Youth Generate Ideas for Improving Oregon’s Foster Care System

The Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC) released a slate of policy recommendations at its bi-annual OFYC Policy Conference in July. Photo credit: Nathaniel Schwab and OFYC

At its bi-annual policy conference, Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC) announced recommendations designed to improve the state’s foster care system as it prepares to introduce legislation during the next legislative session.

Those ideas include boosting housing supports for foster youth at risk of homelessness, increasing funding for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), expanding mental health and dental services available to foster youth, and providing sexual health and awareness classes to foster youth.

“These policy recommendations have the potential to create needed change in Oregon’s foster care system,” said Marilyn Jones, child welfare director at the Oregon Department of Human Services, in an OFYC press release. “Foster youth are the experts when it comes to how we can improve foster care.”

OFYC is a youth-led advocacy organization, made up of current and former foster youth in the state between the ages of 14 and 24. Founded in 2008, the group has helped to develop and pass several state foster care bills, including several important measures over the past three years.

In 2017, members tackled the issue of sibling visitation. The new law created a bill of rights for siblings in care, including that youth be provided with transportation to visit their siblings, that they be notified of siblings’ placement changes or involvement in “catastrophic events” and that caseworkers and foster parents be trained on the importance of sibling relationships.

The group was also behind a 2015 effort to make it easier for youth in care to participate in extracurricular activities, including academic, athletic or social activities available through a young person’s school or community. Citing the way that such activities can help link foster youth to the community and help build important peer relationships, the law requires Oregon’s Department of Human Services make sure that all foster youth have the opportunity to participate in at least one extracurricular activity, and that caregivers must work with the agency to support the youth.

OFYC also helped to pass another law in 2015 that mandated that DHS create a savings account for all youth in care as soon as they turn 12. It was created to prepare youth for financial independence after they leave state custody. Foster parents and other caregivers are barred from accessing the account without the young person’s consent and the savings account include overdraft protection.

Last week, current and former foster youth gathered in Salem and pitched their policy ideas to state policymakers, DHS administrators, service providers and community members.

The full list of this year’s policy recommendations includes:

  • Increase funding for Independent Living Program (ILP) services, including services for foster youth exiting treatment centers.
  • Increase funding for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) and increase the diversity of CASA volunteers.
  • Create sexual awareness classes provided by DHS caseworkers with curriculum designed by doctors, psychologists and those with lived experiences, with a focus on the mental and emotional aspects of sexual health.
  • Expand Oregon Health Plan (OHP) coverage to include more options for alternative mental health services and treatment, and improve access to dental specialists such as orthodontics.
  • Provide youth in care with a complete list of mental health resources and all available mental health services.
  • Establish crisis plans in order to facilitate permanency by preventing unnecessarily moving foster youth from their homes.
  • Youth transitioning into care must receive mental health counseling and foster parents and the caseworker must interact with youth for one month before conducting the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS) assessment.
  • Hire former foster youth to bridge communication barriers between DHS and current foster youth so youth know their rights and opportunities for obtaining housing.
  • Foster youth must receive an in-person meeting at age 14 informing them of housing opportunities, followed by a mandatory follow-up meeting every 6-12 months to document progress. Prioritize the housing needs of youth with a higher risk of homelessness, including LGBTQ youth and youth of color.
  • Support relationships and bonding between foster parents and foster youth by requiring caseworkers to provide classes, trainings, and resources regarding religion, lifestyle, and bonding in easy to access formats such as posters, packets, and websites.
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