Advocates for foster children came to the General Assembly in support of two bills that could make life better for those in the system.

By Hyun Namkoong

Advocates are hopeful that North Carolina’s foster children will have more support and normalcy in their lives after the filing of two bills Wednesday.

Daniel Bell, who spent years in the foster care system, came to the legislature to support several new bills to make the lives of foster kids better.
Daniel Bell, who spent years in the foster care system, came to the legislature to support several new bills to make the lives of foster kids better. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

In a moment of bipartisanship, Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Raleigh) said in a press conference Wednesday that caring for foster children is not a Republican or Democratic issue.

“It’s about strengthening families,” she said.

North Carolina’s estimated 14,000 foster children are unable to participate in normal extracurricular and social activities such as attend sleepovers, go to a prom, or play school sports, because foster care laws restrict those activities. Senate Bill 423 could change all of that by allowing foster parents rather than the state to make decisions about what kind of activities youth can do.

“It really made you feel isolated, lonely and that you were not normal,” said Daniel Bell, 37 who was in the foster care system for much of his childhood and adolescence. “The fact that I could not do things that my friends were doing because I was in foster care had a very negative impact on my emotional well-being.”

The “Foster Care Family Act” would also make it easier for children in foster care to drive a car. The bill permits foster children to apply for an insurance policy that is specifically designed for them by the N.C. Reinsurance Facility if their foster parents are unwilling to add them to their policy.

Another part of the bill would allow North Carolina to apply to the federal government for a Medicaid waiver for funds to serve children with serious emotional disturbances in a community setting rather than in state institutions, something that would be more cost-effective for the state.

“Many of these children have serious emotional disturbances,” Barringer said. “The bulk of children diagnosed with serious emotional disturbances are in the foster care system, and treated in institutions.”

Barringer, Sen. Kathy Harrington (R-Gastonia) and Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) co-sponsored an additional bill which would extend the age of foster care to 19 years old.

Tucker shared his experience of being orphaned at 15 and getting “bounced around by aunts and uncles.”

“I have a little bit of feel for what children feel like when other people are making decisions for them,” he said.

Tucker said the teenage years are a critical age point that can lead people to make either really good decisions or bad ones.

Bell said he experienced incarceration, substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness after getting moved around between “many, many families.”

After dropping out of high school, Bell earned his GED, enrolled in college where he earned a social work degree. Now he’s working towards a masters degree and interns with SaySo Inc., a statewide association that works with youth who have been in the system.

Senator Barringer said extending foster care to age 19 is important to help reduce the likelihood that foster children have of ending up in jail, under a bridge, or out of work. She said many states have extended the age to 21 and the investment has helped foster children become well-functioning, employed, tax-paying adults ultimately reducing the cost to society.

Barringer said senate leadership is very supportive of the bill.

“Our children are critical to the future of this state,” she said. “They are the future of the state.”

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Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.