Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #3: Fighting Bias, Stereotypes of Foster Youth

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, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Tori Wichman, 20, a student at Hillsdale College.

The Proposal

Wichman calls for Congress to require states to ensure that every foster youth has an advocate – not their caseworker – whose job is to advocate for the child’s best interests. Conversations between the child and advocate should be considered confidential and privileged.

She also calls for one day during National Foster Care Awareness Month to be focused on fighting back against foster youth stereotypes and labels.

The Argument

Caseworkers, Wichman argues, “are not unbiased advocates and at times have a conflicting duty as representatives of the state or county child protective services.”

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Tori Wichman, 20, a student at Hillsdale College

This, she believes, can lead to situations where a caseworker’s bias against one or many foster youth leads to less-than-rigorous investigations of abuse and neglect claims in foster homes. Twenty of the fifty states did not meet federal standards for the absence of maltreatment in foster care.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act provides some federal funding for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, which provides advocates and in some cases legal counsel in line with what Wichman supports.

But “not every foster youth in the U.S. is offered an advocate,” Wichman writes. “Every foster youth should have an advocate who advocates for their best interest.”

In Her Own Words

“Because I was labeled with a negative title after telling the truth about abuse and attempting to protect my little brother, I became insecure. In subsequent foster homes, demeaning stereotypes and labels were plastered on me as soon as I walked in the door. Foster parents did not trust me because of the inaccurate portrayals in my case file.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

For starters, an annual campaign that challenges bogus stereotypes of foster youth should absolutely be part of National Foster Care Awareness Month. No need for further exploration, Wichman is right on there.

It is difficult in the current structure of child welfare finance for the federal government to “require” any provision of service for all foster youth. It is theoretically possible, if for example providing an advocate was a requirement to receive a large federal allocation. But that amounts to an unfunded mandate on state and county agencies, and there is not much political appetite for those.

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2016 participants in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program

It is worth noting that training advocates to assist in the child welfare process is already a reimbursable expense under the rules of IV-E, the major entitlement through which states receive federal support for foster care and adoption from foster care.

We also suspect that while advocates are an important part of the system, especially in areas where caseworkers are burdened with high caseloads, they might not be the best solution to the problem at the heart of Wichman’s thesis.

Her central concern is that the way different people in the system feel about certain foster youth, or all foster youth, can influence the investigation of maltreatment claims made against foster parents. The best way to push back against that potential bias might be to establish a foster home maltreatment reporting system that is austere from the child welfare system. Perhaps either a small office at an ombudsman’s office, or with the state police, who could manage a database of complaints lodged against foster homes.

It is certainly not a foolproof plan to take every claim seriously and objectively. But it sure would be hard to ignore the same type of allegations, over time, from the same foster home. Surely, a database compiled independently of case workers would bear that out.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1094 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.