Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #2: Increasing Normalcy for 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 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 Keri Richmond, a student at Kent State University in Ohio who was adopted from foster care.

The Proposal

Richmond proposes an informal outreach effort by Congress, coupled with inclusion of normalcy in a bill that would direct federal dollars to a social entrepreneurship program.

First, Richmond calls on each member of Congress to send a letter to their state’s child welfare agency. Said letter should encourage spending on extracurricular activities for foster youths, and outline for those agencies what federal funds might be used to that end.

The Social Impact Partnership Act (S. 1089 and H.R. 1336) is a piece of pending legislation that proposes to establish a $300 million federal fund aimed at helping fuel social impact, or pay-for-success (PFS), projects.

In general, a PFS project entails a state or local government entering into an agreement with a team consisting of an intermediary, one or more service providers, and private funders. That team proposes a strategy to achieve a needed social outcome: improving graduation rates, for example. Private dollars fund the venture; the government pays back with interest, but only if agreed-upon benchmarks are met.

Richmond proposes to include the following group in the Social Impact Partnership Act:  “Programs and organizations that improve outcomes as a result of healthy adult relationships through age-appropriate and extracurricular activities for foster youth.”

The Argument

State and county governments are responsible for what happens to children in foster care, but agency workers are of course not around every day to oversee and check on them. The liability concerns created by that dynamic have prompted strict regulations about what foster youths can do outside of school and home.

This greatly limits the ability of youths in care to engage in extracurricular activities and other “normal” youthful activities like sleepovers, dates and sports.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, passed last year, requires states to establish “prudent parenting” standards that grant a reasonable amount of freedom to foster youths. Richmond writes that while this is an important stride, there must be a greater push to actually steer financial support toward supporting foster youth participation in out-of-school activities.

In Her Own Words

keri
Keri Richmond

“My involvement in extracurricular activities helped me build significant and supportive relationships with peers and adults while also building my self-esteem. Without these experiences and relationships, I would not be where I am today. I am now a twenty-one-year-old college student moving toward success, and I know it is because of the mentors who encouraged me, supported me, and helped me to believe in myself.”

The Chronicle’s Take

Richmond takes the right approach to this issue, which is never going to find complete relief in federal solutions. The federal government has no innate ability to insert itself into the liability concerns facing a state or county agency with an overprotective plan for foster youths that is probably wrongheaded for the right reasons.

This issue is really two problems rolled up into one. The first problem is the restrictive rules some systems put in place; the second problem is a paucity of funds to support the activities that are permitted.

A well-crafted letter writing campaign from Congress might not sound like a big move, but it could accomplish two things. For starters, that letter might actually include information on funding streams the agency or agencies aren’t taking advantage of. If one state found out it could tap a new funding stream to provide extracurriculars to foster kids, it would be worth all 535 letters.

But more important than that? It gives state and local systems cover if they want it. We can cut through the semantics of normalcy with one blunt statement: once a kid is in foster care, every place other than the foster home or school is a place he or she could be killed. That is of course true for all kids, everywhere, but nobody can sue or slam the state if those other children die.

That is an insane prism through which to view the appropriate activities of foster youth, and we’re sure states and counties with restrictive policies know that. A letter from a U.S. Senator or Representative, urging a sane approach, could provide the needed cover to make a change.

As for the Social Impact Partnership Act, Richmond has the right idea but might be asking for the wrong thing. This act does not open up funding for any particular program, it facilitates investments in outcomes.

So programs are the means, but outcomes are the end. The question is: what end is the provision of foster youth extracurriculars a means to?

This act proposes 14 specific outcomes for PFS projects. Some examples:

  • Improving rates of high school graduation
  • Reducing teen and unplanned pregnancies
  • Reducing incidences of child abuse and neglect

In our view, none of them are likely to involve an investment in foster youth normalcy. So the trick would be to get an additional outcome included in this act that would.

A suggestion, for what it’s worth: “Increase in the percentage of former foster youths who are in college or employed full time by age 23.” As Richmond points out, it was the extracurricular activities and the mentors she gained from them who helped make her a success at that age.

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

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1108 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.