The following was published in The Skanner on May 23, 2017.
SALEM, ORE. — Current and former foster youth gathered at the Governor’s office on May 17 to participate in a ceremonial signing of the Foster Children’s Sibling Bill of Rights.
The new law encourages the Department of Human Services to place foster youth and their siblings in the same home. When siblings can’t be placed together, the law ensures that DHS and foster families support foster youth in preserving relationships with their siblings – relationships that are critically important to their healthy development and overall well-being throughout their lives.
The concept for the Sibling Bill of Rights originated in the summer of 2016 when a group of current and former foster youth met to address weaknesses in Oregon’s foster care system. These youth who are members of Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC), a program of Children First for Oregon, shared with each other their own stories of living in the foster care system and brainstormed ways to make positive change for the next generation of foster children.
The group of youth leaders ultimately voted to prioritize the Sibling Bill of Rights for advocacy during the 2017 legislative session.
DeAnna Baker, a current foster youth involved in the idea for a Sibling Bill of Rights, remarked during the ceremony, “Living in the system is stressful for numerous reasons, but this law eases some of the stress, anxiety, and heartache felt during these difficult situations.” Baker, who has been in and out of the foster care system for over a decade and hasn’t been able to talk to her two younger brothers in two years said, “The law gives youth a resource that I, unfortunately, have not had. It eliminates some of the helplessness felt when you have no control over what’s going on.”
The new law, sponsored by Representative Piluso, Senator Gelser, and Representative McLain, reinforces the federal requirement that siblings be placed together whenever it is safe and appropriate. When siblings are not placed together, the law makes sure youth are involved in making a plan for staying in contact with their siblings.
The law also ensures youth have the transportation needed to visit their siblings, and that they can contact their siblings electronically and by phone. Other provisions of the law provide for training foster families and DHS caseworkers on the importance of sibling relationships, and creates a pathway for foster youth to remain connected when their siblings are placed in a permanent home.
“The voice of youth is essential when any changes to the foster care system are considered. The youth who participated in developing the Sibling Bill of Rights see that they can have an impact on the world they live in,” said Lisa McMahon, OFYC Program Director. On the impact of the law, McMahon commented, “Foster youth see that the Sibling Bill of Rights is life changing, it’s history – that this is law in Oregon now, and their advocacy is why it exists.”
Through its youth-led model of civic engagement and leadership development, OFYC have had legislative wins each of the past four longer sessions. Because of OFYC, foster youth in Oregon now have: Assistance Obtaining Driving Privileges (2009); A Tuition Waiver for former foster youth entering community college or state university (2011); A Foster Child Bill of Rights & Foster Child’s Ombudsman (2013); access to savings accounts at the age of 12 (2015); and ensure the opportunity to participate in at least one extracurricular activity (2015).
OFYC members plan continued work to improve foster care in Oregon including improving training for foster families and caseworkers on conflict-resolution and LGBTQ+ youth; increasing youth engagement around new placement and permanency planning; and incorporating best practice models for youth transitioning out of care, suicide prevention, and foster home inspections.