Pennsylvania Works to Provide ‘Normalcy’ for Foster Youth

SP2_ThumbnailA federal law that went into effect last year promotes the idea that foster youth need to be engaged in the everyday activities that all other young people enjoy to improve their outcomes as adults.

One clinic in Pennsylvania has been working on this issue for years, and its staff describe the road to “normalcy” as one complicated by fiscal challenges and legal hurdles.

The Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic (ICAC) housed at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law represents children and adolescents in civil legal proceedings, including foster youth, and works towards normalcy for these youth.

“Foster parents need the support and flexibility to make decisions for the children and youth in their care so that they, too, are able to take full advantage of extracurricular, recreational and employment opportunities,” said Professor Kara Finck, ICAC’s director. “For example, the ability to obtain a driver’s license for many youth who are placed in suburban or rural areas and oftentimes foster youth are immediately excluded from even discussing that as an option.”

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R.4980), which promotes normalcy for youth in foster care, took full effect in Pennsylvania in September of last year. The Juvenile Law Center defines normalcy in foster care as providing foster youth with access to age-appropriate activities by strengthening caregivers to make decisions and through the discussion of age-appropriate activities during court review processes.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act requires that authorities develop a reasonable and prudent parent standard so that foster children can participate in developmentally appropriate extracurricular, enrichment, cultural and social activities.

This legislation requires that child welfare agencies provide foster youth aging out of care with a birth certificate, Social Security card, health insurance, medical records, and a driver’s license or state identification card, according to a report on the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website. It also increases funding for the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and eliminates the option of Another Permanent Planned Living Arrangement for youth under age 16, according to the same report.

“Older youth in care often are affected tremendously if they did not grow up in a stable environment with an adult who was able to model the life skills needed to transition into independence,” said Sara Schwartz, professor and supervisor at ICAC.

This legislation could change liability requirements so that youth may participate in activities. Schwartz went on to explain that if a judge understands normalcy and developmentally appropriate mistakes, youth might now be addressed in a productive way.

Intended for judges, hearing masters, attorneys, child welfare professionals and foster families, the Establishing Normalcy for Foster Youth video addresses the normalcy initiative that is a part of the Strengthening Families Act. Created by the Office of Children and Families in the Courts, it covers topics like ways to promote normalcy, how being treated differently impacts youth, and what professionals can do to help. This video highlights ways in which opportunities to be a part of developmentally appropriate activities help foster youth prepare for a positive transition into adulthood.

However, Schwartz went on to explain that while this video has good intentions, it also excludes key pieces of implementation.

“These changes are contingent on funding, a topic that is not mentioned in this video,” she said. “It may also require more training, continuing education, and reduction of caseload for caseworkers that is not in place now. All of these details require a funding strategy,” Schwartz said.

Agencies also need to think about how to implement training for foster parents.

“The real test of the reasonable and prudent standard will be how the agencies train and support foster parents and youth when there is a conflict because of social, cultural or religious norms of the foster family or the foster youth,” Finck said.

The ICAC addresses the issue of normalcy through holistic advocacy.

“Having a comprehensive understanding of the case and taking an interdisciplinary approach can help child advocates ensure that their client’s needs are being met as you would want any child’s to be,” Finck said. “First and foremost, that means child advocates having direct contact and ongoing conversations with their clients and foster parents not only to assess safety but all of the factors that make up a child’s health, well-being and best interests.”

“We advocate on behalf of the youth in court to demonstrate when the youth’s challenges are developmentally appropriate, as well as to service providers within child welfare agencies to ensure adequate resources and allowances for youth,” Schwartz said. “We promote the agency of the youth themselves through giving them the option of having their voice heard in court and by partnering with our child advocacy team to identify and plan their goals.”

The legislation has taken effect and while the video highlights changes, next steps would include greater training and implementation within child welfare systems.

Screenshot 2016-02-24 15.57.11Abigail Wilson is an Advanced Standing MSW candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She is interested in child welfare policy change, specifically around issues of child abuse and neglect, poverty, and the foster care system. Her current field placement is at the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at Penn Law. Abigail hopes to continue to work within the child welfare field.

This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”

Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.  

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