Many Barriers to Providing ‘Normal’ Activities for Foster Children

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Marie CohenOne of the most frustrating things about working as a social worker in the District of Columbia's foster care system was being unable to ensure that my clients were able to do the normal things that other young people get to do — like visiting friends and participating in extracurricular activities.

When a foster parent asked if a child could visit a friend, I had to say this was not allowed unless all the adults in the friend's family took time off from work to get fingerprinted, paid for the fingerprints and filled out a long child abuse clearance form. The whole process cost them up to $60 (depending on where they lived) and it would be at least a month before the clearances were approved.

More frustration ensued when foster children wanted to participate in extracurricular activities. Federal law requires that children in foster care be kept in the same school when they are placed in foster care or change foster homes, except if it is not in their best interests.

As a result, many of my clients were not attending local schools and had to use private transportation services. This made it hard for them to engage in extracurricular activities because these providers usually require that the child be picked up at the same time every day and drivers are often not available for pickups that occur after school dismissal time.

Another problem was the refusal of many foster parents to transport their foster children to and from friends, activities and games. Most of my clients, like more than half of D.C. foster care youth, live in the Maryland suburbs, since there are not enough foster homes in the District of Columbia.

While suburban parents know that transporting children to activities is part of their job, the same is not often true of foster parents, especially when the child attends school in the District or across the county. The foster parent of one of my clients had never been to her school the year that the child lived with her. My client was never able to participate in an evening performance or go to a school dance because her foster parent would not bring her. And of course, even if another parent had offered to bring her, that would not have been allowed unless that parent received police and child abuse clearances.

A new movement over the past two years has called for “normalcy” for foster children. Basically, the concept means that foster children should be able to engage in the same normal activities as their peers.  Following the lead of several states, Congress recently passed a law that requires states to develop a standard for what is reasonable and prudent in allowing foster care children to engage in “extracurricular, enrichment, cultural and social activities.”

As a former foster care social worker, I wholly support the effort to bring normalcy to foster children. Being in foster care is abnormal enough. Denying foster youth the activities that will help them build relationships and skills and relieve stress is truly adding insult to injury. Unfortunately, implementing the law is less simple than it appears to people who are unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of foster care.

In order to make sure that children in foster care can have normal social lives, states will have to address the valid concern about who is liable in the unlikely event that a foster child is exposed to some type of maltreatment at a friend's home. Florida's normalcy law, which was the model for the new federal law, provides that a foster parent is not liable for harm caused to a foster child during an activity deemed reasonable in accordance with the “reasonable and prudent” standard. Without such a provision, many foster parents will not be willing to allow visits and sleepovers.

In terms of extracurricular activities, the fix is more difficult. More emphasis may have to be placed on keeping a child in the same school district when he or she moves to a different foster home. Children's attorneys who have aggressively pushed for their clients to stay in the same school may have to consider whether this is truly in the child's best interest when it prevents them from participating in extracurricular activities. States and local jurisdictions have to be willing to say goodbye to foster parents who are not willing to inconvenience themselves to enrich the lives of their charges.

Marie Cohen (MSW, MPA) is a policy analyst and researcher who worked as a child welfare social worker in the District of Columbia from 2010 until early 2015. She is now blogging at fosteringreform.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @fosteringreform.