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Kline Statement: Markup of H.R. 4843, the Improving Safe Care for the Prevention of Infant Abuse and Neglect Act

Today, the committee will take an important step in preventing the abuse and neglect of infants born with opioid addiction. As we all know, an opioid epidemic has swept across the country. This epidemic is destroying communities; it is destroying families; it is destroying lives; and perhaps most tragically, it is destroying the lives of the most vulnerable among us.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act has long provided grants to states to help prevent child abuse and neglect, as well as identify, assess, and treat the victims. In order to receive federal funding, states have to provide some basic assurances about their child welfare policies. For example, states have to assure there are policies in place to notify child protective services when a newborn is identified with the symptoms of illegal substance abuse, as well as policies for the development of a safe care plan for the newborn. Sadly, an unwillingness to follow and enforce the law is leading to tragic consequences.

In 2015, Reuters spent a year investigating cases of infants born to parents struggling with opioid addiction. As is often the case with addiction, the parents’ struggle had repercussions for those around them, including their newborns. According to Reuters, more than 130,000 babies born in the United States in the last decade entered the world addicted to drugs. That is a startling statistic on its own, but even more startling are the stories of those infants who, after suffering through the pain of withdrawal, later suffered deaths that should have been prevented.

Of the fatalities the report examined, more than 40 children died of suffocation. Thirteen others died after swallowing toxic doses of opioids. Some of the stories are simply too painful and disturbing to mention, and again, the saddest part of this all is that these tragedies should have been prevented.

Needless to say, this report raised a number of red flags. It prompted us to write to the Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to better understand the process for reviewing and approving state applications for federal funds. It’s fair to say that the response we received was disappointing, suggesting that changes to the law somehow absolve the department from its enforcement responsibilities. Regardless of any changes to the law in recent years, it was never Congress’s intent to cut a blank check to states who fail to follow the law.

These parents and their children deserve better. Fortunately, efforts are underway to provide real help and hope to these families. Programs like Lily’s Place, an infant recovery center in West Virginia, are not only helping to wean children off of the drugs they are born addicted to, but also teaching mothers how to care for infants suffering through withdrawal. This is just one of a handful of similar programs across the country and an excellent example of the work being done to address the country’s growing opioid epidemic.

While these community efforts are vitally important, there are also steps we in Congress can take to help ensure these vulnerable women and children no longer slip through the cracks. The Improving Safe Care for the Prevention of Infant Abuse and Neglect Act is part of that effort.

This commonsense measure will require the Department of Health and Human Services to better ensure states are meeting current child welfare requirements. It makes clear the department’s responsibilities in confirming states have policies in place to prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect, particularly infants exposed to illegal substances before birth. The bill also includes provisions that will improve accountability and help states develop plans to keep infants and their families healthy and safe. In short, it strengthens the current system and helps address a real, immediate need.

I want to thank Representatives Barletta and Clark for their leadership on this issue and for working together to deliver the bipartisan proposal under consideration today. I’m confident their work will be an important part of the House’s larger effort to combat the country’s growing opioid epidemic. Too many American families are struggling with the consequences of this national crisis, and it’s time we, as policymakers and as a nation, said, “Enough.”