Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #1: Federal Runaway Prevention Regulations in Foster Home Licensing

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 have 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 policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Ivy-Marie Washington, 21, a student at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

The Proposal

Washington wants to amend a recently signed federal law to “restrict the renewal of a foster home license” for any placement from which multiple youth have been displaced due to “alleged safety concerns and maltreatment by a foster parent.”

Her hope is that this would cut down the number of youth who run away from foster care placements every year.

The Argument

Federal data from 2014 show that approximately 4,500 foster youth had a current status of “runaway.” According to Washington, “many foster youth feel compelled to run away from their foster home placement for safety concerns and maltreatment.”

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Ivy-Marie Washington, 21, a student at Sam Houston State University in Texas

Washington argues that identifying and rejecting bad foster homes is critical in the face of foster home shortages, which place pressure on states to recruit and retain more placements. On a federal level, she notes two pieces of legislation that already engage the federal government in assisting states with runaways from foster care:

  • Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act of 2008
  • Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014

In Her Own Words

“Since his first runaway episode and discharge from care, I have not seen much of my brother. I believe that if someone cared enough to give him another chance … it could have changed his life.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

Washington’s proposal leans on a significant assumption: That the primary reason foster youth run away from foster homes is maltreatment in that foster home. Thus, ridding foster care systems of abusive and neglectful homes would reduce instances of running away.

We are unsure if research exists that surveyed such youth on their reasons for leaving. Certainly, this is one factor that would make running away a viable solution. We would suspect that going back to family members or dissatisfaction with the placement in the absence of maltreatment are also big contributors to running away.

But as far as foster youth fleeing abusive and neglectful foster parents goes, Washington presents a commonsense approach: If a foster home poses a safety and/or maltreatment concern, it shouldn’t be a foster home, and losing those homes will lower the number of kids who run away.

Washington’s policy recommendation, however, is likely a better campaign to wage on the state level for two key reasons.

The first is that the federal government has very little to do with licensing of foster homes, and even less to do with the monitoring of those homes after licensing. Foster-home licensing is left to the states, and federal law even makes exceptions to that.

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2016 participants in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program

There is a section of federal law that sets standards for the background checks that states must administer for potential foster homes, which you can read here. This includes checking state abuse and neglect registries, which vary from state to state but almost always include information about substantiated claims of maltreatment. Some registries go beyond that and include lodged allegations of abuse and neglect.

It is conceivable that this federal requirement could be revised to require that states periodically conduct such checks on foster homes; say, every two years. And if maltreatment or endangerment problems surfaced, as Washington recommends, a state would be tasked with yanking the license.

But there’s a better reason to push this on a state level. Even if that federal revision became law, it would only apply to the homes that received children who were “IV-E” eligible, meaning the state received federal funding to assist with the placement of that child in foster care. Only children from parents below a 1996 income threshold are eligible for support through the federal IV-E entitlement.

Children who were not IV-E eligible, which is about half of all foster children, could still be placed in a home with a history of maltreatment. And thus, a federal law revision would create a situation where one group of children were more likely to land in a bad placement than another.

This problem could be solved, we should also point out, by removing the IV-E income standards and just making any youth in foster care IV-E eligible. That would make federal regulation of repeat-offender foster homes more viable.

A final word on Washington’s proposal. She’s right on with the notion of a home losing licensure after multiple youth reported problems, because that takes this out of the realm of happening as a result of a bad dynamic between one child and a family.

But her proposed threshold of “alleged” safety concerns and maltreatment might be too low. Substantiation-only, on the other hand, might be too high a threshold, since everyone knows that substantiation of abuse and neglect is often hard to achieve.

Some matrix that includes both  – licensure loss after two substantiations ever, or after allegations in three different years, for example – might be more feasible.

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