The Foster Care Children’s Bill of Rights will require that children be informed of their rights as they enter the child welfare system. The legislation (House Bill 510) was developed by a state advisory group of young adults who are former foster care children. The new law passed the General Assembly unanimously.
The purpose of this legislation, the language of the bill states, is to “assign the authority to protect the health, safety and well-being of children separated from or being cared for away from their families.”
“Was it important?” asked Sherry Bradsher, Deputy Secretary of Human Services at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). “Absolutely. Young adults from our system presented it. It’s theirs, and it’s in the law, and it means something to them.”
Foster care is a temporary, transitional living arrangement for children who need a safe place to live when their parents are unable to take care of them due to illness, alcohol or drug addiction, abuse, neglect or homelessness. When a county Department of Social Services (DSS) and the courts believe a child is without proper care and supervision, DSS takes custody of that child and places them in a foster home. The length of time a child is under foster care can vary from a few days to several years. Longer time in the program can often mean bouncing from one foster home to another while struggling with life disruptions and new beginnings.
Although foster care is a temporary, it is not a dead space where everything in the child’s life stops. The foster child must continue to attend school, make friends, develop their talents, pursue their interests, and have their basic needs met while they wait for a more lasting resolution.
Children taken into foster care await some path to “legal permanence,” either through family reunification, adoption, assignment of legal custody or guardianship, or emancipation upon reaching adulthood (“aging out”). North Carolina child welfare policy defines legal permanence as “a lasting, nurturing, legally secure relationship with at least one adult that is characterized by mutual commitment.” “Legally secure” means a placement in which the direct caregiver has the legal authority to make parental decisions on behalf of the child.
“Putting these rights into legislation raises awareness that they exist,” said Tom Vitaglione, a lobbyist for Action for Children North Carolina. “The state Division of Social Services has committed to putting this list of rights into a readable format and sending it out to every foster family. I feel like that’s got to make a positive difference.”1
While debating House Bill 510 in the legislature, Senator Tamara Barringer, a supporter of the bill, said, “This bill simply provides a policy statement. A policy that promotes stability, basic security and dignity for 13,548 foster children in the state of North Carolina; such as freedom from abuse, neglect and danger. I grappled with what to say about this bill and I’ve decided to get down to a few brass tacks. Those children in foster care stand about as much chance or less of being paroled from a prison than they do getting out of the grasp of the North Carolina foster care system. I learned that from my eleven years as a foster parent. Until we can provide loving, caring and permanent homes for these thirteen thousand-plus children, it’s our job to do the best we can for them and this bill is a good start. It’s only a start. And while I’m here, I pledge to try to make something better of that start.”
Here is the full text of the North Carolina Foster Children’s Bill of Rights:
“It is the policy of this State to strengthen and preserve the family as a unit consistent with a high priority of protecting children’s welfare. When a child requires care outside the family unit, it is the duty of the State to assure that the quality of substitute care is as close as possible to the care and nurturing that society expects of a family. However, the State recognizes there are instances when protecting a child’s welfare outweighs reunifying the family unit, and as such, the care of residential care facilities providing high quality services that include meeting the children’s educational needs as determined by the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Social Services can satisfy the standard of protecting a child’s welfare, regardless of the child’s age, particularly when the sibling groups can be kept intact. To that end, the General Assembly promotes the following in the provision of foster care:
- A safe foster home free of violence, abuse, neglect, and danger.
- First priority regarding placement in a home with siblings.
- The ability to communicate with the assigned social worker or case worker overseeing the child’s case and have calls made to the social worker or case worker returned within a reasonable period of time.
- Allowing the child to remain enrolled in the school the child attended before being placed in foster care, if at all possible.
- Having a social worker, when a child is removed from the home, to immediately begin conducting an investigation to identify and locate all grandparents, adult siblings, and other adult relatives of the child to provide those persons with specific information and explanation of various options to participate in placement of a child.
- Participation in school extracurricular activities, community events, and religious practices.
- Communication with the biological parents if the child placed in foster care receives any immunizations and whether any additional immunizations are needed if the child will be transitioning back into a home with his or her biological parents.
- Establishing and having access to a bank or savings account in accordance with State laws and federal regulations.
- Obtaining identification and permanent documents, including a birth certificate, social security card, and health records by the age of 16, to the extent allowed by federal and State law.
- The use of appropriate communication measures to maintain contact with siblings if the child placed in foster care is separated from his or her siblings.
- Meaningful participation in a transition plan for those phasing out of foster care, including participation in family team, treatment team, court, and school meetings.”
1. North Carolina Health News, “Foster Kids Get Their Own Bill of Rights”