By Lauren Heffker
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Senate and House committees on Wednesday considered bills to improve youth foster care programs and implement safe haven infant drop boxes in the state.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, would establish an extended foster care program for young adults up to age 21.
Louisiana’s current foster care system ages out children when they turn 18.
“Foster care is traumatic,” said a 22-year-old college student who had been in the state’s foster care system for many years. In an emotional testimony to the House Health and Welfare Committee, she voiced support for the bill. “I moved around six times. I was even separated from my little sister. I was told that people cared about my well being – but I felt like I was worthless and just another number.”
“We are now making a wrong a right,” Barrow said at the hearing. Under her proposed law, foster care in Louisiana would be extended to young adults over 18 who are full-time employees, involved in job training and educational classes, or who cannot go to school or work due to medical reasons.
The bill previously passed the Senate floor without opposition, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is up for re-election in the fall, has included foster care in his budget proposal.
While Barrow’s proposal would cost the state $3 million, Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters, who is a member of the governor’s administration, said in April that Edwards would likely fund the proposal if Barrow’s bill would have legislators’ support.
Barrow’s foster care bill now moves to the House floor for consideration.
Another bill sponsored by Barrow also advanced in the House committee. The proposed law would request the Domestic Violence Prevention Commission to study the long-term effects of domestic violence. Walters said that a research facility such as LSU should conduct the research.
The Commission is part of the Department of Children and Family Services and the 20-member panel includes representatives of state agencies, law enforcement, family advocacy groups and legal associations.
The proposal easily passed the Senate floor last week and now moves to the House floor for consideration.
Meanwhile lawmakers in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced a proposal from Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, for state agencies to investigate the prevention of elder abuse. The proposed legislation already passed the House floor unanimously.
Lawmakers also considered legislation that would protect the lives of newborns.
A proposal that would allow Safe Haven sites in Louisiana to install drop box systems for newborns was deferred after a lengthy debate in the Senate committee.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, would extend the state’s existing “Safe Haven Law.”
Under current law, any parent unable to care for their child may anonymously give up custody of their newborn at a designated emergency care site. The infant can be up to 60 days old. State hospitals, fire stations, police departments, child advocacy centers and certain medical clinics are Safe Haven locations.
There have been 61 infants left to the state under this law since 2004, according to Rhenda Hodnett, assistant secretary of child welfare for the Department of Children and Family Services.
The infant box would be a measure of last resort for parents and a way for people to avoid face-to-face interaction when utilizing the “Safe Haven Law.”
“This does give a last-ditch opportunity,” said committee chairman Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, who presented the proposal on behalf of Pylant.
Pylant’s bill would be permissive, so the facility would not be mandated to implement the drop-off system and cover the $10,000 cost.
The parent would leave the child in the device, which would have an enclosed bassinet mattress with a cover. Then, 60 seconds after opening the box, an alarm would alert on-site care personnel. The infant box would be climate controlled and would have a sign informing parents that the state would assume custody of the child.
Some committee members said that while the premise of the bill was good, they were concerned about the system’s safety.
Sen. Yvonne Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, said she thought the drop-off method presented liability issues. “I don’t like it,” Colomb said. “It’s scary to me.”
“I have so much discomfort in this,” said Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette. “Let’s not rush into this.”
State advocacy groups, including Louisiana Right to Life and the Louisiana Partnership of Children and Families, supported studying the bill further.
Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, supported the bill and said this effort might help to prevent the possible death of infants.
“You can set up this safe haven and it may never be used,” Chabert said. “But if it keeps one child out of the dumpster, it’s a good thing.”