Why normalcy is important for youth in foster care

BlogChild WelfareMay 18 2016

I entered foster care in Los Angeles when I was five years old. I spent the majority of my time in care with a foster parent whose adopted daughter was like a little sister to me. In the five years I lived with them, many other foster children came and went, but this foster sister was always there. We did everything together at home, but that wasn’t so easy when we left the house.

When the family went on vacation, I was not allowed to go with them because of foster care agency restrictions. The agency’s rules also meant I couldn’t go to sleepovers or participate in after-school activities, making it hard for me to make and maintain friendships. In addition to regulating my daily life, these restrictions affected my relationship with my birth family. When my favorite uncle passed away, I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral. The restrictions were a constant reminder that I didn’t belong—I wasn’t a full member of my birth family or my foster family.

The child welfare system has the responsibility to protect children in foster care, but being in foster care often involves missing out on important parts of being a kid. Certain policies and practices aimed at safety for young people can prevent youth from participating in activities that are important to teens, from sports and music to homecoming and prom. Recent federal legislation has tried to remedy that problem. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (The Strengthening Families Act), includes requirements designed to help promote “normalcy” for young people in foster care, meaning the opportunity to participate in age- and developmentally-appropriate activities and experiences.

This is especially important for youth in foster care. Research has found that normalcy is essential for the social, emotional, and cognitive development of these young people. The Strengthening Families Act requires state child welfare agencies, contracted providers, and courts to develop a “reasonable and prudent parent standard,” giving foster parents the power to make more day-to-day decisions about the young people in their care. The law also requires that older youth be given a greater role in working with child welfare agencies in planning for their future. These normalcy provisions primarily focus on youth age 14 and older, particularly those who may remain in care until age 18.

The Importance of Normalcy

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (Jim Casey Initiative), part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has helped the foster care community understand how young people define normalcy and its importance. Child Trends is supporting the Jim Casey Initiative as it works to ensure young people make successful transitions from foster care to adulthood. The Jim Casey Initiative’s issue brief and webinar series on normalcy are targeted to help state child welfare agencies, policymakers, and others involved with young people in foster care implement “normalcy” as outlined in the Strengthening Families Act. Informed by recommendations from young people, this issue brief explains in detail the importance of normalcy and the research that supports its significance. As two young people explained:

“To be normal means to have access to things that adolescents who aren’t in the system do such as sleepovers, dates and even a chance to earn an allowance.” — Vincent

“Normal to me is feeling like a part of my new family. I never want to be treated differently than other people in my home. At the same time, I want to express myself my way.” — Sam

Putting the Law into Action

Child Trends has been working closely with the Department of Family Services (DFS) in Clark County, Nevada to evaluate a five-year Diligent Recruitment and Retention Grant they received from the Children’s Bureau. In the past two years, DFS has made strides to ensure their compliance with the Strengthening Families Act, including:

  • Revising policies to make it easier for foster parents to travel out-of-state with a child in their care, regardless of the stage of a case. Previously, doing so required court approval, which discouraged a lot of foster parents from including their foster children in trips. Foster parents now only need to give the child’s caseworker seven days’ notice along with an itinerary for the trip.
  • Developing a foster parent identification card that explains what permissions foster parents are allowed to give (e.g., participating in doctor’s visits, signing school forms), making it easier to participate in day-to-day activities like their peers.
  • Providing input on a statewide “parenting standards” policy that offers guidance on appropriate parenting decisions that emphasize normalcy for children. For example, it clarifies that if a child is going to spend the night with a friend, a background check is no longer necessary for the friend’s parents.
  • Developing a child grievance policy, so children have a way to file a complaint if they feel the standards are not being met or they are being treated unfairly.

A Happy Ending

I am grateful I found normalcy and permanency when I was placed with my aunt when I was 10 years old. I can still remember the overwhelming joy and relief we felt when the legal guardianship papers finally arrived in the mail just as I was finishing middle school a couple years later. However, by that time, I had already missed out on a significant part of my childhood. Sleepovers weren’t as cool or common in high school, and many of my friends who played sports or musical instruments had been doing so since they were little. The Strengthening Families Act is a step in the right direction. Age- and developmentally-appropriate activities, experiences, and opportunities are important for children of all ages. From first sleepover to first date, every child and young person in foster care should have the same opportunities as those not in care.