Twelve Child Welfare Reform Ideas from Former Foster Youth

Every year, one of Youth Services Insider’s favorite assignments is poring over the policy recommendations of the 12 young people selected for the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a program operated by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each participant interns for a member of Congress and produces one proposal on how to improve child welfare policy.

This year’s collection, “Powerful Voices,” did not disappoint.

These young people have all spent time in foster care, and have now spent time in politics, leaving with at least some sense of how the sausage is made. Each year, without fail, we find at least one “How has this not been done yet” proposal within the words of this report.

Another cool thing about the collection of these 12 proposals: each year, it seems, a strong theme or two really emerge among the ideas. Two years ago, it was youth empowerment and mental health services timelines. Last year, it was the quality of foster care for older youth and data collection on adoption.

Here are a few observations from YSI on what themes emerged in “Powerful Voices.”

Stability

The most frequent subject broached in this year’s proposals was placement stability in foster care. Five different FYI interns suggest policies aimed at improving local child welfare performance in this area.

The majority of foster youth spend more than a year in care, and the majority of that group experience three or more placements. It is no surprise that placement stability was on the minds of many FYI participants, because as a group they spent an average of 11 years in care. Five of them spent 15 or more years in the system.

LilCrystal Dernier wants to move toward a time when all states will include training on attachment for all foster parents. Jennifer Rhodes proposed including “foster care preservation” funding to help resolve the sort of conflicts that lead to potentially unnecessary placement moves for kids.

And on the flipside, as Ivy-Marie Washington points out, some part of placement stability problems stems from the fact that bad foster homes are too often allowed to stay in business. She proposes a policy that would ensure foster homes with multiple allegations of maltreatment are cut out of the system.

David Rivera eloquently wrote about the child welfare system’s handling of LGBTQ foster youth, who experience multiple placements at twice the rate of other foster kids. Rivera argues the first steps are better national data on LGBTQ kids in care, and required competency training for foster homes.

Erica Ontiveros spent some of her time in foster care watching fellow foster youth alternating between juvenile hall and group homes. Contact with the juvenile justice system can greatly disrupt any stability in an already volatile time for youth in foster care.

It is time, Ontiveros argues, for the juvenile justice system to start tracking foster youth who are arrested and notify child welfare systems when it happens.

Finance Reform

As YSI covered at length this summer, a bipartisan reform of federal child welfare funds called the Family First Preservation Services Act passed the House of Representatives, and then stalled in the Senate as some states raised concerns about the bill. We will see this fall if the bill’s proponents are able to work with those critical of the legislation to start it moving again.

Report Cover
To read Powerful Voices, visit: http://bit.ly/2ayKLKP

While Family First presents a plan for broader finance reform, three FYI participants made the case for a few targeted proposals.

Demetrius Johnson saw his adoption fall apart, and continued to struggle while the person who abandoned him cashed adoption subsidy checks. Johnson calls for more clarity on the termination of subsidies when a parent is no longer providing support, and wants to reverse the federal preclusion on states investigating and rooting out fraud.

Princess Harmon proposes that all states adopt a minimum foster care reimbursement rate commensurate with the cost of raising a kid in a middle-class family. Based on estimates developed in a 2007 report, very few states come close to that at the moment.

Jason Morin supports the Family First Act’s inclusion of substance abuse treatment within the federal IV-E entitlement. He also looks past that to implementation, and calls for a requirement that states adopt family drug court standards if they want those federal funds for addiction treatment.

Firmer Federal Regs

Two FYI participants identified points where federal rules had left policies open to interpretation at the state level in a way they believed was harmful to the lives of foster youth.

Kristopher Wannquist proposes that states with federal extensions of foster care to age 21 be required to let older youth come back into care after attempting independence. At the moment, states have the option to allow that, or not.

Wannquist’s proposal is in line with the legislators who developed the extended care plan in the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed in 2008. The expectation was for extended care to be fluid; the regulations developed by the Department of Health and Human Services gave states a choice.

Vaneshia Reed discussed the one aspect of foster home and kinship licensing where the federal government has a firm mandate: criminal background checks. They set a hard ban on homes with persons convicted of certain violent or drug-related crimes.

As for other offenses, the feds leave it up to the state to decide, meaning that a state could put an outright ban on licensing foster parents for any number of low-level offenses.

Reed proposes that the federal law require states to only automatically exclude convicts specified in the federal guidelines, and that any other home at least be considered.

Oversight

Two FYI participants proposed policies meant to improve oversight in different parts of the system.

Tori Wichman called for the provision of advocates to all foster youth, someone with a degree of separation from the system itself, who would champion any child’s claim that they were not safe or secure in a placement. Too often, Wichman argues from personal experience, a caseworker’s own feelings about a youth can influence how seriously they are taken.

Precious Price calls for Congress to pilot a “Foster Care Mental Health Center” model aimed at better coordinating mental health services to foster youth. Price also proposes a IV-E special match rate for any child welfare agency that hires a child psychiatrist as its mental health director.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.