Christmas Wishes!

I want to take this early morning opportunity to wish each of you, my readers, the full richness of the Spirit, Joy and Blessings of the Christmas Season!

As you rush to complete those last minute details in preparation for the day I pray each will take a moment to remember those who are less fortunate than us…especially the orphans of the world and those youth spending yet another year in the US foster care system.

As one who spent 18 Christmas seasons in foster care I know how difficult this time of year is for youth in care and even after they may age out as I did. You may read about it in my blog entry entitled, “All They Want for Christmas” at:

https://prairieguy.wordpress.com/2007/10/01/all-they-want-for-christmas/

To those of you who are foster parents or have adopted youth from foster care please know that despite what you may say…YOU are HEROES!

Finally as we approach the new year my wish and prayer for each of you is that 2008 will be a year of fulfillment and your best year ever.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Peace,
Larry~

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Do You Know What ASFA of 1997 Really Says??

A decade ago, children were more likely to spend years in foster care as authorities tried again and again to reunite them with their biological families.

Reunification at ALL costs appeared to be the ultimate goal of the various state agencies. Young lives were being damaged at best and destroyed at worst with this philosophy.

The 1997 Children and Safe Families Act called on states to terminate parental rights faster so that children would be available for adoption sooner. The idea was to give more children permanent,stable homes.

I belong to numerous messageboards on line dealing with foster care and adoption issues. From various comments I have seen about ASFA it appears there are a great number of misconceptions as to what it says.

I have done extensive research to find out exactly what it says as well as what it means.

Do you know what ASFA 1997 actually includes? (Any BOLD passages have been made bold by me to emphasize the wording.) I will add some commentary at the conclusion of going through the sections of the law.

ADOPTION AND SAFE FAMILIES ACT:

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), P.L. 105-89, 111 Stat. 2115, amending 42 U.S.C. §§671-675, was passed in 1997 to improve the safety of children and to promote adoption and other permanent homes for children who need them, as well as to continue to support families. Stating that the child’s health and safety were of paramount concern, the law made changes in and clarified some of the policies established under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. It contained a wide range of provisions, from reauthorization of existing programs to providing adoption incentives for states.

ASFA regulations were announced by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department on January 25, 2000 and went into effect on March 27. States had 12 months in which to meet some of the requirements, but most had to be met right away. See 65 F.R. 4020 (January 25, 2000), amending 45 C.F.R. Parts 1355, 1356, and 1357.

A state must meet certain requirements in order to comply with foster care program provisions of the Title IV-E state plan or to be eligible to receive federal financial participation for foster care maintenance payments. While some requirements affect state plan compliance alone, others affect the child’s eligibility for Title IV-E foster care payments.

Reasonable Efforts Generally: The state must make reasonable efforts to: 
maintain the family unit and prevent the unnecessary removal of a child from his or her home, as long as the child’s safety is assured; effect the safe reunification of the child and family (if temporary out-of-home placement is necessary to ensure the immediate safety of the child); and make and finalize alternate permanency plans in a timely manner when reunification is not appropriate or possible. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(b).

“Contrary to Welfare” Determination in First Court Ruling: A child’s removal from the home must be the result of a judicial determination that continuation in the home would be contrary to the welfare of the child, or that placement outside the home would be in the best interest of the child. This determination must be made in the first court ruling that sanctions (even temporarily) the removal of the child from the home. If this “contrary to the welfare” determination is not made in the first court ruling, the child is not eligible for Title IV-E foster care payments for the duration of that stay in foster care. The omission cannot be remedied. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(c).
 
Reasonable Efforts to Prevent Removal: When a child is removed from his or her home, a judicial determination as to whether reasonable efforts were made, or were not required, to prevent removal must be made no later than 60 days from the date the child is removed from his home. If this determination is not made, the child is not eligible for Title IV-E foster care payments for the duration of that stay in foster care. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(b)(1).

