Mitchell Chapman: We need a foster child, and foster parents, bill of rights

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PITTSFIELD — One of the scariest things about being a child in the foster care system is the uncertainty. You're not in control of your own destiny, and you face the reality that for any reason, with little to no warning, you might be moved to another home, never seeing your foster family, friends and support network.

While this reality might never go away, something that can soften its blow are foster parents and foster kids bills of rights, which many states have in some form or another, but not all do, with many states, like Massachusetts, lacking at least one (the state has a foster kids bill of rights, but not for foster parents).

Foster care bills of rights are important for a variety of reasons, as they make it crystal clear what information foster children and foster parents are privy to, including advanced notice of when and why a foster kid is going to be transferred to another home, a foster kid's full medical history, contact information of the child's assigned attorneys, what state services the child has access to, and key details as to why they are in foster care (Massachusetts' bill states that foster children: "shall be informed in a manner appropriate to age and level of understanding of the reason[s] the Department of Children and Families became involved with his/her family and why he/she is in care"). They also outline what standard of living and treatment foster children have a right to when in the system. The foster parents version of this often includes what supportive resources and reimbursements they are entitled to, and what sort of treatment they are guaranteed to by social workers and other foster officials.

In some ways, these bills are redundant, as they often put into statute rights that foster parents and foster kids already have, albeit, they are often buried under miles of regulations and long winded administrative policies, which creates confusion as to what these groups of people have a right to, and this confusion sets the standard as to how foster parents and foster kids are treated. They also put into statute best practices that might have previously been at the discretion of a child's caseworker, or other officials higher up. Nevertheless, foster care bills of rights both raise the bar for how foster parents and children are treated in the system, while giving them necessary clarity as to what resources they have available to them.

KIDS, PARENTS, EMPOWERED

When foster parents are not granted access to key information they need to provide a high standard of care for the foster children they're responsible for, like court dates and a child's medical history, they aren't treated as valuable members of a team responsible for their foster children's success, but rather disposable, passive participants not involved in the decision-making process who can be swapped out at any time, which is a deplorable dynamic, as foster parents have the most responsibilities and impact in a foster child's daily life. Similarly, when foster kids are kept out of the loop, they are unable to prepare for major changes in their lives that can sabotage their chances of success in the system.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of foster care bills of rights are their ability to empower foster parents by giving them more of a seat at the decision-making table in regards to their foster kids — even if those decisions are relegated to the ability to plan around major events in the child's life already determined by factors outside their control — while giving foster children a little more stability by lifting some of the fog as to what is happening to them when in the system. The last thing we want to do is leave them in the dark.

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Foster care bills of rights are a common sense solution that, while they won't bring into fruition a utopian version of the system, can make life a little bit easier for foster kids, while connecting foster parents with necessary information and resources they need to effectively do their jobs. And when we talk about why some states do not have them, the good news is that it's often because they haven't been considered or fully thought of — foster care isn't an issue that's often on the public's radar — rather than facing vehement opposition issues like medicare for all and free public college do. In fact, while there is often debate over how much tax money should go into the foster care system, the notion that those in it deserve fair treatment and a fighting chance to succeed in life is one that transcends party lines.

HOPE IN STATE HOUSE

Hopefully one day soon, Massachusetts will have its own foster parents bill of rights. In fact, state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Joseph McKenna already have one that's being worked on in the State House, and while the life of a proposed piece of legislation can be long, I have hope that some version of it will pass in the near future, and that other states will follow Massachusetts' example.

We're lucky to live in a state with not only a foster child bill of rights, but with legislators who care enough about the issue to draft a foster parents bill of rights to match it, especially considering that foster care reform often receives very little fanfare. It's not an issue you take on to get elected, it's one you tackle because you care.

Not every state is as fortunate, and in truth this issue will only persist until we standardize these bills nation-wide, eliminating our current patchwork system of relative haves and have nots.

But before that can happen, much has to be done on the advocacy and public relations side for foster care reform to get the general public to care, which by extension will make it a priority for our elected officials.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer. He is a foster care alumnus.


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