Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #10: Youth-Friendly State Ombudsman Offices

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Keola Limkin, a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii.

The Proposal

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, passed in 2014, makes clear the federal position that youth in foster care have a right to participate in case planning, obtain their records and pursue “normal” youth activities such as sports, music, dating and other extracurriculars.

Limkin would require the establishment of a state-level, “youth-friendly” Children’s Ombudsman Office as a condition of a state’s eligibility for federal foster care and adoption funding under Title IV-E. These offices should have independent oversight of child welfare services, and an online complaint form that is easy to fill out.

The Argument

Keola Limkin, a graduate of the University of Hawaii

Recent legislation, such as the 2014 bill Limkin proposes amending and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, have established federal requirements around what youth in foster care are entitled to.

But “despite the advances that have been made,” Limkin argues, “youth’s rights are still being violated, and few know where to go to file complaint and get the help they need.”

An ombudsman or child advocate office is the right step, he says, because it is not reasonable to assume that a youth unhappy with a case worker or caregiver could simply go above their heads to a county or regional director, or to a judge.

In His Own Words

“I was fortunate to have many of my wants and needs met by my foster parent, social worker and guardian ad litem. However, through living with other foster siblings and advocating for foster youth as an adult, I have seen the everyday life struggles of youth who were not as fortunate.

… While interviewing teenage youth in care at three events and hearing testimony over the past two years, I found that many youth were unaware of their rights or had rights violated.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

The federal government has heaped more responsibility onto states in the past ten years when it comes to youth in foster care. Keeping siblings together, maintaining schools of origin, normalcy standards and access to records are some of the many things that the federal government has required of states since 2008.

Are states living up to those requirements? It is too soon to know, as federal data collection has lagged behind the mandates of Fostering Connections and Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families bills. So Limkin’s thesis really hones in on a reality of the past decade in federal child welfare policy: the national mandates of better foster care are stronger than the assurances that they will be met.

And without really knowing if the new requirements are being zealously followed, there is, of course, no financial repercussion coming down from above for failing to live up them. And were there evidence that states weren’t complying, the Department of Health and Human Services has not demonstrated a track record for making use of its ability to withhold federal funds as punishment.

So Limkin’s assertion is a good one in our opinion. In the absence of a strong monitoring on the macro level, the feds ought to at least assure that states are taking foster youth rights seriously on a case-by-case basis.

He notes that 27 states have some form of child welfare ombudsman, which is good because it cuts the legs out from under the “this is burdensome regulation” argument. And on the flip side, Limkin’s research also reveals the need for uniformity in this realm: 11 of the 27 aren’t independent of the system that generates the complaints, and only three feature an online form that Limkin would describe as “youth friendly, e.g. easy to complete.”

The concept dovetails nicely with the proposals made by two of Limkin’s colleagues, Jameshia Shepherd and Jameelah Love. Shepherd argues for guarantees that foster youth will be made aware of their resources and rights when it comes to higher education; Love calls for a federal foster care bill of rights.

An independent ombudsman office could serve as a central vehicle to ensure that both of those concepts were implemented if passed and could serve as the receiver of grievances as proposed by Limkin. HHS should have some responsibility to pay for the development of such offices, at least in the early days.

The question left unanswered in Limkin’s proposal is the base of this office’s power. It is one thing to intake a grievance or ensure that each foster youth was made aware of their bill of rights. But what recourse does this office have if it substantiates a grievance, or believes a child’s rights as a foster youth have been violated?

A study of existing ombudsman offices, not limited to the ones that exist in the child welfare arena, might help inform an answer to that critical question.

Click here to read the full report, including all of the FYI proposals.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1117 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.