A number of bills this session attempt to chip away at the complicated issues surrounding the lives of foster children.
By Rose Hoban
When Rodney Alston was 18 years old and eligible to be emancipated from a decade of foster care, he instead signed an agreement that kept him in the state system until he was 21. He did it to be able to stay in school while continuing to get health insurance from his foster parents.
“I was coming out of high school and I wasn’t ready for four-year college,” Alston said. “So I went to Wake Tech for a couple of years. I signed [a continuing foster care] agreement so my schooling would be taken care of.”
Alston said he’s supportive of a bill that’s making its way through the state legislature that would study the possibility of extending foster care through the age of 21 for all the approximately 8,600 kids in the state’s system.
It’s one of a handful of bills affecting foster kids that have been introduced in this year’s legislative session.
“In 30 years, I can’t say there have been so many foster care issues coming up in one session,” said Nancy Carter, executive director of Strong Able Youth Speaking Out, an organization that advocates for the rights of foster youth.
The bills include one to restrict smoking in foster care settings that have infants, one to require foster parents to be more involved in the education plans of their foster kids, one to create a foster children’s bill of rights and one to prohibit corporal punishment for foster kids in schools.
“We have a different administration that’s looking at things differently,” Carter said. “We’re having more conversations about foster care than before.”
Talking the talk
The last time there was significant movement on foster care issues was in the 2003-04 session, with the establishment of a committee to look at issues in the state’s foster care and adoption system.
Out of that came a report, which determined that funding for foster care was inadequate to address needs and issued recommendations on criminal background checks and increased education for foster care parents and more resources for kids aging out of the system.
Most of those recommendations were never fulfilled, said Karen McLeod, head of Benchmarks, a coalition of groups that serve children and families.
“Not only is the system underfunded, but it’s continued to take cuts over the past couple of years,” she said.
McLeod said that while training of foster parents is now more extensive, there’s little money for kids’ basic needs or for the recruitment of parents, such as advertisements, billboards and open houses.
“One of the issues with foster kids is that we have 100 county departments of social services, and a portion of how they pay for costs for their kids is by county match,” she said, “so there’s quite a bit of variance on how much services you receive based on how much your county pays for services.”
Some counties, such as Mecklenburg, put in more than what they’re asked to, but other, smaller counties put in little.
“Say I get a kid who came out of a meth lab home and has practically nothing, like the clothes on his back … not even those, because they usually take those too,” McLeod said. “If I live in Mecklenburg, because of their available funds, I’m much more likely as a foster family to receive a stipend to go out and buy that child toys, clothes, the things that children need, than I am in an adjacent county where they only have the basic county match.
“So where you live determines what level of services you get, which I think is a travesty.”
Alston knows he was lucky; he had only a handful of placements after entering the system when he was 8 years old. His older brother had more trouble, cycling through 19 placements in less than a decade.
“My brother had this thought that he’d be going back to mom,” he said. “So he’d just get to the place where he’d be settling in, and then he’d have a tantrum, because, you know, it was a therapeutic issue.”
“It became harder to get him into an environment and get him comfortable,” Alston said. “So he ended up in therapeutic placements.”
And, he said, his brother continued to struggle as a young adult.
One of the bills being considered would channel money to several demonstration projects run by the Children’s Home Society aimed at increasing the number of adoptions of children in foster care and helping foster kids find family members who they can connect with, a program called Family Finding.
“We believe children do best when they’re adopted and cared for by a loving family,” said Brian Maness, a vice president at Children’s Home Society.
Family Finding seeks out a member of a foster child’s family – it could be a cousin or an aunt or even a more distant relative – to provide support and a sense of family for kids.
“For the vast majority of children that we serve, we’re able to find their family, and not just a few family members – upwards of 50 family members for each child served,” Maness said.
Those family members are asked to make commitments to the child – to be involved in the child’s life and to provide emotional and financial resources to help the child succeed.
The other Children’s Home Society program that would be funded is called Child Specific Adoption, individualized efforts to find and match potential adoptive children with families.
Maness said his organization will probably complete 120 adoptions this year out of a total of about 8,600 kids in the foster care system.
HB 971 would provide an allocation of about $3.75 million over two years to Children’s Home Society.
And that’s a problem that Karen McLeod and others have with the bill: Those millions are a big chunk of the limited foster care monies allocated by the General Assembly every year.
“It’s not that it’s not a good program,” McLeod said, “it is. I’d love to be able to put chunks of money here and there to start improving outcomes.
“But if you look at the adoption component, it’s a really small part of our population. Adoption is a very small percentage of what we do, and we’re talking about diverting close to $4 million to one agency for that small population.”
McLeod said many agencies that do adoption and foster care work faced cuts last year, and many agencies didn’t get paid by the state for work they did until months after it was completed.
Bill sponsor Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Raleigh) said she knows it’s a lot of money, but she also knows it’s not a sure thing that the funding will be there for the bill.
“It happens in even good years,” Avila said. “We run out of money before we run out of needs. It’s almost a given that some of our wishes won’t be able to come true, but we’re hopeful.
“There are so many costs avoided when you have children on the right path. You end up with fewer in the juvenile justice system, fewer kids getting pregnant, fewer of them on government benefits.”
Avila said last year about 600 young people “aged out” of the foster care system, reaching 18 years of age – and emancipation – before finding adoptive families.
“These are tried-and-true programs that have good track records in getting children adopted,” she said. “We should try this in North Carolina, monitor it and establish what we’re truly to accomplish, and then see where we can go from there.”
Cover photo by Slightly Everything, courtesy flickr creative commons