Idea is to increase awareness by elevating agency rules to state statutes
Experienced foster parent Gail Finney said she was surprised to discover last fall the Kansas Department of Children and Families implemented about 10 years ago a code of care for children and parents involved in the foster care system.
Finney, a state representative from Wichita, said she stumbled across the information when a foster youth asked for help making her voice heard in court about future placements in foster care. Finney said nearly 7,000 children in foster care and the associated parents, foster parents and caseworkers were unaware of the full extent of agency policy on child placement, legal representation, education, privacy and other key issues.
“They are sporadically disseminated by some foster agencies in the back of some foster youth’s blue book or they are not handed out or shared at all,” she said. “Our foster youth deserve to know and understand their rights in the Kansas foster care system.”
Finney urged the House Children and Seniors Committee to approve a Foster Youth Bill of Rights contained in House Bill 2468 and the Foster Parents Bill of Rights in House Bill 2469. The bills would essentially place in statute, rather than state agency policy, rights established in 2012.
“Now more than ever in Kansas, particularly with all the challenges our state has had with foster care, it is imperative our foster youth be aware and understand what their rights are to have a voice, be successful, thrive, and make informed decisions about their lives,” she said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says 21 states and Puerto Rico have some form of a bill of rights regarding foster care.
More than a dozen people offered testimony to the House committee in support of the bills. It’s unclear whether either will move through the process in the 2022 session.
Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBT advocacy organization Equality Kansas, presented “neutral” testimony on the legislation due to concern a provision in the foster parent bill forbidding discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color, creed, gender, marital status, national origin, age, physical disability or in terms of federal law was absent from the foster youth bill.
“Kids in the foster care system need the protections you’re considering for foster parents,” he told the House committee Wednesday. “Of all the stakeholders in the system, it’s the children who have no agency and no input into their foster placements.”
He said children in foster care had lives upended through no fault of their own. The state shouldn’t be a participant in a system that allowed young Kansans to be “condemned, harassed, bullied or disparaged by the adults in the system whose responsibility it is to provide them with a safe, nurturing home in their time of extreme need,” he said.
Under the bill applicable to foster parents, the law would require foster parents be treated with “dignity, respect and trust as a primary provider of care.” Foster parents’ own family values and beliefs should be appreciated in conjunction with needs of children who experienced trauma and separation while receiving all relevant information about children being placed.
The youth version of the legislation said foster children had a right to live in a safe place, be treated with respect, allowed to store belongings and to be placed with siblings and, if proper, with a relative or someone from the child’s community. The law would guarantee children could visit family, have as few placements as possible and given access to school and extra-curricular activities. It would require children to be notified of all court hearings, allowed to offer a judge comments on placement and request representation of an attorney who represented the child’s perspective.
Hannah Gremillion, president of the Kansas Youth Advisory Council, said she aged out of foster care care in 2018, but didn’t discover the reservoir of information on her rights until she joined KYAC in 2019.
She recommended the bill applicable to youth be amended to include a section outlining steps a child could take if his or her rights were violated. She said a bill of rights should guarantee youth had the right to access their vital documents upon aging out of care.
“As a council of young people with lived experience we urge you to move the bill forward in passing this bill with our suggested provisions,” Gremillion said.
Mike Fonkert, campaign director for Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said Kansas made improvements to the foster care in recent years but the system was still failing children.
“Black children are significantly overrepresented in foster care,” Fonkert said. “Too many Kansas children are staying in foster care for too long and they often experience dangerously high instability in their placements.”
He said that during the current fiscal year Black children in Kansas were two times more likely than white children to be made a ward of the state. The average length of stay in Kansas foster care was 23 months, which would be the highest since 2010.
Foster care children experience an average of six placement moves for every 1,000 days in the system, he said. Less than 18% of children in foster care attend the same school they did prior to entry into the system, he said.
“There is no single solution to address all of these problems, but the solutions must be rooted in a clear statement of youth rights,” Fonkert said.