Reasonable Efforts Not Required: Reasonable efforts to prevent removal or to reunify the family are not required where the state agency has obtained a judicial determination that such efforts are not required because:
 
The parent has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances (as defined in state law);
The parent has been convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter of another child of the parent, aiding or abetting, attempting, conspiring or soliciting to commit murder or voluntary manslaughter, or a felony assault that results in serious bodily injury to the child or to another child of the parent; or
Parental rights have been terminated involuntarily with respect to a sibling. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(b)(3).
 
Foster Care Placement; Limit on Court Role: To satisfy the requirements for a case plan for each child (see §38.3 on P.L. 96-272), the state agency must promulgate policy materials and instructions for use by staff to determine the appropriateness and necessity for the foster care placement of the child. Federal financial participation in foster care payments is not available when a court orders a placement with a specific foster care provider. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(g).

Permanency Hearing; Deadline: Previously, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act required that states hold dispositional hearings within 18 months after placement of a child in foster care. ASFA repeals this provision and establishes a permanency planning hearing. This hearing must occur within 12 months of the date a child “is considered to have entered foster care,” or within 30 days of a judicial determination that reasonable efforts to reunify the child and family are not required. A child “is considered to have entered foster care” on the earlier of the date of the first judicial finding of abuse or neglect or the date that is 60 days after the child is removed from the home. 45 C.F.R. §1355.20(a).

Permanency Plan Set at Hearing: The court must determine the permanency plan, or goal, for the child at the permanency hearing. 45 C.F.R. §§1355.20 and 1356.21(h). (This hearing to determine the permanency plan does not have to be the “permanency hearing” described in state law. Under ASFA, the court can hold a hearing on the permanency plan any time, which must be at least every twelve months; the state law presumptions at permanency hearings under the Children’s Code are a separate matter.)
 
Permissible plans: Permissible permanency plans, or goals, under ASFA are:
Return to parent;
Adoption;
Legal guardianship;
Placement permanently with a fit and willing relative; or
Another planned permanent living arrangement, but only if the state agency has documented to the court a compelling reason why none of the other options would be in the child’s best interest. The regulations offer examples of compelling reasons, including that of an older teen who specifically requests that emancipation be his or her permanency plan. 45 C.F.R. §1355.20
 
Reasonable Efforts to Finalize Plan: The state agency must obtain a judicial determination that it has made reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency plan that is in effect (whether the plan is reunification, adoption, legal guardianship, placement with a fit and willing relative, or placement in another planned permanent living arrangement). This determination must be made within 12 months of the date the child is considered to have entered foster care, and at least once every twelve months thereafter while the child is in foster care. If the determination is not made, the child becomes ineligible for Title IV-E payments after the end of the twelfth month following the date he or she is considered to have entered foster care, and remains ineligible until such a determination is made. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(b)(2).
 
TPR Required: Deadline for Filing. The state must file or join in a petition to terminate parental rights if the child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. The petition must be filed by the end of the child’s 15th month in foster care. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(i)(1)(i).

This 15 month period runs from the date on which the child is considered to have entered foster care, that is, the date on which the child was adjudicated an abused or neglected child or the date 60 days after the child was removed from the home, whichever comes first. 45 C.F.R. §1355.20(a).

TPR Within 60 days of Felony Determination: If the parent has been convicted of one of the felonies listed in the regulations, the petition to terminate must be filed within 60 days of a judicial determination that reasonable efforts to reunify the child and parent are not required. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(i)(1)(iii) 

TPR Within 60 days of Abandoned Infant Determination: If a child is determined by the court to be an “abandoned infant” (as defined by state law), the petition to terminate must be filed within 60 days of the judicial determination that the infant is abandoned. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(i)(1)(ii). 

Exceptions to TPR Requirement: The state agency may elect not to file for TPR if: 
at the agency’s option, the child is being cared for by a relative; the agency has documented in the case plan (which must be available for court review) a compelling reason for determining that filing such a petition would not be in the best interests of the individual child, or the agency has not provided to the family services that the state deems necessary for the safe return of the child to the home, when reasonable efforts to reunify the family are required. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(i)(2).

