Young adults with foster care backgrounds call for the child welfare system to reduce reliance on law enforcement and boost “trauma-informed” practices
Cedric Lofton. Cornelius Fredericks. Ma’Khia Bryant.
The names of these foster youth may have faded from news coverage. But their violent deaths at the hands of authorities remain painful tragedies for those who convened Monday to outline new policy reforms. Members of the National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council aim to “Decriminalize Being in Foster Care” so that no more lives are lost or devastated.
“With our young people, we want to ensure the system sees them as children and not as criminals,” said Bianca Bennett, a New York member of the leading advocacy group headed by people who spent time in foster care. “Their behavior shouldn’t define their outcomes, and there should be trauma-informed practice that can shape their stories and help them find the healing they need.”
Lofton, Fredericks and Bryant were all Black teenagers in foster care when they were killed by law enforcement or residential facility staff, she noted. In Fredericks’ case, he died days after being smothered by employees at a Michigan residential treatment center, simply for throwing a sandwich. (There are discrepancies in the spelling of his last name in court documents and media reports). That 2020 tragedy, caught on videotape, garnered national headlines amid worldwide protests over police brutality against Black people and renewed scrutiny of group institutions for children.
For the other young adults who hosted Monday’s webinar, the deaths represented a predictable outcome, given the overly punitive responses foster youth receive during tense periods of their lives, and the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care.
The policy council’s 20th reform agenda – produced through a partnership between FosterClub, Foster Care Alumni of America and the philanthropy Casey Family Programs – proposes solutions. Recommendations include boosting housing support for youth transitioning into adulthood and reducing reliance on law enforcement for crisis response in foster and group homes and for moving youth between placements. Members also want to see fewer children removed from home in the first place, but in cases where they must be taken, they do not want law enforcement to accompany social workers — a joint response that is common across the country.
“The council really wants to stress that living with strangers in a new environment creates major emotional turmoil experienced for our youth, which includes a lack of control and intensity in these situations, and their responses,” said Bennett, who is attending Cornell University for graduate school. “There’s a lack of compassion for foster youths.”
The policy council’s 16 members have spent the fall meeting with other leading child welfare advocacy groups to raise awareness about the overrepresentation of foster youth in the criminal justice system. Among its other reforms, the group wants more states to adopt a foster youth “bill of rights,” which is particularly needed for young people housed in group facilities. According to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2019, 17 states had enacted legislation granting foster parents a bill of rights, but just 15 had a similar guarantee for foster youth.
As part of its research, the council polled more than 100 young people across the country and found staggering rates of law enforcement involvement. Anonymous comments submitted with the poll described a pervasive fear in the foster care system of those interactions.
“Police were present each time I was removed from biological family,” one former foster youth reported. “I can’t count the amount of times I’ve had the police called on me and the times I’ve been in a cop car.”
A quarter of respondents described being placed in a juvenile detention facility without having committed a crime. Some foster youth have been kept in juvenile jails simply because a foster care placement couldn’t be found, like in Sacramento County, California earlier this year, where The Imprint reported foster youth facing no criminal allegations whatsoever were housed in a former detention facility — and forced to sleep in cells — because local officials failed to find them placements.
“I only was placed for truancy,” a Pennsylvania foster youth stated in a poll response. “This one problem created a lifetime of crap for me; I could of been given two simple alternatives: a different school and a therapist.”
Overall, more than half of the respondents had been removed from their biological family with law enforcement present. More than a quarter had been moved between foster placements with law enforcement, and nearly a third said a caregiver had called law enforcement on them.
“Those charged with our safety and well-being must see us as the kids and teenagers we are,” states a memo the policy council released in September. “Our Black and Brown siblings are subject to the ‘adultification’ bias — seeing us as older than we really are.”
A growing body of research shows high rates of criminal justice system involvement for young people who have grown up in foster care. Several recent long-term studies of youth transitioning out of foster care found that roughly half experienced an arrest or incarceration. And a landmark 2011 survey found nearly 70% of male 25- and 26-year-old former foster youth reported experiencing an arrest.
The studies also found that criminal justice system involvement declines with age, as it does among the broader population. Extended foster care supports past age 18, and ties to other institutions such as college or employment, have also been shown to reduce arrests in the first year they are provided.
At Monday’s virtual public event, council member Catherine Szkop described her professional experience as an advocate for religious freedom working with Holocaust survivors, and underscored the need for more trauma-informed training for foster parents and child welfare staff.
“This would definitely benefit youth in care,” Szkop said, since many professionals “don’t understand the feeling of being a foster care kid.”
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