On Wednesday, August 5, 2015 I watched Governor Jack Markell of Delaware sign into law HB46, the state's Foster Care Bill of Rights.
As Governor Markell signed the bill surrounded by current and former foster youth, I began to read through the copy given to me when I arrived. Though I was certainly thrilled to see this happening and moved by the genuine care Markell expressed for the young people around him, I was a bit stunned when I got to the details.
"To be told why I am in foster care."
"To live in a safe place without abuse or neglect."
"To receive food, water, shelter and clothing to meet my own individual needs."
As I continued to read I couldn't help thinking: "Aren't these just basic human rights? Is this not already guaranteed?"
The fact that the state of Delaware, or any state for that matter, needs to have a formal law carefully outlining such basic definitions of quality care concerned me greatly. It concerned me, but unfortunately I can't say it surprised me. For the past eight years I have seen nearly everything negative that there is to see in the foster care system. I have welcomed children into my home with little more than the ill-fitting clothing on their backs and a bag of dirty belongings. I have met hundreds of children across the country that are legally free for adoption yet still moving from foster home to group home without finding a permanent place to call home. I have worked with children who have aged out of the system who have received little to no preparation for life beyond care - and I've watched them struggle and struggle significantly.
After returning to New Jersey I began to do more research around the rights of children in foster care in the United States and the documentation of those rights. I found several outdated documents that address the need for a Bill of Rights as well as reference to a bill ratified in Philadelphia in 1973. I also found a project from the National Council of State Legislatures that notes that only 15 US states have a Foster Care Bill of Rights. In reading through them I noticed not all were as clearly defined and understandable as Delaware's HB46.
What has truly been weighing so heavily on me since I watched that bill signing is not just that it appears that there is no standard, detailed and easy to read Foster Care Bill of Rights but that this information is not that easy to find. It makes me wonder how many youth entering and living in the foster care system are being given this information, and maybe more importantly, being given information on what to do and where to go if they feel their rights are being violated.
We have a long way to go in reforming a system that is riddled with inadequacies. I appreciate that in a system with so many exceptions, it is hard to make rules but as more time passes the more we will be subjecting kids who did not ask to be in this situation to less than stellar care. This after they are removed from their homes with the promise of better care and a better environment than the one they came from.
I write this piece with three goals in mind:
1. I hope that it will encourage more people to become involved in supporting our young people in the foster care system as there are so many ways to do so; many of which do not involve a huge commitment of time and resources. This list is a great place to start.
2. I hope to hear from young people in foster care and from other advocates about what information is available regarding children's rights in foster care. I'd like to use this to compile a more complete resource page to be posted on One Simple Wish's website for our social service agency partners and foster parents and children.
3. I hope to encourage every state not only to enact a Foster Care Bill of Rights but to have a clear plan to implement it, distribute it and make it publicly accessible.
I must end on a positive note. I mentioned above that in eight years I have seen most of the negatives within the foster care system. But I want to be sure I mention that I have also seen most of the positives.
I have worked with passionate leaders who are working tirelessly to create programs that will improve lives and outcomes for our kids. I have met with amazingly dedicated foster parents who have opened their homes to dozens of children in the course of their lives. I have had the pleasure of seeing countless smiles from children who have received granted wishes from One Simple Wish thanks to the kindness of thousands of strangers. There is hope. And with this I know there will continue to be progress. I hope that more people will join me in this mission to not just promise a better life for children in foster care, but to deliver it.
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Email me anytime here.