Twelve Child Welfare Reform Ideas from Former Foster Youth

The annual Foster Youth Intern (FYI) report, published by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, has emerged as the best injection of fresh thinking on federal child welfare policy.

The report includes federal reform proposals crafted by former foster youth who have spent the summer interning on Capitol Hill. Their personal experiences are often the backbone of their views; the Washington experience helps them translate it to actionable ideas.

The report’s significance amounts to addition by subtraction. The standard Beltway modus operandi when it comes to former foster youth is to have them testify in support of policy initiatives and legislation crafted by adults.

It is a highly effective strategy. Frequently, the youth or young adult testifying before a Congressional committee will have a far greater impact on legislators than even the most articulate adult.

The FYI report removes the “middle man,” so to speak. It empowers about 12 former foster youths every year to independently convey what’s important in their lives in the language best understood in this city: policy proposals.

Each of the proposals is unique, but taken together, they suggest the broader issues in play for youth. Among last year’s themes: a desire for more youth empowerment, better identity protection, and more immediacy in the provision of mental health services.

This year’s report comes at an interesting time in the dialogue on federal reform. Senate leaders from both parties on the powerful Finance Committee – Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) – have expressed interest in changing the federal priorities within child welfare.

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2015 Foster Youth Interns

Wyden has introduced a bill that would overhaul the multi-billion dollar IV-E entitlement, which currently supports only foster care services. Wyden’s plan permits certain time-limited services aimed at preventing the need for foster care, reunifying families, or arranging for placement with relatives.

While Hatch has not endorsed the bill as it is, he did voice support for working with Wyden on the goal of steering more federal funding toward the front end of child welfare.

The 2015 FYI report is a stark reminder that there will always be kids still in foster care, and there’s work to be done on how they are served by the systems charged with their well being.

Following are a few overarching themes emerged we noted in this year’s batch of proposals.

Quality of Foster Care for Older Youth

Recognition has grown on Capitol Hill that too many youth continue to “age out” of foster care, either at age 18 or at age 21 in states that have expanded their scope under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.

A bill signed into law last year took some small steps toward addressing this. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act ended the use of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement – long-term foster care — for children below the age of 16. For older teens, caseworkers will have to repeatedly defend that path and detail efforts to find permanent placements.

The same bill also reauthorized the Adoption Incentives program, and added a major bonus for states that can increase the number of older youth headed to either adoptions or guardianship placements.

The FYI proposals speak to the reality that, despite Congress’ best intentions, lots of teens are still going to enter adulthood out of foster care. And efforts to curb that total should be accompanied by some better guarantees for the youth who remain on that track.

Proposals on quality of care include:

Normalcy

Keri Richmond proposes an informal outreach by Congressmen to state agencies urging them to afford more extracurricular opportunities to youth in care. The letters to agencies would inform them about federal funding streams that could be tapped to that end.

Housing

Marcia Hopkins proposes to require a fully funded housing plan covering “at least” six months for anybody set to age out of foster care. This would be accomplished through an amendment to the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.

Group Homes

Congress is contemplating limits on federal spending when it comes to group homes. Eric Barrus makes the case that family-operated homes, where the homeowners are also foster parents, should be treated differently.

He calls for research and pilot testing to see whether group homes like the one he thrived in should be a more relied-upon option for older boys.

Education

Angelique Salizan calls for a requirement that states designate one educational-vocational specialist (EVS) in each child welfare agency. The EVS would be responsible for assessing the individual challenges for any student in foster care, and connecting them with any resources or assistance that can help in the pursuit of employment or college.

Another FYI, Kenya Adeola, proposes tripling the Chafee education award, which provides college tuition and living assistance for students who are in foster care or have aged out of it. She also calls for a federal incentive for states that offer tuition waivers to foster youth.

Reporting Abuse

Ashley Williams wants requirements at the state level that would improve the ability of foster youths to report abuse and neglect in foster homes. Autonomous ombudsman’s offices and better communication about hotline services are among Williams’ specific recommendations.

Mental Health Services

As was the case last year, mental health was very much on the mind of several FYIs. This year brought four proposals that focused on four points on the spectrum:

Prevention

Brianne Lyn Nagamine recommends subtle changes to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence program that would enable states to use federal funds for peer networks and health curricula aimed at preventing suicide and self-harm.

Detection

Cierrena Spataro-Haynes wants a Government Accountability Office investigation on services for foster youths whose birth parent(s) suffers from a serious mental illness (SMI). While those youth are seriously at risk of suffering from mental illness themselves, it is unclear whether most systems do anything special in these cases.

Monitoring

Jennessa Ahline proposes federally mandated timelines on mental health services for youth in care. The clock starts 30 days after entry to care, at which point an initial screening must be complete. Agencies would be on the hook for delivering services 30 days after that, and a comprehensive screening 30 days after that.

Treatment

Matthew Broderick proposed increased federal regulation of psychiatric medication administered to youth in foster care.

Improving Adoption Knowledge Base

The other two other proposals honed in on what we’ll call “quality control” for federal adoption efforts, the need for better information on adoption patterns.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act requires states for the first time to report the amount of adoptions from foster care that fail. But Destiny Reid writes that more information needs to be collected about what happened before the failure.

That same legislation increased the federal incentives to states for finalizing adoptions of older youth. But Lindsey Harrington proposes additional federal support and research related to increasing adoptions of African-American boys.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1115 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.