Recruiting Adoptive Family Begins At Filing for TPR: When the state files a petition to terminate parental rights, it must concurrently begin to recruit, identify, process and approve a qualified adoptive family on behalf of the child, regardless of age. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(i)(3).

Specific Findings on Contrary to Welfare and Reasonable Efforts Required: Judicial determinations regarding contrary to the welfare of the child, reasonable efforts to prevent removal and reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency plan in effect, including judicial determinations that reasonable efforts are not required: must be explicitly documented, must be made on a case-by-case basis, and so stated in the court order. 

A transcript of the court proceeding is the only other documentation that will be accepted to verify that these determinations have been made. Affidavits, nunc pro tunc orders, and references to state law are not acceptable. 45 C.F.R. §1356.21(d

Commentary:

As one reads through ASFA 1997 it all sounds very good. Unfortunately, as with many laws, it is not worth the paper it is written on. The states DO NOT follow the act and they in the past years have NOT suffered any penalty; though the youth have!

Termination of parental rights petitions are rarely filed following the 15/22 rule. Agencies and judges seem to believe this is a guideline rather than a mandate. They continuously restart the clock giving bios chance after chance to get their act together. Meanwhile the youth continues to linger in limbo.

This is despite a ruling by a Federal Judge in 2001:

Case Law:

http://ssw.unc.edu/fcrp/fp/fp_vol6no1/wijudge_sue_speedy_adoption.htm

The law requires, except where exempted, reasonable efforts to reunify youth with their parents. It appears that states are using the Exceptions to TPR Requirements clause in any way possible to not follow the 15/22 clause. Some states continue, seven years after implementation, to operate under the old philosophy of reunify at all costs no matter how long it may take.

You can quote the Adoption and Family Safety Act of 1997 and get a totally blank look from the people who are supposed to be in charge of enforcing the act. They need to get “all their ducks in a row” and follow the intent of the act which is “the best interest of the child is uppermost”. As it stands now, it’s the rights of the parents.  Their “civil rights” have to be protected no matter how much further damage is done to the children already scarred by the placement in the system.

A law is good only if it includes enforcement and penalty clauses; ASFA does not! The federal government completed it first audit of all 50 states in 2005 to see if they met the minimum of seven standards. The results were/are alarming as not one single state passed the audit. Despite this result not a single state was penalized.

Overall it appears to me that ASFA of 1997 has been a failure! You may read other of my blog entries that sight the various statistics for the past several years.

I could go on in length but will conclude this commentary with a simple statement: “It is time for the general public to demand the law be enforced. It will be to society’s benefit but more importantly to the youth languishing in the system.”  

Right to be heard:

I have addressed this issue in a previous blog entry but thought it appropriate to also include it here so the two laws would be together.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children & Families web site includes the following:

8.3C.2b  TITLE IV-E, Foster Care Maintenance Payments Program, State Plan/Procedural Requirements, Case review system, notice and opportunity to be heard
 
2. Do the notice requirements in section 475(G) of the Social Security Act apply to all court hearings? Do they apply to shelter care, emergency removal, adjudication and disposition hearings? Do they apply to procedural hearings, such as pretrial hearings or hearings on motions for discovery?
 
Answer:  The revised statutory language confers a “right” to be heard instead of an “opportunity,” as well as changes such right to be heard to a “proceeding” instead of “review or hearing” as in the previous language. Thus, we are interpreting this change to mean that in having a “right” to any “proceeding” to be held with respect to the child, the foster parents, pre-adoptive parents or relatives providing care for a child must, at a minimum, be provided with notice of their right to be heard in all permanency hearings, as well as six-month reviews, if held by the court.
Source:  01/29/07
Legal Reference:  Social Security Act – section 475(5)(G), 45 CFR 1356.21(o)

If you wish to go to the source:
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/j2ee/programs/cb/laws_policies/laws/cwpm/policy_dsp.jsp?citID=1

Imagine this was YOU!

For a brief moment, close your eyes; free your mind and imagine a baby, or a 2, 4, 6, or 10 year old and playing with their favorite toy.

