Thanks to the determined efforts of young people in the foster care system, President Obama recently signed into law a bi-partisan, bi-cameral bill, H.R. 4980, The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. This act brought together several initiatives aimed at improving the lives of children in the child welfare system.
The provisions include giving adolescents and young adults greater say in plans for their future, by mandating that they have the opportunity to participate in case planning meetings, accompanied, if they wish, by two people of their choosing. Parents of teenagers are usually acutely aware that a part of healthy adolescent development is learning to form and offer opinions. In the process of trying to convince parents that they should have a larger allowance, a later curfew, or full and unbridled use of the family car, adolescents learn to gather information and craft arguments to support their positions. Over time, they also usually learn that it may be to their advantage to avoid arguments that they are likely to lose and that some opinions are better kept to themselves.
By the time they are teenagers, most young people do have opinions about their likes and dislikes and ideas—sometimes very fervently held—about how they want to spend their time. The child who endured piano lessons to please her parents, may, as a teenager, insist that she switch to guitar so that she can join her friends in a newly forming band. The choices teenagers make often grow from earlier experiences with a variety of activities—team and individual sports, art and music lessons, or spending time at the library, in a crafts studio, or at favorite outdoor haunts. Prior to the passage of this law, foster parents and group home supervisors typically did not have the authority to determine whether the children and youth in their care could participate in extracurricular activities. The requirement that states establish “prudent parenting” guidelines puts this kind of decision-making where it belongs—in the home.
Because home and family, crucial for healthy development, are painfully absent in the life of too many foster youth, the importance of these efforts to bring normalcy to their lives cannot be overstated. Many of the requirements this bill imposes on the child welfare system are interactions and activities that are a matter of course for responsible parents—for example, helping children make decisions about events and interests and providing and caring for important documents. The fact that activities such as these must be legislated underscores the difficulty of replacing normal, expectable parenting with a massive system and the rules and regulations required for its smooth functioning.
When we so often hear, “being a parent is the hardest job I’ve ever done” we should not be surprised that analyzing and implementing the multiple components of parenting is a formidable task and, like good parenting, demands continual reassessment and revision. We owe thanks and congratulations to the foster youth who persevered with their reasonable demands for responsible care in the absence of responsible parents.
By Toni Heineman