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Reichert Opening Statement: Hearing on Letting Kids Be Kids: Balancing Safety with Opportunity for Foster Youth

May 09, 2013

Entering foster care is a life-changing experience for children. Foster children are faced with a dizzying array of changes that are anything but normal. They are separated from their parents. They are often sent to live with a family they have never met. They may start attending a new school, have to make new friends, and make new efforts to participate in sports and other activities they previously took for granted.

On top of all of this change, we know some child welfare policies have the unintended effect of making life even harder for these children. Rules may keep them from spending time with friends, participating in sports, and even getting a driver’s license or finding a summer job.

For example, Ryan Cummings, from my home State of Washington, wasn’t able to get a driver’s license while in foster care. He missed going on vacations with his foster family because the rules didn’t allow him to travel. Georgina Rodriguez from Florida couldn’t play in the high school marching band. John Paul Horn from California needed to save money before his 18th birthday when he would be on his own, but his group foster home rules initially blocked him from being able to obtain a job.

Such foster youth often speak of “living in a separate world,” where they are isolated from the community around them, making it that much harder for them to succeed. While we clearly need to make sure children are safe while in foster care, these examples highlight how – in some cases – policymakers have gone too far in creating that separate world for these kids.

Now the tide seems to be turning. In recent years, Federal and State reforms have tried to allow more children to stay safely in their own homes or be adopted instead of spending year after year in foster care. For children who must enter foster care, Federal reforms have stressed keeping children in their own school whenever possible.

Some States have also taken on this issue directly. In 2004, California amended their laws to eliminate unnecessary restrictions on the activities of foster youth, and provide foster parents more flexibility to make responsible decisions. In 2011, foster youth in Washington State, working with the Mockingbird Society, highlighted this issue, and now my State has a working group to develop ways to make improvements.

And as we will hear today, States might examine a law Florida enacted just this year that is designed to ensure foster youth are treated more like other kids. This law will allow foster youth more freedom to participate in age-appropriate activities like sports, sleepovers with friends, and getting a driver’s license.

We will review these efforts today. In the process, we will learn what is being done to improve the lives of foster youth, and how we can work together to better ensure that foster kids can successfully grow and develop like other kids. That is our responsibility, and we welcome all of today’s witnesses to help us achieve that goal.