Yesterday, Nebraska Children’s Assistant Vice President of Youth Policy, Cassy Blakely, testified in support of LB 746: Nebraska’s Strengthing Families Act. In her testimony, Cassy focused on how the bill represents a shift from a system-oriented focus on foster care to a youth-drive, relationship-based network of care that more closely aligns with the ideal situation — a loving family.
Chairwoman Campbell and members of the Health and Human Services Committee,
I come before you today on behalf of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to voice our support of LB 746, the Nebraska Strengthening Families Act. Throughout this hearing, you’ll hear testimony parsing out details, and that is important discussion. However, for now I ask you to consider the bigger message this bill sends; that of a shift away from foster care as a system and towards foster care as a relationship between caregivers (foster parents, group home staff, biological parents, judges, and caseworkers) and children. Unfortunately, many current systems are procedural, cold, and standardized. They leave little room for nurturing, voice, or risk-taking…factors we all relied on in our transition to adulthood and that we pull from in parenting our own children. And, let’s be real…while state systems were never intended to raise children, they do, for however long or short a child’s stay in care. The Nebraska Strengthening Families Act supports a shift towards a system mindful of its responsibility to provide a child or youth with a strong family while in the state’s care. It will never replace a youth’s family, but rather extends it and encourages everyone who cares for that youth to work collaboratively, with the young adult towards shared goals.
I have been blessed during my near decade at Nebraska Children to work almost exclusively with Project Everlast, specifically with their youth councils and youth partners. In fact, I’ve sat in this room many times proudly watching a young adult find power in their experience by speaking before you on a bill that inspired them to action. The youth’s mantra of “nothing about us, without us” has driven Project Everlast since 2002. This bill aims to imbed that same mantra into our foster care system at all levels. It fundamentally changes the approach. Quite simply, implementation of this bill could have stopped at the writing of a few new DHHS policies. Instead, partners, including Nebraska Children, Appleseed and the Department opened the conversation to stakeholders, including foster parents, youth, biological parents, and providers through a series of stakeholder meetings, focus groups and surveys to inform Nebraska’s implementation. Nebraska’s commitment to inclusion promotes normalcy on a higher level by providing opportunities for youth to have a voice and practice essential life skills in their case, placement, and communities. To explore how passage of LB 746 facilitates the opportunity for young adults to grow in more normative ways, we will return to our three essential qualities mentioned before; nurturing, voice, and risk-taking.
Let’s begin with the scariest of these…risk-taking. A 2014 Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative paper applies adolescent brain development research to youth in foster care. It describes how chemical changes in the adolescent brain that prime teens for risk-taking also create the capacity for young people to practice adult roles and responsibilities while in a supported environment.1 This moves foster care placements towards an environment like this by allowing youth to experience responsibility and trust. Access to normal activities, increased understanding of one’s rights while in care, and an explanation of essential life documents equip youth with the knowledge and opportunities to take smarter, more calculated risks that are a natural part of becoming an adult.
Additionally, the Nebraska Strengthening Families Act’s inclusion of youth in their own case promotes trust. A focus group participant stated, “Trust goes both ways”. Youth want to be trusted and they want to trust their caregivers. However, this demands honest communication, another common theme among youth focus group participants. Throughout my time with Project Everlast, I’ve heard youth share that they often feel talked about, not talked with. They doubt what they’re told and rely on partial information. Thus risk-taking becomes about control, rather than exploring abilities and building skills. Placing youth in a prominent position at the table for all conversations concerning their case provides opportunities to ask questions, take an active role in their lives, and identify opportunities for supported risk-taking. Again, this bill shifts foster care from a system that processes to a family that includes.
Second, the Strengthening Families Act’s culture shift pushes our system to recognize the unique needs of individual youth and families by allowing opportunities for youth voice. Inclusion constitutes such a significant intent of this bill that the phase “ask/consult/discuss with the child” is used nine times. And this doesn’t take into account the number of times such efforts must be documented by the court, caseworker, and Guardian ad Litem nor the inclusion of three young adults in the Children’s Commission Taskforce. Voice was essential to the federal bill and remains central to Nebraska’s implementation.
Further emphasis is placed on voice through the inclusion of youth in team meetings and court hearings. Such inclusion not only provides youth with essential information to feel safe in their placement, but teaches the life skill of communicating one’s needs. Specifically, LB 476 outlines youths’ explicit inclusion in court, team meetings, transition planning, their relationship with their Guardian ad Litem, and in making the decision for APPLA or “independent living” as their permanency goal. As a mom, my children are sure to share their voices with me, often loudly. The Strengthening Families Act simply provides youth this same opportunity. The difference…my kids holler about what shoes to wear to daycare; a youth in care voices their opinion about where they want to live, who they want in their lives, and the skills they need to be ready to for adulthood.
Finally, and I’d argue most importantly, LR 746 pushes for a more nurturing system. Time after time, I see Project Everlast youth partners respond to their peers in care as their family. They feel a responsibility to one another that’s driven by love, shared experience, and hope for the future. I saw this recently at a statewide gathering of youth representatives from each of Project Everlast’s local youth councils. They met at a lodge in western Nebraska, where they cooked meals together, taught by one of our Youth Advisors, and held their business meeting on couches while their kids played. One youth who’d been in care for seven years and on her own for two, stopped me during dinner. As she looked down the table at her peers, laughing and eating, she said, “I want to cry because I don’t remember the last time I sat at the dinner table with a family.” That is the kind of big picture normalcy this act promotes.
A 2015 Harvard University Center on the Developing Child paper states, “Resilience requires supportive relationships and opportunities for skill building. The single most common factor for children who end up doing well is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship…”2 In addition to the opportunity to simply sit alongside the adults in their case and discuss their wants, needs, and dreams, this act connects youth in two ways: access to age-appropriate activities and purposeful identification of informal supports through the foster care process.
You’ll likely hear a great deal about the importance of access to age-appropriate activities from other testifiers, so let me focus on the second method: the connection to supportive adults.
This act allows youth to identify a personal advisor to serve as their advocate at team meetings. This seems fairly straightforward; however, it requires identification of the important people in the youth’s life, creating an environment at team meetings that works for the youth and their advisor, and efforts to support the youth in maintaining that relationship. Further, the act requires permanent connections to be continually pursued even after a shift to a goal of APPLA. These steps provide youth opportunities to practice healthy relationship skills with the support of the adults assigned their care, while ensuring they have support after they leave foster care. Again, we are returned to our big picture…a system that cares for youth in all the messy, creative, and complicated ways youth need.
It’s been exciting and humbling to work alongside so many advocates, young adults, professionals and DHHS staff dedicated to doing what’s best for youth in care. And, I truly believe they are all committed to that purpose. I look forward to all the difficult, but essential work ahead. Thank Senator Campbell for your unwavering dedication to youth with system-involvement and to the support of the other senators who have signed on to this bill. As you consider the Nebraska Strengthening Families Act, I hope you’ll remember the big picture. I strongly encourage you to advance LB 746, as an acknowledgment of our responsibility to provide a true home, driven by unconditional love, for the children and young adults that must spend some time in our foster care system.