by Jamel Rowe, NCFA's Legal Fellow
As May is National Foster Care month, it seems only fitting that Congress evaluate the status of youth involved in the child welfare system. A subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing titled “Letting Kids be Kids: Balancing Safety with Opportunity for Foster Youth.” Led by Chairman Dave Reichert (R-WA) of the Subcommittee on Human Resources, the hearing examined how the emphasis on the safety of children often deprives them of their sense of normalcy. Typical adolescent experiences such as participating in afterschool athletic programs, attending prom, acquiring a driver’s license, or gaining summer employment are extremely difficult for those in foster care. Talitha James, former foster child and CCAI Foster Youth Fellow, relayed her personal encounters with obstacles that prevented her from leading a normal life. She, like most children, wanted to spend the night at her best friend’s house. In such instances, hosting families must undergo a criminal background check, home assessment, and agree that they will not “run off” with the foster child. Even though the parents of Talitha’s friend passed the background check, Talitha’s caseworker would not approve the sleepover because the family’s pool was unfenced.
Sadly, Talitha’s experience is not uncommon. Florida State Senator Nancy Detert testified that in her home state only 46% of children are permitted to spend the night with friends. In addition, 44% of youth are allowed to attend school events, movies, shopping, and other unsupervised activities with friends and only 2% of adolescents had a driver’s license. Some states prohibit sports involvement because away games would cause the youth to be out past the curfew set by the state for youth in care. Others bar children from accompanying their foster family on vacation and, as a result, children are sent to respite care in the interim. Given the ease at which I was able to participate in these activities as a teenager, I was startled to realize that so many of America’s youth face stringent and frivolous rules that prevent them from living a normal life.
By holding this hearing, legislators signaled that they heard the desperate pleas of foster children seeking change. Representatives from state governments, non-profit organizations, and national foundations offered recommendations on how to fix the problems foster children face on a regular basis. One witness stated that the first step is to change the mindset of child welfare agents into shifting the emphasis from safety to permanency and normalcy. NCFA agrees that our first priority should be to find permanency for every child. However, in the interim, we need laws that remove the numerous barriers to normalcy; practitioners must be able to promote opportunities that will allow children to participate fully in life and take advantage of the experiences that will help them have a sense of belonging and develop the special skills available through extra-curricular activities no matter who is caring for them at the time.
I’m sure some people think this hearing is unnecessary and that there are other more important issues deserving of our elected officials’ attention. Detractors may ask themselves, “Why should I care whether a teenager has a driver’s license? They should be happy they are clothed and fed.” To that, Lynn Tiede from Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative would point out that having a driver’s license makes it easier for foster care youth to get a job. “In fact, research has shown that teenagers in foster care who have early employment experiences are much more likely to be employed by age 24,” meaning that they are less likely to rely on public assistance in adulthood.
Despite the sentiments of skeptics, Congress will hopefully continue forward and find a way to bring normalcy to the foster youth of America.
To learn more about NCFA's program designed to encourage people to adopt, foster, or mentor children in foster care, visit Families For All.