YSI: Five Big Reform Proposals from Foster Care Alumni

Last week, Chronicle blogger Sean Hughes recounted his uplifting experience on a weekend retreat with members of the California Youth Connection, an organization that fuels state reform of youth services through youth-led advocacy.

That same week, in Washington, D.C., Youth Services Insider was on hand as a group of foster youth alumni and adoptees briefed a room full of Congressional staffers and national advocates on their ideas for national reform. Each of them interned for a representative or senator over the summer, and had chosen an area of child welfare services to examine.

The Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program, and the collection of ideas its participants produce each year, have – in YSI’s opinion – become an important part of the policy fabric in Washington when it comes to child welfare.

There is an increasing desire, and rightly so, to put adults who had experience in the child welfare system in a position to influence policy and practice. The call to include alumni of foster care in all levels of management and policy making is referenced often in the Child Welfare League of America’s new National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare.

This year’s FYI report, “Our Voice, Their Future,” is a testament to why that is an important concept. Many of the recommendations in it speak directly to what former foster youths and adoptees saw in need of fixing on the ground level.

The report should be available this week on the website of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the organization that oversees the FYI program each summer. We’d highly recommend reading through all of the recommendations, but here are a few that really jumped out to us.

Ashleigh Davenport

Issue: Case Management
“The flaws in the information technology systems allow children to be impacted by human mistake and the busyness of a caseworker’s schedule,” Davenport writes.

Proposal: Repeal the legislation that mandates and funds the State Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS) and replace it with a law that incentivizes internet-based management systems that can be regularly updated and upgraded. Davenport promotes “Casebook,” a system developed as part of Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Case Commons initiative, as one option.

Notes: The recommendation made YSI remember the time he watched Indianapolis family court judge Marilyn Moores give a conference presentation about school referrals to juvenile court. The subject quickly shifted, however, to the web-based case management platform that she displayed some information on during the presentation. A half-hour after it was over, people were still asking her questions about the case management system.

Jaclyn Casey

Issue: Transracial Adoptions
The Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA) requires that states receiving federal adoption funding cannot delay or deny placements “solely on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent or the child.”

When the law was updated in 1996, Casey argues, the subtle removal of the word “solely” in that phrase left state agencies spooked about even discussing race with prospective adoptive parents. The impact of that, she says, is a lack of preparation for white parents who are adopting minority children, particularly African-American children.

Proposal: Amend MEPA to make it clear that pre- and post-adoption support programs about race are allowed and encouraged. Also, the Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System (AFCARS) should require states to report on the number of transracially adopted youth.

Notes: The latter part would be an unfunded mandate on states to figure out how to count and track something, though we suspect it should be a pretty easy tabulation. But the first part? How long should that legislation take to pass, 15 minutes?

Athena-Marie Madison

Issue: Adoptions by Gay Couples
Madison aged out of the foster care system after 11 years waiting for an adoptive family. Her mentor, who is a lesbian, pursued the idea of adopting her, but ultimately declined because she thought her orientation would be a barrier.

“I would have preferred a lesbian individual, or even a same-sex couple, to adopt me instead of being bounced from foster home to foster home,” Madison writes.

Proposal: Passing the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would do for gay adoptive parents what MEPA did for transracial adoptions. Madison endorses an exemption for faith-based agencies that recruit prospective foster care and adoptive parents, who she believes should not have to work with gay couples to receive federal funding.

Notes: YSI was surprised to see Madison’s citation of Illinois as an example of why such a faith-based exemption is necessary. “In Illinois, Catholic Charities handles about 20 percent of the foster care and adoption cases,” she notes, citing an article from 2011.

Illinois did not wait for federal legislation to go the other way on this issue. When the state’s civil union law took effect in 2011, it issued an ultimatum to Catholic Charities and every other faith-based provider: work with gay couples, or lose your contracts with the state child welfare agency.

Madison states the best argument against that position: That for the children involved here, this isn’t about gay or straight. It’s about the available pool of people who can and will adopt.

“If these agencies are denied federal funding because their religious affiliation prevents them from serving LGBT families, the consequence might be that less, not more, children find homes.”

Chris Hehn

Issue: Adoption of Older Children
Hehn cites a study showing that four years after removal, about five percent of 15- to 18-year-old foster children have been adopted, compared with 61 percent of foster children between three and five years of age.

Hehn argues that there are two key problems beyond the fact that many adoptive parents enter the fray with the idea of adopting a young child:

  1. Few programs and services focus on the finding adoptive homes for older teens
  2. States are using the older age of youths as justification for classifying them for “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement,” or APPLA. This is a designation that was created in 1997 to serve as a rare exception in which states must make a compelling case as to why a child could never return home or be adopted.

Proposal: Eliminate APPLA as a permanency option, and restructure the federal Adoption Incentives Program to stop rewards for adoption of very young children and increase awards connected to older children.

Notes: On eliminating APPLA, Hehn has a pretty significant ally: One of the guys who helped create it.

“I was worried it would become a default option,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) at a Congressional roundtable discussion about APPLA last year. “We wanted it to be a last resort,” Grassley said. “Over time,” it has become “an obstacle to reunification or adoption.”

On the restructuring incentives, Hehn’s mind is in the right place after a semester in Washington: there is no “increase funding” without “decrease funding” somewhere else to neutralize.

But this would be a tough sell. There would need to be pretty clear evidence that the incentives for young children are not a compelling influence on adoptive parents’ decision to go for a child in foster care instead of another alternative.

Samantha Jernstrom

Issue: Sibling Relationships
Jernstrom cites research showing that only seven states allow a court to order post-adoption contact over the objection of an adoptive parent. An additional 16 states allow for such orders only with the adoptive parental consent. At the briefing about the report, Jernstrom said the parental objection voiced by the adoptive parents of two of her sisters has prevented contact between them for years.

Proposal: Jernstrom proposes that the IV-E section of the Social Security Act be amended to tie IV-E funding in with a “rebuttable presumption” that siblings have a right to visit each other after a finalized adoption.

The state or the adoptive parent “could provide credible evidence that such contact would cause physical or psychological harm to children individually or as a group,” Jernstrom said in her proposal.

Notes: From a procedural standpoint, YSI has no clue what it would take to make that happen. Simply conferring rights to siblings is free; any guarantee that the state would be part of arranging visits and contact is a matter of cost, perhaps significant cost.

From a rights standpoint, this reminded us of a column written for The Chronicle by Julie Stromberg back in March. Stromberg was arguing for the right of adopted children to gain access to their original birth certificate.

Both women have their finger on the pulse of what frankly is a civil rights issue for adoptees: the right to know, and celebrate, identity.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly. For more YSI, check our Money and Business Section.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1213 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.