All of a sudden, there’s a knock on the door. The foster parent opens the door and in walks a nicely dressed lady. The lady briefly speaks to them, then walks over to the child and says that they need to go with her. They don’t know where they’re going. As they are leaving, they notice the foster parents walking behind – carrying a partially packed brown paper grocery bag with all their worldly posessions. At this point, they don’t understand what’s happening; their heart starts to beat fast, they want to ask where they’re going but are afraid. Finally they take a deep breath and blurt out, “Where am I going?” The nicely dressed lady looks at them and replies, “You are going to a nice home.” The mind starts to travel, “What did I do wrong? Why can’t I stay here? Why don’t these people want me anymore?  Will I see my friends again? Will I go to the same school?”

At this moment, all that they have ever known has been taken from them; everything, except their name…though they aren’t sure if even that is real.

Now, imagine that child is YOU! Imagine also this has happened to you not once but two, four, eight…even twelve to fourteen times. Imagine finally that after all this you are left to age out of the system; upon your eighteenth birthday you are thrown out by a system that has been your “parent” all those years like a piece of garbage and told, “You are an adult now…make it on your own!”

This scenario is played over and over for the many children that are faced with foster care. Sometimes, we are given a second chance in life; the opportunity to come full circle. What we do with what is offered is totally up to us and no one else. Sometimes we go from bad to worse.

Being a foster child is not what we choose to be; but something that has been chosen for us. I often see us as “a product of the system”, viewing the world differently than others may view it. In our world, we often have seen pain, mistrust, abuse and even hatred. We are given a stigma that is hard to shake; if you ever can. Words are spoken to us that hurt tour very core.

We, in turn, create our own world where we hope to find that little piece of love, happiness or stability that was taken or absent in our lives. We use this as our defense mechanism.

Whether it benefits or harms us, this is the world we create; one which I created. My world was often in a remote area of the backyard of my various foster parents home; there I played with toy soldiers thinking for awhile I could rule the world.

As foster children we long to belong, to be loved and to have our very existence acknowledged. We want to belong in a world where we are like your own children, your own relatives. We wish to belong to a family that says we are theirs no matter what. We don’t want pity, we don’t need pity; we just want to be loved and cared permanently for without the presence of mistreatment, misrepresentation or dismissal.

As foster children, we experience special occasions such as holidays or birthdays and find them especially difficult and painful. We don’t really look forward to them but can’t stop them from coming. We see kids with their families, and wish that it were us. We lie in bed at night and ask “why not me?”
 
I have to wonder how many biological parents or children could endure the life many foster youth have had to endure…could you survive it and be whole?

I now find myself in a position to assist other foster children in ways that I was not assisted. God does things in His own time.

When I was young, I resented my bio-parents for what they had done and often my foster parents for what they didn’t do. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to accept the hand that I was dealt and now view the negative events in my life as things to make me a stronger person and as just stepping-stones to my future.

Every child will have a story to tell. Whatever story it is; Our Children will look to their teachers, social workers, clergy, and parents, as their guide through life. Will they tell the story of hate, sorrow, mistrust and pain? Or, will it be one of love, a story of someone that made a difference in his or her life.

Now reread the first paragraphs of this entry; imagine you lived this sort of childhood; What might your story be?

December Heroes to our Foster Youth

This is the third month since this particular blog entry began. I have found it extremely interesting searching the Internet as well as various other resources available to me in making my selection

My selection this month came down to two possibilities. One was a family in my own local community (Fargo, ND) who adopted four youth from foster care on National Adoption Day. This was a tough choice to pass up. The second, which is the choice, was chosen because of the work they do and the age group they work with.

December’s choice for “Heroes for our Foster Youth is:

“The Homecoming Project”
Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Homecoming Project is a Minnesota Department of Human Services project to increase the number of adoptions of adolescents who are under state guardianship in Minnesota.  The Minnesota Department of Human Services is contracting with the Minnesota Adoption Resource Network (MARN) to provide these services.  This demonstration project, funded by a federal Adoption Opportunities and Activities Grant, provides an opportunity to expand efforts to recruit permanent families for teenagers.

