Nebraska policymakers are currently discussing how to implement the Strengthening Families Act (SFA) in our state. While there are many parts to this important legislation, what we believe will be most critical to system-served youth are the components that relate to “normalcy.”
SFA instructs state to allow foster parents to use their judgement when deciding what activities children should be involved in . . . kind of like normal parents do. Currently, young people in foster care have to overcome stringent — sometimes almost absurd — barriers in order to participate in regular childhood activities. Participating in sports, going over to friends’ houses, having a sleepover, getting a first job in high-school — all of these “normal” activities that help children develop character and strong relationships are practically off-limits to youth in foster care. SFA could change that for the better, depending on how Nebraska policy makers implement it.
Tomorrow, a report on the importance of normalcy will be released which will hopefully help policymakers understand just how important it is for kids to have the opportunity to be kids.
The following information is from the Normalcy Stakeholders Group. It provides a good breakdown of SFA, what’s at stake with the conversation of normalcy for youth in care, and their own recommendations for how Nebraska should implement.
Letting Kids be Kids
Implementing the Strengthening Families Act in Nebraska
Important work is underway in Nebraska and nationally to improve “normalcy” for children and
youth in foster care. In September 2014, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (also known as the Strengthening Families Act or SFA). In Nebraska, a broad group of stakeholders, with young people at the forefront, have come together to determine how to best implement the SFA in our state.
What is “Normalcy”?
“Normalcy” is about letting kids in foster care be kids by ensuring they are able to participate in the age-and developmentally- appropriate activities and experiences that are essential to their
development. Childhood and adolescence for many involves fun and enriching activities such as spending time at summer camp, participating in sports, music, debate, having sleepovers, hanging out with friends and finding a job. Research supports that these activities guide children and youth in building lasting relationships, help in the process of self-identity, allow for healthy exploration of new interests, and prepare for the transition into a successful adulthood. It turns out that being allowed to be a kid is very important to becoming a healthy adult. But youth in foster care often do not have the same opportunities for these childhood experiences and face barriers to their participation.
What is the Strengthening Families Act?
The SFA includes provisions to protect children and youth at risk of becoming sex trafficking victims, improve adoption incentives and support guardianships, as well a set of provisions focused on normalcy.
With regard to normalcy, the SFA instructs states to:
- Implement the reasonable and prudent parent standard to allow foster parents to use their best judgment in making day-to-day decisions including what activities youth can take part in
- Limit the use of APPLA or Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (known as
independent living in Nebraska) as a permanency goal for youth under 16
- Involve youth ages 14 and older in their case plan and provide them with a list of rights
- Provide youth at age 18 with important documents (e.g., birth certificate, social security card, etc.)before they leave foster care
What is the normalcy stakeholder group?
Over 300 young people and other stakeholders were involved in the process to develop to a set of recommendations on the implementation of the normalcy provisions of the SFA in Nebraska. This process included:
- Two full day meetings where over 45 child welfare stakeholders and young people met to learn about the SFA and create an initial set of recommendations
- Youth focus groups with 33 young people (ages 14-24) from Lincoln, Curtis, Fremont and Geneva (YRTC)
- Input on the recommendations from 33 foster parents in a survey created by Nebraska Foster and Adoptive Families Association
- Focus groups with parents organized by Nebraska Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health
- Input on the recommendations from over 200 stakeholders (including case workers, judges, attorneys/GALs, DHHS and NFC staff, foster parents, educators and other advocates) in a survey created by Nebraska Appleseed
The following are an initial set of stakeholder recommendations based on consensus
identified through this process.
Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard (RPPS)
The RPPS and normalcy should be applied to all children and youth (including those in the system due to child welfare, juvenile justice, status offense or mental health) in all placements and levels of care.
- Nebraska statute should state that children in care have the right to take part in age- and
- A grievance process should be available for youth who feel they have not been heard or are facing consistent disagreement about normalcy activities.
- DHHS and the juvenile courts should work collaboratively to remove or reduce barriers to youth’s participation in age- and developmentally-appropriate activities.
- Nebraska statute should include a description that the legal rights of biological parents are not impacted by the RPPS (meaning parents whose rights have not been terminated still retain their constitutional and other existing rights with respect to their children and that those rights and their important role must be respected).
- Nebraska statute should require the juvenile court to provide oversight (i.e., make court findings) to ensure that, for all youth (not just those age 16 and older, as required by the SFA), the caregiver is following the RPPS and that the youth has regular, ongoing opportunities to engage in age or developmentally appropriate activities.
Youth Notice of Rights
The notice of rights to youth should include all rights under state and federal law, not just those
enumerated in the SFA.
- The case plan should document what efforts were made to engage the youth in case planning (this should be required to be documented) and how the youth participated in the case planning process (but this should not be required to be documented).
- Nebraska statute should require the juvenile court to ask the youth if they participated in the development of their case plan and make findings about whether they were involved in case planning.
The report also details stakeholder group recommendations around ensuring older youth that still have a permanency plan of APPLA have supportive connections and requiring a more comprehensive “discharge packet” of documents and having the juvenile court provide oversight to make sure the youth has received pre-discharge documents before the case is closed.
What are the next steps?
With many stakeholders involved in this process in a short timeframe, there were areas where consensus was not found and areas where follow up work is still needed, including considerations of RPPS activities, training, and funding, cultural considerations, and youth rights. The stakeholder group and smaller workgroups will be meeting in the coming months to consider these and other issues, and to continue collaborating to improve normalcy for youth.
In Nebraska, DHHS has already begun implementation of the SFA and we have a number of best practices in place. But there is more work that needs to be done, including amending Nebraska law, policy and practice, to fully implement the SFA with these recommendations to ensure that Nebraska kids in foster care can be kids.
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