With the permission of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, we'd like to share this guest post by their Executive Director, Gary Stangler. This column originally appeared in the Huffington Post in recognition of May as National Foster Care Month.
At the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, we have the great privilege of working side by side with young people who have been in foster care. We have all heard young people say that they just wanted to be "normal" while they were in foster care. Establishing "normalcy" means that they get to do what their friends do, that they have a chance to pursue their interests and build dreams for their future and, most importantly, that they have a family who cares about them, just like their friends.
And young people know that it is not normal:
- To be denied opportunities to play sports, participate in extracurricular activities, or go on a school field trip,
- To live in congregate (or group home) care, with restrictions on everything from brushing your teeth to visiting your sister or brother,
- To have judges, caseworkers, attorneys, and others making major decisions about your life without talking with you or really knowing who you are,
- To languish in foster care year after year, moving from placement to placement, school to school, or
- To suddenly be on your own at age 18, 19, or 20 and expected to live independently.
What do we want for our own kids? Young people in foster care know that most of us "adults" wouldn't allow our children to experience any of the above.
There is growing momentum in support of creating normalcy for children and youth in foster care. In the past year, a number of state legislatures — as well as the U.S. Congress — considered policy changes to create normalcy for young people in foster care. One policy approach that has gained national attention is legislation enacted in Florida to establish a "reasonable and prudent parent standard" allowing foster parents and others to make sensible parental decisions about outside activities for the children placed in their care-without the unnecessary involvement of caseworkers or judges. These activities include a child's participation in sports, field trips or overnight trips.
Efforts like these are important because letting kids engage in typical childhood activities is more than just letting them be normal. It is also critical to their healthy development. We know that, in particular, encouraging teens toward these kinds of positive activities means they are less likely to engage in risky behavior. And such age-appropriate (or "normal") activities are especially important to young people who are coping with trauma. Normalcy can help them heal.
I'm often reminded of the words of Crystal, a young person with whom we've worked, who summed up the issue quite well: "How are young people in foster care expected to feel normal as adults if we have been treated abnormally all of our lives?" That's why today I want to invite all interested stakeholders to take a fresh look at what it will take to create normalcy for children and youth in foster care, especially those at risk of aging out.
Many more changes are needed to ensure a normal, successful life after foster care. For example, our Success Beyond 18 campaign seeks normalcy by advocating for state policies that ensure young people are never left on their own, at any age. The campaign also calls for every young person to have a meaningful say in decisions about their lives and their futures. We are calling for policy changes at the federal level, too. Last October, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Jim Casey Initiative issued policy recommendations to better align federal child welfare financing with best practices — practices that would create normalcy by encouraging shorter stays in foster care and by reducing reliance on congregate care.
We are excited to see federal and state lawmakers responding positively. The growing momentum toward creating normalcy for children and youth in foster care can be attributed to a number of factors: advocacy by young people, insights from neuroscience and child development research, leadership by policy makers, and increased awareness among public agencies and communities about the needs of young people in foster care.
I extend thanks to all those who have championed better lives and opportunities for young people in foster care, and it is my hope that we continue this momentum and achieve further progress. As National Foster Care Awareness Month wraps up, let's shine the light on a normalcy agenda for young people in foster care, and commit ourselves once again to giving these kids the basic building blocks of adolescence that they all deserve. And let's spend the other 11 months of the year working side by side with young people to make it happen.