State Efforts Vary When It Comes to Helping Foster Youth Lead Normal Lives

Wisconsin residents Cari Ewald-Neuman, right, and Michelle Ewald-Neuman started fostering three years ago. That experience has changed dramatically with the implementation of Reasonable and Prudent Parent standards. Photo courtesy of Cari Ewald-Neumann.

When you’re a parent, you call the shots. It’s about everyday routines like scheduling bedtime and planning what’s for dinner, and long-term goals like what school they will attend or how old they have to be before they can start dating. It’s up to parents to decide what’s best for the children.

But when Cari Ewald-Neumann and her spouse Michelle were licensed three years ago in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Ewald-Neuman says they felt anything but empowered to make decisions on behalf of the kids they were caring for.

“The hardest thing for us was actually child care,” Ewald-Neuman said. “Everyone had to be vetted and background checked. We had to have our entire family get background checked.”

It wasn’t a simple process to have a neighborhood teen watch the young children even for a few minutes while they ran to the grocery store. But about a year ago, all of that changed when their agency implemented the Reasonable and Prudent Parent standards. Since 2014, as part of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, states have been required to develop their own Reasonable and Prudent Parenting standards that give foster parents typical parenting authority to make decisions on behalf of kids in their care, much like they would if the child had been born to them.

For the Ewald-Neumans, it has allowed them new freedoms to make decisions on behalf of the kids in their care, including getting haircuts and adding some new babysitting options for the kids. Now that the case for their two foster sons is moving closer to termination of parental rights, it’s made all the difference in their parenting.

“For us, it was one of the best things they’ve ever done — it was best for us, it was best for the kids,” Ewald-Neuman said. “Before Reasonable and Prudent Parenting, all of the decisions were based on the legalities of everything, not on what was best for the kids.”

Since the law’s passage, states have taken various avenues to implement the Reasonable and Prudent Parenting standards, including through legislation and directives to agencies providing foster care services in the state. However, each state’s process has looked different.

“This is really a culture shift,” said Jennifer Pokempner, child welfare policy director at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “It’s the foundation for change, but there’s a ton of work that needs to be done. It’s a challenge because you’re asking resource parents to do something that we told them before they couldn’t do.”

The Juvenile Law Center has been providing guidance to some states and agencies, and has contracts with New Jersey and Pennsylvania to develop the policy and practice to support the prudent parent standards, but implementation hasn’t been consistent across all states, especially since no additional funding was provided to help the states with the process.

“Many states like Tennessee really took it seriously,” Pokempner said. “Some states have taken it on and integrated it well because they see the impact in child well-being.”

Tennessee’s Youth Villages has had training and guidance in place for almost three years.

“Before our foster youth weren’t able to do as many normal things,” said Christine Kays, clinical consultant for Tennessee’s Youth Villages, which has a therapeutic foster care program in the state. “Previously, all of the decisions had to get filtered through our staff.”

Now all foster parents complete training providing them guidance on making prudent parenting decisions. There are still times that they must seek approval through their agency, but a list of questions allows them to easily determine when that approval is necessary, Kays said.

A very hands-on approach to communication between the agency, youth and their caregivers with weekly visits helps everyone be on the same page about activities the youth are involved in, as well as parenting decisions being made, Kays said.

“We do a lot of listening and talking about what might be the right decision,” Kays said. “These conversations have been very productive. It builds trust between the foster parent and youth and helps them feel more like a family.”

So far, Kays said she’s seen positive outcomes from the introduction of the standards, and when foster parents have made a decision that the agency felt was questionable, additional training and discussion have been provided.

“None of the decisions have jeopardized the safety of the youth,” Kays said. “We document what happened and what we prefer in the future.”

In Missouri a big part of implementing the prudent parenting standards has included getting stakeholder input, especially from current and former foster youth.

“I’ve been grateful to the youth who’ve used their voice,” said Natalie Allen, program development specialist for Missouri Department of Social Services. “We have a really strong youth advisory board. They were instrumental in providing feedback.”

The state developed a tip sheet for foster parents that helps to guide them when considering parenting decisions. Since the prudent parent policy implementation, Missouri no longer requires background checks just for a youth to sleep at a friend’s house or to get transported to and from extracurricular activities.

“The tip sheet helped us put into layman’s terms what this means,” Allen said.

Allen is currently crafting a survey that will go out to all the stakeholders early this year to get a sense of what the law looks like in practice. And depending on results of the survey, changes may be implemented later this year.

Some of the biggest challenges the state has faced involved getting court partners and other stakeholders on board with the new policies.

“We’ve had pushback on some of the decisions our parents have made,” Allen said. “We’ve had to work with our partners to educate about the law.”

The implementation of prudent parenting policies in Virginia has been more difficult, according to April Estrada, foster care director for Impact Living Services in Virginia. Estrada said little direction has been provided by the state, so its been up to her nonprofit to determine how to implement the policy on their own.

“The information has been unclear,” Estrada said. “Every locality has been interpreting it differently.”

For Impact Living Services, worries about foster parents carrying the liability for their decisions have kept them from making many changes.

“We feel it’s a pretty big liability situation,” Estrada said. “Every decision still gets communicated to us, even the haircuts are run by us.”

Estrada said until there’s more direction provided by the state, she expects few changes will be made in how they operate.

“We are operating with no guidance,” she said. “We are still waiting for more direction from the state.”

It’s a challenge Juvenile Justice Law Center’s Pokempner has seen in many states without clear guidance about the implementation of the law, especially when it comes to making sure the standards are met in more restrictive settings like groups homes.

“To do this well, it takes time because it involves many parts of the system,” Pokempner said. “Group care is challenged. Making sure this is implemented in group care is important. We shouldn’t have kids in settings where we can’t provide them normal child experiences.”

As states continue to implement and fine-tune the Reasonable and Prudent Parent standards, Pokempner said it’s important for states to consider the significance of the standards and how they impact long-term outcomes for youth in care.

“We take for granted the degree these experiences are important,” said Pokempner, but “the law said this can’t be an afterthought.

“By supporting access to activities and experiences, we help youth develop their skills and talents, experience success, and develop relationships with peers and supportive adults in the community,” she said. “All of these things enhance the chances that youth will achieve permanency in addition to supporting their well-being and safety.”

For more information on state legislation that has been passed to meet prudent parenting standards, visit here.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
About Kim Phagan-Hansel 99 Articles
Managing Editor for Fostering Media Connections