Ask the GAL: What children in foster care need is parenting

January 10, 2013 

As the executive director of the statewide Guardian ad Litem Program, I talk to many children and teenagers who live in foster and group homes. It is not unusual for these conversations to center around their complaints about a lack of a normal life.

Moving from school to school, not being allowed to play school sports, not being able to use the phone or participate in school trips are just of the few comments I regularly hear. For years, child advocates have fought to correct these problems by promoting the concept of "normalcy;" it is something we have all been striving to provide for children who, through no fault of their own, end up in foster care.

A few years ago, one of my roles as state director of child welfare was to be the "normalcy czar." The secretary assigned me to answer questions from foster parents, shelters, group homes, children in foster care, providers, case managers and the public about what was "normal" for a child in foster care, and what activities they should be allowed to do. Every answer had to be carefully crafted to ensure that each child was treated as an individual.

Children and teens learn to be independent by participating in extracurricular, enrichment and social activities. They venture out on their own and make decisions that are supported by their parents. They will inevitably make mistakes, but their parents still care for them and support them, regardless.

Needless to say, despite our best efforts to promote "normalcy," we still hear the stories from children in foster care who aren't allowed to go to the beach, have a sleepover, go trick or treating, or play high school sports.

The more I think about this issue, the more I am certain that achieving "normalcy" is not and has never been the core issue. The lack of "normalcy" is the symptom of what truly has been wrong with foster care as we know it.

The Department of Children and Families is now pursuing a major culture shift through an initiative called the Quality Parenting Initiative. This program maintains that the true answer to the need for "normalcy" lies in ensuring that there is parenting for children in foster care. We trust foster parents to care for our dependent children 24/7, yet

they have not legislatively or in reality been granted the authority to make day-to-day decisions for their foster child, without a bureaucracy interfering with decision-making.

Tanya Wilkins, wife of Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins, chairs a DCF committee called Fostering Florida's Future, which focuses on retention and recruitment of foster parents. She often says foster parents need "Permission to Parent."

Her comments made sense, but only recently when talking with children did it really sink in what this means to children who miss their parents, their families and other caregivers. Children in foster care really need someone to be there for them giving direction in their life. They have a right to be parented -- not by a nameless, faceless group of case workers and lawyers, but by a loving, caring parent who can help them make mature decisions and guide them toward responsible adulthood.

There is no need to hold a "staffing" for any decision that parents routinely make for their children, and no need for lawyers to sit around a table and speculate about liability if something bad were to happen during a normal activity. Although foster parents will often consult friends, family members, clergy and experts as decisions come up (just as my wife and I do for our own children), the authority to make these decisions needs to rest with the foster parent.

With these thoughts in mind, it is clear that although "normalcy" is often discussed, what we really need is for caregivers in foster care to have "permission to parent." This is why legislation is needed to ensure that foster parents and other caregivers have the authority to make real time decisions for children as any "reasonable and prudent parent" would do for their own child.

The legal standard for decision-making today is to balance "safety" and "normalcy. " The problem with this requirement is that many providers equate "safety" with "liability." Talk about the issue with any lawyer who represents an organization providing residential care, and the word liability will be the central theme. It's not difficult to see why something as "normal" as a teenager going to the beach would become a bureaucratic nightmare.

I want to thank Sen. Nancy Detert and Rep. Ben Albritton for sponsoring a bill to be considered by the 2013 Florida Legislature that will give children in foster care what they need most: parenting.

Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the statewide Guardian ad Litem office and formerly director of the Family Safety Program with the Florida Department of Children and Families, can be reached at askthegal@12gal.org.

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