Anna Riley

News and conversation about the foster care system often centers on children and birth parent rights, but when it comes to foster parents, the conversation usually focuses on their responsibilities rather than their rights.

The Foster Parents Statements of Rights and Responsibilities Amendment Act of 2016 aims to change this reality for foster parents of D.C. youth. In February, Councilmembers Yvette Alexander, Anita Bonds, Brianne Nadeau and Mary M. Cheh introduced the act. The Council held a public hearing on the act in July and they will mark it up and vote on it this fall, after summer recess.

Margie Chalofsky, founding executive director of the Foster and Adoptive Parent Advocacy Center (FAPAC), said that because workers in the foster system are coming and going, there is often inconsistency in what is said and implemented. That’s why it is necessary to create one single document that pulls together all relevant information for foster parents, she said.

“The district has some really good policies, it’s just that not everybody knows them, so they’re implemented inconsistently,” Chalofsky said. “If I’m a new social worker or a new foster parent, and I come in and I want to know what the things are that guide my practice, there’s no one place to look. I have to look here and there, I’m told the wrong thing by somebody who came in before and I have to figure it out.” She thinks a foster parent bill of rights would eliminate this confusion and inconsistency.

The system has different rules and regulations for all sorts of things, such as hair cuts, sleepovers and tattoos for foster youth, and sometimes it depends on who you speak with to figure out foster parents rights around these issues, Chalofsky said.

Mindy Good, communications director at Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), explained that although all CFSA foster parents go through the exact same training, they may interpret the trainings differently. Additionally, the foster system’s answers to foster parents’ questions are often confusing and inconsistent based on who one talks to.

“One thing this is going to do is make a certain set of information widely available to all foster parents and it’s going to help consistency,” Good said, adding that CFSA wishes to be part of something that makes things more clear for foster parents.

“There will always be some children who just can’t be safe at home and we need to remove them. When we do that, we have to have a safe place for them to be,” Good said. “So, foster parents are very valuable partners and anything we can do to strengthen that relationship with our foster parents, we’re willing to do it.”

Formerly foster youth Ashley Strange said that her foster mother did not know her rights when dealing with money and allowance in the foster system. Her foster mother spent much of her personal money on Strange’s prom, graduation and more, things that the foster system is supposed to pay for. In Strange’s opinion, the foster parent statement of rights and responsibilities will help clarify money issues for foster parents, which could increase the foster parent retention rate.

“I think it would bring more foster parents in and current foster parents would probably take on more because they know that they have the money to do it,” Strange said.

According to Damon King, senior policy attorney at the Children’s Law Center, foster parent retention rate is a key issue in the foster system. “When you lose foster parents, you’re not only losing numbers, you’re losing people with experience and knowledge,” King said at the July public hearing on the act. He said that stakeholders need to think about what can be done to ensure foster parents feel fully supported.

Chalofsky thinks that a foster parent bill of rights might increase foster parent retention rate by decreasing the confusion and innocent misunderstandings that can cause foster parents to quit. One of her friends took her foster children to Disney World on a family vacation and all of the children slept in the living room. When her social worker said that this was not allowed because foster children must have their own beds, the foster mother gave up and decided she couldn’t “have everything questioned anymore.” “That type of quitting, I think [the foster parent bill of rights] would help,” Chalofsky said after explaining the story.

Donna Flenory, FAPAC board member and foster parent of 16 years, hopes that not only will the foster parent bill of rights create clarity and consistency for foster parents around certain rules and regulations, but will also inform foster children about foster parent rights.

“Regular birth children think their birth parents are just trying to ruin their life, but if a foster child says that [about their foster parents], they’ll be moved out,” Flenory said. She thinks it is a mistake that the system does not require foster children to go through training, and she hopes that a foster parents bill of rights will clarify, for some foster children, why a foster parent is doing what they are doing.

“I’ve been told, ‘normally children don’t have to go to classes and things like that; they’re just at home with their parents.’ Well, these children are not at home,” Flenory said. “Their lives are not going to be normal, so you have to educate them. You’ve got to prepare them. I know you want them to have as normal [lives] as possible, but you have to take into consideration, their life isn’t normal.”

Chalofsky thinks the foster parent bill of rights could essentially help to empower foster parents. “One of the things that foster parents have always struggled with is feeling that they are an equal member of the team,” she said. “Having a bill of rights says ‘oh, you’re a valid player here.’ You may not know everything about the family, but you’re important. We’re validating your role, to a certain degree.”

Currently CFSA is in the process of planning to have a working group to come up with the foster parents statement of rights and responsibilities, according to Heather D. Stowe, principle deputy director of the CFSA in the July public hearing on the act.