Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #5: Better Reporting Options for Maltreatment in Foster Care

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 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 carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington. Today we highlight the recommendation of Ashley Williams, 25, a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Proposal

Improve the ability of foster youths to report maltreatment in care by mandating autonomous state ombudsmen offices, requiring that foster youths be notified of any hotline available in their area, and standardizing federal data reporting on abuse and neglect.

Williams also calls for mandatory, age-appropriate sex education for any youth entering foster care.

The Argument

Hotlines, investigators and mandated reports serve as the backbone of an elaborate American system set up to discover and intervene when children are sexually abused. The number of children reporting such victimization has plummeted in recent years but the number of child sexual abuse reports made by adults has increased.

It is a sad irony that kids in foster care — who have by definition already experienced maltreatment — are at high risk of having further sexual abuse go unreported. Their likeliest abusers, foster family members or group home staff, are obviously not going to report it. And as Williams points out, “The people that are supposed to protect foster youth, such as caseworkers, foster parents or residential staff, sometimes intimidate foster youth from reporting abuse.”

Williams believes that requiring lanes of reporting outside the system housing the alleged abuser, and making those options clear to foster youths, will improve the prospects of sexual abuse in care getting reported. And mandated education sessions, she argues, will give “children the tools they need to understand what abuse is and how to protect themselves.”

In Her Own Words

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Ashley Williams

“After I entered care, I believed I would be in a safe environment. This was not the case. I was sexually abused by various foster family members. When I reported the abuse to my caseworker, I was accused of wearing clothing that provoked my abusers to behave that way. During my eight years in foster care, I bounced between 36 different homes and I was molested throughout my time in care. The system designed to protect me from sexual abuse failed to provide me with ways to report the further sexual abuse in foster care.”

The Chronicle’s Take

Read her proposal, and you’ll see that Williams certainly makes her case that states vary widely in the way they facilitate. Some have strong hotlines, others have none at all. Some have an ombudsman’s office; few have one that is autonomous from the system that, in this instance, has perhaps produced the sexual abuse.

The challenge comes in connecting new requirements to money; that is the only hope of standardizing the collection of data on this issue in the most straightforward way, because that could be done through a reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA).

That reauthorization process might be the best place to insert a requirement about autonomous ombudsmen offices. We have no idea what the cost of that would be; if it’s pricey, CAPTA won’t work, because it’s a pretty small amount of money.

We were genuinely surprised that only “a handful” of states operate a 24/7 hotline that foster youth can use to report sexual abuse. That seems like a no-brainer at this point, given how cheap communication is.

The education aspect reminded us of a proposal from Kellie Henderson of last year’s FYI class. Henderson called for states to create “comfort and inform curriculum” to help prepare youths for the foster care system. Adding classes or sessions aimed at empowering youths to speak up about abuse while in care makes sense.

Click here to read Williams’ entire proposal and those of her fellow FYI participants.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1210 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.