Group: State can do more to help foster kids live normally

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s foster care system can do more to ensure that foster children get to play sports, attend school dances and enjoy other normal childhood experiences, according to a report released Thursday.

Such experiences are important to their development, but the report presented to lawmakers by a child advocacy coalition said the system has created barriers which make it difficult for foster children to live like most other kids.

“It turns out that being allowed to be a kid is very important to becoming a healthy adult,” said Sarah Helvey, child welfare director for the group Nebraska Appleseed. “But for years, many foster kids have faced bureaucratic barriers to these growing-up experiences.”

The obstacles include safety rules - such as background checks for sleepovers and travel restrictions - as well as fears that foster parents could face penalties if an unattended teenager gets in trouble.

The cost of activities, disagreements with foster parents and a lack of transportation were also cited as factors. Foster children who were surveyed reported that they were prohibited from trying out for cheerleading, going on field trips or having senior portraits taken.

The report was based on input from more than 300 stakeholders in Nebraska’s foster care system, including current and former foster children, child welfare advocates, foster parents and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Child advocates urged lawmakers to adopt the recommendations of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, a federal law passed last year to promote safety and a sense of normalcy for foster care children. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee convened the hearing Thursday to hear public input on the issue.

Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and a former foster child, said foster children should have a support system while being allowed to make mistakes.

The report recommended that Nebraska law make clear that children in care have a right to participate in age-appropriate activities.

It also suggested creating a grievance procedure for children who feel their wishes aren’t being heard, and requiring Nebraska’s juvenile courts to provide oversight to ensure that caregivers are giving children a chance to participate in activities. The state should also clarify the rights of foster parents, the report said.

Raevin Bigelow, who aged out of the foster care system three years ago, said she wasn’t allowed to attend a church while in a group home because she hadn’t earned enough ``points’’ for the week to earn the privilege.

“When you spend time in foster care, you’re reminded plenty of times that your life is different from other kids,” said Bigelow, 21.

Nebraska had 4,099 state wards as of Monday, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Doug Weinberg, director of the department’s Children and Family Services division, said the agency now tells foster parents to use ``reasonable and prudent’’ parenting standards when deciding whether to allow a child to participate in activities.

Weinberg said his division has also proposed new regulations to protect the licenses of foster parents who follow the standards.

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