Their mission is:

To increase the rate and frequency of adoptions for teenagers under state guardianship

To strengthen participating youths’ connectedness to caring adults and the larger community

They work with youth ages 13-17 who:

• are under state guardianship

• have a permanency plan of adoption

• have no identified adoptive family

• had a termination of parental rights court 
   ordered more than one year ago

Minnesota, like most states in the country, has a high proportion (22%) of its youth in care between these ages. However, this age group only makes up 8% of the adoptions each year. Though I have a passion for all youth in care, this age group holds a very special place in my heart for I have been there, done that!

It has been shown across the country that as a youth ages as well as the longer they remain in care the less the prospect they will ever be adopted. This means they will age out of the system upon their eighteenth birthday.

In a few states assistance if offered to those aging out; if they meet and continue to meet certain requirements.

Unfortunately for youth in most states aging out; they will be on their own whether they are prepared for it or not. If teenagers in foster care don’t find permanent families, they face a grim future. Every year, more than 24,000 American young people age out of foster care.

Young people who age out of foster care don’t tend to fare very well. With nowhere else to go, many return to the biological families they were taken from to begin with, families where they faced abuse and neglect. They’re more likely than their peers to end up pregnant, or in jail. One study found that one in five young people who age out of foster care becomes homeless. Many never even finish high school.

A decade ago, children were more likely to spend years in foster care as authorities tried again and again to reunite them with their biological families. The 1997 Children and Safe Families Act called on states to terminate parental rights faster so that children would be available for adoption sooner. The idea was to give more children permanent, stable homes. This has proven in some cases successful but this success story mostly applies to babies and younger children, not teenagers.

In the years since, the number of children in foster care has dropped, overall. But the number of teenagers in foster care has risen. And for teenagers in foster care, the odds are still heavily against finding a family to adopt them.

Here are some of the numbers:

Total number of children in foster care in the United States:

1998: 559,000
2005: 513,000

Number of teenagers in foster care:

1998: 180,961 (31 percent of total)
2005: 203, 382 (40 percent of total)

Number of teenagers adopted from foster care:

1998: 3,096 (8 percent of total adoptions from foster care)
2005: 5,750 (11 percent of total adoptions from foster care)

Number of teenagers considered “awaiting adoption”*:

1998: 17,719 (14 percent of all children awaiting adoption)
2005: 29,437 (26 percent of all children awaiting adoption)

Number of teenagers who emancipated, or aged out, of foster care:

1998: 20,000             2005: 24,407

*Most of the children in foster care are not considered to be “awaiting adoption.” Adoption is the “case goal” of only 20 percent of the children. The case goal of some children is emancipation or long-term foster care, meaning no attempt is being made to find permanent families for those children. 2005 is the last year data is fully available.

Sources:

Figures compiled by Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago using data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System
(AFCARS).

The AFCARS report preliminary estimates for 2005 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

How many of you can say we were ready to face the world without support from family, mentors or others in the community willing to offer support in some fashion?

Most, when you turn eighteen will have a supportive family or other resource.  You may have assistance in helping pay for college; you will have a home to go to spend the holidays and summer vacations from school. You may even be provided a rent free place to live if you are attending college locally. You definitely, in most situations, will not be on your own; alone in the world.

I remember my first summer after aging out; it was spent on the streets surviving in any manner I could until college started in the fall. I was fortunate I at least had a scholarship to college. 

I remember that first Christmas season after I aged out of the system. During Christmas break when the campus closed down I had nowhere to go; I did not have a family or a home. I spent those three weeks, with special permission from the college, alone in my dormitory room. I spent the following years in the same manner.

Since I was not taking courses during the summer I had to vacate my dorm room. It was not home to family that I went; rather it was to a “rented room” while I worked during the summer until the fall semester.

I was one of the fortunate ones. Despite the lack of a support system; I made it! However, an overwhelming number of youth aging out without a support network, especially family, do not do so. Only 2% of these youth will make through to a college degree.

This is why “The Homecoming Project” is so important to the youth it serves.

