advocated for this legislation alongside stakeholders like DCS and current foster parents, and I look forward to seeing it improve our state’s foster care system.

Erin Houchin is a State Senator.