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Chokehold on Childhoods

September 11, 2003

This is what life can be like for foster children:

An 11-year-old misses her friend's slumber party because the friend's parents didn't submit to criminal background checks that some counties insist on for any adult who comes in contact with a foster child. The parents surely would have passed the screening but the child was too embarrassed to ask.

A 17-year-old has to move because his foster mom needs surgery. The boy's social worker finds him a new home in another school district. He can't enroll without his transcript and, waiting for his old school to send those records, he loses three weeks in his critical-for-graduation senior year.

No one intends to embarrass the 30,000 foster kids in Los Angeles County or set them up to fail. But it happens too often. Two bills likely to be before Gov. Gray Davis soon could help.

AB 408 is a "well, duh" measure introduced by Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to untangle double-knotted rules that make kids miserable. The bill would allow caregivers to use a "prudent parent" standard in deciding whether to let foster kids sleep at a friend's house or attend the prom without a background check on every school chaperon and every other adult there. The goal is to let foster children enjoy the activities other kids do. Responsible parents know which adults and which of their children's friends to worry about. Most foster parents do too, but current rules don't allow them to exercise their judgment.

AB 408 would also encourage connections between children in group homes and at least one caring adult -- maybe an uncle, a former kindergarten teacher or an old neighbor who was kind to the child. These connections are lifelines for teenagers who are often alone and adrift after the county cuts them loose at 18. The bill asks social workers to find out about people the child trusts and try to put them in touch.

AB 490, also by Steinberg, would help cut the 46% school dropout rate among foster youth, which is more than twice the statewide average for children overall. It asks social workers and school officials to try to keep students in familiar schools, even when the child moves to a new home, and expedite the transfer of transcripts when a change of schools is unavoidable. The bill is a start toward the larger goal of improving the dismal schooling many foster children get.

Davis may balk at these bills because they ask state and local officials to do more with little extra money. But AB 408 and AB 490 ask for only modest changes that would pay off with more foster youth being in college and jobs, instead of in jail or on the street.

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