Bill seeks to normalize life for foster youth

A bill that would implement provisions of a federal law designed to promote normalcy for foster care youth was heard Jan. 21 by the Health and Human Services Committee.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, sponsor of LB746, said normalcy in the context of the foster system means age and developmentally appropriate activities and experiences essential to the healthy development of children and youth.

“Normalcy is about letting kids be kids,” she said.

Campbell said it is important for foster children to participate in extracurricular and social activities such as field trips, sports, clubs, religious groups, and family vacations and photos. Current regulations regarding children in out-of-home care have been interpreted to prohibit such participation, she said.

Under the bill, a prudent parent standard would be developed for caregivers—whether in-home or in an institutional setting—that would allow caregivers to use their best judgment in making day-to-day decisions about activities for youth in their care. To the extent possible, birth parents also would be involved in such decisions.

The bill also would require the state Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that foster children age 14 and older are made aware of their rights and responsibilities before aging out of the system, as well as having access to certain documents.

Required documents would include a copy of the individual’s birth certificate, medical and educational records, family contact information and a list of local community resources.

The bill would require juvenile courts to ensure that children in foster care are able to engage in normal activities and make certain findings part of a child’s record. LB746 also would establish the Normalcy Task Force, with members appointed by the Nebraska Children’s Commission.

Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the state Foster Care Review Office, testified in support of the bill.

In 2015, there were more than 3,000 children in out-of-home care in Nebraska, she said, and 35 percent were in foster care for more than two years. Hawekotte said the majority of foster children in the state are school aged and need access to developmental experiences that will give them the tools to be successful adults.

“This bill will impact each and every one of those kids,” she said.

Raevin Bigelow, who aged out after seven years in the foster care system, also testified in support of LB746. She said life in foster care did not prepare her for being an adult, in part because she was not allowed a voice in decisions that affected her future. Taking part in the regular activities of youth are important, she said.

“When you spend time in foster care, you’re reminded plenty of times that your life is different from other kids,” Bigelow said. “Even if your foster parents do everything they can to make sure you are healthy, safe, happy and loved, there are some things that the foster system just doesn’t let foster kids do easily.”

Foster parent Keri Rockwell also supported the bill. The odds are stacked against children who enter out-of-home care, she said, and activities like sleepovers and family vacations can give children a sense of normalcy and dignity.

“By passing LB746 you make kids safe. You enrich and empower children and youth to live productive, capable and meaningful lives while strengthening families in the process,” Rockwell said.

No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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