Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #6: Improving Foster Care for Refugee Minors

Noor Kathem, 23, an undergraduate student at Arizona State University

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 10 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 Noor Kathem, 23, an undergraduate student at Arizona State University.

The Proposal

Kathem, who came to America as an Iraqi refugee and was resettled in California, proposes two federal grant programs aimed at improving the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program, which is overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kathem’s two grant programs would seed the development of a “navigator program” to connect young refugees with available supports, and target the recruitment of more culturally competent foster families for the URM program.

The Argument

Kathem cites ORR statistics that since 1980, about 1,300 URM youth have been placed into state and county foster care systems. Because these youths represent a tiny fraction of the foster care universe, he writes, “state and local foster care agencies … often struggle to meet their unique needs.”

In His Own Words

“Without dedicated foster parents who were teachers and advocated on my behalf for an extra year of school, I would not have graduated high school, gone to college or begun preparing for law school. Without them, I might have given up hope and succumbed to feeling lost.”

The Chronicle’s Take

We always learn a new thing or two from the research by Foster Youth Interns. It is interesting that the URM program uses federal payments to state foster care to provide for these youth – the now-controversial asylum program, also run by ORR and serving Central American youth, has its own contained foster care network.

Tools for Transformation, the most recent set of policy proposals from the Foster Youth Internship Program

The notion of a “navigator” program will be familiar to child welfare observers as a construct to help relatives take care of children who are removed from the home. The recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act includes an offer of federal funds to expand that model.

As Kathem points out, URM youth are a small demographic component of the foster care world. That might make the expense of state-by-state navigator programs a tough sell. But perhaps a bigger, single grant for a national navigator center, that helped steer URM to needed supports, could work.

Competitive grants to recruit specially trained foster parents is a solid concept, but convincing Congress of it might take some proof of a problem. Are placements of URM youth frequently disrupting, more so than those of other foster youth? A study by the Government Accountability Office could shine a light on practices and outcomes in a few states where a high number of URM foster care placements occur.

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