September 01, 2014

Federal Act Includes Child Welfare Reforms for Older Youth in Care

Jolena Jeffrey

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Older youth in foster care will benefit if a new federal act becomes law. On June 26, 2014, the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act,1  a negotiated compromise of six bills.

This bipartisan legislation encourages states to reduce sex trafficking among young people in foster care; however, it serves another function. The act also includes several child welfare system reforms, including:

  • supporting youth court participation and empowerment; 
  • limiting the permanency plan Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) for youth in care; and
  • promoting normal activities for children in foster care.

These reforms focus on elements of permanency that can change older youths’ (age 14 and up) experiences in foster care and help them become healthy, well-adjusted adults. The bill has passed the House and is going to the Senate next for consideration. Read on for highlights of the reforms and how they will benefit older youth in care. 

Court Participation and Youth Empowerment

Court participation is an integral part of the child welfare system; no child enters or leaves foster care except through the court system. Congress has recognized the importance of children in court proceedings and has enacted legislation accordingly. In 2006, the Child and Family Services Improvement Act was passed, requiring courts conducting foster care permanency planning hearings to consult with the child in an age-appropriate manner about permanency options.

Following this act in 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act required a youth-directed transition plan to be created 90 days before a youth exited foster care. To date, many states have developed legislation to include children in the courtroom. In fact, states have developed standards for attorneys working with children and families and states have also developed pilot programs to strengthen court practices regarding the participation of children and families in their court proceedings. 

However further reform is needed. Because youth participation is primarily left to the court’s discretion, the courts may establish parameters restricting youth in care from participating. Therefore, there is no guarantee that each child will be heard in court or know of their right to be heard. 

Advocates argue children should receive information about the court process in an age-appropriate manner so they understand their rights in court. This recommendation was included in H.R. 4980 in Title I Section 113, Empowering Foster Children Age 14 and Older in the Development of Their Own Case Plan and Transition Plan.2  As a result, youth in foster care age 14 and older may develop a case plan. A case plan allows the child to select adults to be a part of the team preparing the child’s case plan so the child’s interests are heard. Also, the child receives a list of their foster care rights regarding education, health, visitation, court participation, and other matters in an age-appropriate way. Section 113 empowers youth in care by outlining their rights and lowering the age requirement for court participation from 16 to 14. 

Advocates also wanted youth to exercise their rights in court. Section 475A of H.R. 4980, Redetermination of Appropriateness,3  addresses this issue. This section lists procedures to ensure the child’s wishes are considered at each permanency hearing. Under this provision, the child may state their preferred permanency placement. If the judge chooses APPLA as the permanency plan, an explanation of why other permanency options were not chosen must be given. This allows the child to be a part of the planning of his/her future.

APPLA Status for Older Youth in Care

APPLA, the least preferred permanency goal for children in foster care, is selected when a court finds reunification, adoption, legal guardianship, or relative placement is not in the best interest of the child. Often, APPLA is chosen when other permanency options are too difficult. Unfortunately, older youth are more likely to be assigned APPLA status and are at a higher risk of leaving care without a permanent family. The countless youth who age out of care reflect the foster care system’s inability to meet the needs of older youth. Currently, the minimum age of youth for whom APPLA is applied in most states is 14. 

Advocates would like to see the age for youth who are assigned APPLA increased. One argument is that older youth in care are susceptible to domestic sex trafficking and other negative outcomes when they are placed in group homes resulting from their APPLA status. Under Section 112 of H.R. 4980, APPLA is limited4  to youth in care age 16 years and up. Several advocacy organizations, including the North American Council on Adoptable Children, argue that emancipation should never be a goal for youth in care because it discourages permanency. Through this provision, youth have a better chance of attaining another permanency option. However, youth 16 and up may still feel unwanted because of their APPLA status. Also, they may feel unprepared for the challenges of adulthood once they age out.

