For many, childhood is marked with memories of sleepovers and vacations or passing the driver’s exam and taking that first drive to an after-school job. For foster children, however, it can be difficult to share in these experiences that so many consider normal. As wards of the state, foster children are at the mercy of the legal system – their foster parents are required to go jump through several legal hoops such as restrictions on car insurance, required background checks for potential chaperones or pre-scheduled court dates and visitation periods. Some of these even require the foster parents to personally fund the endeavors. Child welfare providers across the country are increasingly recognizing that these regulations, once thought to protect children, actually impede the foster care system from providing the best care possible.
What Is Normalcy for Foster Youth and Why Is It Important?
“Before, we were trying to keep kids from getting hurt…. We put them in a room and made sure nothing happened to them,” Mike Watson, an executive for a Florida foster care agency, said of previous foster care standards. “We don’t want supervisors. We want people to parent. We had created this artificial relationship where you had state-sanctioned individuals in a home acting like a jailer.” Now, there is a push for “normalcy.” Normalcy is a standard of care that enables foster youth to share in the everyday activities that allow them to develop the skills that will build a true sense of independence. But what, exactly, is normalcy for foster youth?
Normalcy for Foster Youth Across the Country
The Juvenile Law Center, a Pennsylvania non-profit, defines normalcy as follows:
“While there is no single ‘normal’ childhood experience, ‘normalcy’ refers to age and developmentally-appropriate activities and experiences that allow children and youth to grow.
Such activities, whether it’s participation in sports teams, sleepovers or extracurriculars like dance class, help to provide ‘opportunities for youth to take on additional responsibilities and freedoms… as the youth approaches adulthood.’”
At the federal level, some legislators have taken notice of the normalcy initiative and started to find ways to ensure that children in foster care have access to those critical experiences and activities. The first steps towards normalcy legislation began with the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (SFA) of 2014. Although this bill covered a variety of different issues in child welfare, Subtitle B focuses almost exclusively on providing a more normalized youth experience for children in foster care. Most notably, this bill introduced what is known as the “reasonable and prudent parent standard”:
“The term ‘reasonable and prudent parent standard’ means the standard characterized by careful and sensible parental decisions that maintain the health, safety and best interests of a child while at the same time encouraging the emotional and developmental growth of the child, that a care giver shall use when determining whether to allow a child in foster care under the responsibility of the State to participate in extracurricular, enrichment, cultural and social activities.”
-Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, H.R. 4980
Essentially, the federal government wants foster parents to be less burdened by the bureaucratic system that has prevented foster youth from participating in “extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities” in the past. This standard is the first step in allowing foster parents to provide their foster children with a more normalized experience – it paves the way for the swifter resolution of legal complications surrounding things like vacations, sleepovers, after-school jobs and driver’s licenses. Not all of these activities, however, have the same legal issues. For instance, for a foster teen to obtain a driver’s license, there can be additional complications surrounding each states’ laws regarding the purchase of car insurance. In 2015, the Foster Youth and Driving Act empowered states to help foster youth get around the varied restrictions that prevent them from obtaining a driver’s license – driver’s lessons, insurance costs, transportation to the driving test, etc. In states like Florida and Arizona, recently passed bills have helped to remove some of these burdens by providing foster teens with pathways to obtaining the necessary documents and funds to get their driver’s licenses (Check out our article, “The Road To Normalcy,” for more information).
Since 2015, there has been even more congressional effort towards providing institutional support for normalcy initiatives among the states. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) proposed the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) in order to increase the federal investment in the foster care system and divest child welfare from congregate care (For more information on the decline of congregate care use, see our article, “From Orphanage to Group Home to Family”). On February 9th of this year, some of the provisions of the FFPSA were passed into law in another bill. These provisions will help to keep children out of group home placements by providing additional training to parents along with family therapy options. In addition to supporting parents, the bill also dedicates federal funding for kinship navigator programs and ensures that relative caregivers will receive many of the same support services provided to traditional foster parents. With this emphasis on relative caregivers and the significant effort at preventing children from spending time in group home placements, the child welfare system in America is one step closer to providing much more normalized childhood experiences. But how can individual states respond to this need for normalcy?
Normalcy for Foster Youth Amongst the States
With the increase in flexibility provided by the SFA and the other bills being passed around subcommittees, states have begun drafting legislation that could fundamentally alter the way foster parents help their foster children and teens enjoy a more normalized childhood experience.
According to the Detroit News, Michigan instituted a new rule in January of 2017 to promote normalcy for foster youth. It says that a foster parent “shall provide opportunities for, and encourage a foster child to participate in, a variety of indoor and outdoor recreational activities that are appropriate for the child’s age and ability.”
In Connecticut, the state was already helping to fund senior year expenses like yearbooks, prom, class rings and more prior to the SFA. Furthermore, they covered the cost of driver’s education classes and provided skill-building work-to-learn programs to help foster teens gain professional, personal and financial skills, and, much like New Jersey, offered a variety of services to youth who age out. After the SFA, the Connecticut state legislature passed a law that “enables caregivers, using [a reasonable and prudent parent standard], to allow youth to participate in certain normalcy activities without prior DCF approval” while also requiring “that youth aged 12 and above be engaged in the development and amendment of their permanency plans.” By December of 2015, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families had released documents to their caregivers aimed at guiding them through the process of creating a sense of normalcy for the foster children in their care.
Normalcy for Foster Youth In New Jersey
New Jersey has also started preparing its foster care program for normalcy initiatives in several ways. In 2015, NJ Assemblywomen Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington)and Gabriela M. Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester) introduced legislation aimed at reducing foster parent liability. With the passing of Senate Bill 3207, the state officially recognized the need for normalcy for foster youth. The bill introduces the reasonable and prudent parent standard to New Jersey foster care and helps to limit the legal liability of foster parents in the event something goes wrong:
“Neither a caregiver nor the department shall be held liable for an injury caused by an act or omission in connection with the authority granted [by the normalcy provisions of this bill] unless the act or omission of the caregiver or the department, resulting in the injury, constitutes willful misconduct.”
-NJ S3207 1d.
In the Fall of 2017, several staff members from Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) began participating in a joint workgroup with Division of Child Protection and Permanency (CPP) workers, parents and youth that seeks to create guidelines and standards for normalcy based on the SFA. “Normalcy as a whole is great because it’s how you parent kids – it frees parents up to be parents,” said Corissa Kazar, FAFS’ Support Services Manager and workgroup participant. “[CPP] is coming together with outside parties to address this [with the families and youth it affects.]” One goal of the workgroup is to create a series of handouts aimed at explaining the reasonable and prudent parent standard to everyone involved – workers, parents, foster youth and the biological family of youth in care. “The big thing is ensuring continuity of information,” notes Fran Gervasi, workgroup member and FAFS’ Director of Training and Education. “Normalcy is a long time coming for the families. I think the workgroup is doing a great job of it.”
For more information on New Jersey S3207, click here.
To learn more about normalcy legislation in your state, visit the Reasonable and Prudent Parent Legislation page at the National Conference of Sate Legislature’s website by clicking here.
To discover what child welfare professionals are saying about normalcy, visit Childwelfare.gov’s Normalcy page by clicking here.