Family is vital, whether it be biological or adopted, to a youth not only before they turn eighteen but even after. Many have family for many years; some even until their own death. Too many youth, where parental rights have been terminated, have no one.

The failure statistics among these youth I have indicated in previous blog entries.

One of the major practices The Homecoming Project is having the youth actually have a voice, many times for the very first time since they came into care. The youth are fully engaged in identifying and achieving their individualized permanency outcomes.  Not only are they able to participate in cultivating their own recruitment plans, developmentally they must participate, in order to mature into healthy adults. 

The Homecoming Project field tests innovative practices in adoption.  Wilder Research will document and evaluate the effectiveness of the project.  Findings will be published and distributed throughout the project, setting new standards for practice with adolescents in adoption…it is hoped it may one day become a program in communities throughout the country.

So with this in mind; has the project and youth proven to be successful?

The Homecoming Project got a federal grant to try to place more teenagers in permanent homes. It assigns kids adoption recruiters who search for people to adopt the kids. The project is now entering the fifth year of its five-year grant, and it has placed 32 teens in permanent homes. That’s a third of its caseload, and a much higher rate than the state average.

Here are just three of the success stories of The Homecoming Project:

Amanda & Chris: were featured on a MN NPR documentary program in November

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/fostercare/c1.html

Roger:

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/fostercare/e1.html

The project is directed by Michelle Chalmers, herself a former foster youth who aged out of the system. She spends her days trying to find families who will adopt teenagers, trying to persuade teenagers that they ought to consider being adopted, and trying to persuade the rest of the world that they should care what happens to kids in foster care.

When Chalmers herself turned 18 and couldn’t stay in her foster home anymore, she went to college. That’s unusual.

She couldn’t go back and stay with that family in the summer. She had to find jobs that included housing, such as being a camp counselor. She’s gone on to make good friends and to find a partner, but she still misses having a family. She says she’s 40 years old, but she’s still aging out of foster care. I can relate to Michelle since I am now 57 and still aging out. I say, “though you may leave the system, the system never leaves you!”

“Every holiday it’s the same, trying to figure out how much time I can be with my partner’s family,” she says.

The people in her partner’s family like each other. They call each other up to chat.

“It’s very nice. It’s very sweet,” she says.

“It’s wonderful but I have to take breaks. It makes my mind go crazy places … It’s a constant reminder of what could have been, or what most people on the planet have, in terms of human relationships.”

But that loss also helps her understand kids whose own families have fallen apart. “I think it’s one of the ways that I think I do my work well, is that I know the empty spots,” she says. “And that doesn’t mean we’re all a bunch of freaks running around who can’t function. But I think there are vulnerable empty spots that are just going to be there.”

So it makes her angry when people ask her why bother finding adoptive homes for teenagers.

“That blows me away, that anybody thinks that kids in foster care need families only until their 18th birthday,” she says. “I say, you’re 40, do you have a family? Most do.”

Although many people lose family members to divorce and death, it’s a rare person who has no family at all.

Chalmers says foster kids ought to have the same opportunity to have lifelong connections with people.

“We should have the same expectations for their future as the kids we birth,” she says. “We have a higher responsibility to them because we took these kids from their families – for good reason most of the time, but implicit in that is a promise to find something else.”

It makes her angry when well-meaning social workers teach foster kids how to find a homeless shelter or a food shelf after they age out.

“It’s like people who go on suitcase drives to collect suitcases because foster kids often move with their stuff in a garbage bag. That just puts me over the edge. Why do we assume that it’s OK for foster kids to move 500 times so we just get them luggage so they can do it prettier?

“People do these feel-good activities and the assumption is: You don’t deserve a family, you’re not going to get one … so here’s a new duffel bag! Good luck to ya! It feels insane to me.”

Michelle Chalmers wants to keep doing this work. Once the grant expires, it is in its final year, she plans to launch her own agency and keep finding teenagers a place they can call home forever.

For more information on the Homecoming Project works and the support they provide go to:

http://www.mnadopt.org/homecoming.htm

Some of the current teen youth eligible for adoption:

http://www.mnadopt.org/hp_youth.htm