Since youth with an APPLA status risk becoming homeless after transitioning from care, it is important that they be engaged in ongoing permanency discussions. Under Section 4755  the child may give input on their desired permanency outcome. For older youth selected for APPLA, the act requires biannual reviews of the youth’s case. Additionally, caseworkers will have to show state agencies why their efforts to find another permanency option for a youth were unsuccessful. Therefore, even if a child’s permanency goal is APPLA, opportunities are provided for the child to pursue other permanency options.

Normal Activities for Youth in Care

Older youth in care are routinely prevented from participating in normal age-appropriate activities and social events. Healthy families provide strong, stable, and supportive relationships that contribute to a sense of identity, social confidence, and belonging. Currently, young people who ‘age out’ of foster care without family or other permanently committed and caring adults face risks to their well-being and sense of self. Missing out on typical growing experiences in family, school, and community can impair healthy development. As a result, these youth become vulnerable to homelessness, drug abuse, poverty and other negative outcomes. However, being placed in a family-based setting, where the parent has more control than the state over the child’s daily activities promotes normal adolescent experiences and better outcomes. 

To promote normal activities for foster youth, advocates believe that more control over the child’s activities should be given to the parent. Section 111 of H.R. 4980, Supporting Normalcy for Children in Care, Age or Developmentally Appropriate definition,6 allows a foster parent or a designated official for a child care institution to permit the child in care to join age-appropriate social, scholastic, and enrichment activities. Giving parents, as opposed to the state, control over the foster child’s activities helps the child build social skills and forge relationships required for their survival and continued development as adults. 

Developing relationships with adults is a key aspect of child development. Section 111 of H.R. 4980, Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard,7  addresses this dynamic. This section allows foster youth under the responsibility of the state to engage in extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities. As a result, the child can join activities that foster relationships with others and forge support networks with a range of people and organizations. These networks may result in finding positive role models and community-based organizations that foster civic engagement and opportunities for youth leadership. Youth can explore educational interests and connect with groups that promote these interests.

Preventing multiple foster care placements is key to normal development for foster youth. 

Accomplishing this goal requires placement data to understand the relationship between foster placements and child outcomes. Under current law, no data collection system directly links outcomes of youth to the funding provided. H.R. 4980, Title III Section 475A, Data Collection and Documentation,8  improves child welfare data collection. This section promotes improved data to ensure strong, permanent families and discourage multiple placements for children by collecting and analyzing information about children who enter foster care under state supervision and after an adoption or legal guardianship becomes final. Understanding the relationship between youth who age out and multiple foster placements is helpful to ensure these youth achieve normal adolescent development.

Conclusion

The Prevent Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act enacts many proposed reforms into the child welfare system. Older youth benefit most from the act with reforms that promote their court participation and empower them to be involved in their cases, discourage APPLA as a permanency plan, and promote normal activities. The act furthers the goals of past child welfare legislation to promote permanency for youth in care and ensure they have the skills and support to successfully transition into adulthood.

Jolena Jeffrey is a second-year law student at American University Washington College of Law. She worked as a law clerk at the ABA Center on Children and the Law during summer 2014.

Endnotes

1. H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. (2013).

2. H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. §113(b)(1)-(2) (2013).

3. H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. §112(b)(1) (2013), amending Part E of Title IV (42 U.S.C. 670), adding sec. 475A(a)(2) Additional Case Plan and Case Review System Requirements. 

4. H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. §112(a)(1) (2013).

5.  H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. §121(a)(2)(A) (2013).

6.  H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. §112(b)(1) (2013), amending Part E of Title IV (42 U.S.C. 670), adding sec. 475A(a)(2)(A) Additional Case Plan and Case Review System Requirements.

7. H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. §111(10)(a) (2013).

8. H.R. 4980, 113th Cong. §112(b)(1) (2013), amending Part E of Title IV (42 U.S.C. 670), adding sec. 475A(a)(1) Additional Case Plan and Case Review System Requirements.

Jolena Jeffrey is a second-year law student at American University Washington College of Law. She worked as a law clerk at the ABA Center on Children and the Law during summer 2014.