04.16.2024

Treehouse Supports Advocacy Partners During the 2024 Legislative Session

The Washington State legislative session wrapped up on March 7, 2024. Treehouse was proud to support our community partners in pursuing legislation to promote stability and well-being for students experiencing foster care throughout the state.

It takes all of us to address the intersectional issues that come from encountering the foster care system — issues like K-12 and higher education access, economic instability and the transition into adulthood. This is why Treehouse supported our advocacy partners this session on bills that aimed to create more equitable opportunities for youth who’ve experienced foster care.

Here are the highlights of Treehouse’s advocacy during the 2024 legislative session:

Lowering barriers to Extended Foster Care (SB 5908)

Lead Organization: The Mockingbird Society

Daniel Lugo, Treehouse’s Manager of Government Relations, testifying PRO on SB 5908. Click the image to watch his testimony!

Extended Foster Care (EFC) allows young adults in foster care to continue receiving services and financial support on their 18th birthday until they turn 22 years old. Previously, you had to meet a number of qualifications to be eligible for the program, including having secure housing and either working or in school.

Led by The Mockingbird Society, SB 5908 makes more young people eligible regardless of their education, employment or housing status. In June 2022, 858 young adults were enrolled in EFC. With these changes, approximately 200 more young people are now eligible for the program.

In 2020, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy compared the outcomes of young people in EFC and non-participants with foster care experience. They found that participation was linked with a likelihood of employment and a significant decrease in homelessness and use of public assistance programs. They were also less likely to have a substance-use disorder, be incarcerated or have a child involved in the child welfare system — which helps disrupt the foster care-to-prison pipeline and generational cycles of foster care.

Result: Passed. Gov. Inslee signed into law on March 19, 2024. The changes go into effect June 6, 2024.

Making financial aid programs more accessible (SB 5904)

Lead Organization: Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC)

According to data provided by the Washington State Education Research and Data Center (ERDC), 38% of the 2019 graduating cohort of youth in foster care enrolled in post-secondary education within their first year of completing high school (note: this analysis for the Class of 2019 includes 2020 college enrollment data which was impacted by COVID-19).

One of the barriers to higher education is affordability. In Washington state, there are several financial aid programs that make post-secondary education more accessible to youth who have experienced foster care, including the Washington College Grant, the College Bound Scholarship and Passport to Careers. Each program has specific eligibility, including how long a student may receive aid for.

SB 5904, led by Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), extends how long a student can receive financial aid from these programs from five years to six years, allowing students to receive state financial aid for the same length of time they can receive federal financial aid. This aligned eligibility will help provide predictable, consistent financial support for students and increase flexibility for when they can use this resource.

Result: Passed. Gov. Inslee signed into law on March 28, 2024. While we’re supportive of this increased eligibility, the Passport to Careers program only received $1 million of the requested $2 million to maintain service awards to students. Additional advocacy will be needed to fully fund this program.

Eliminating uncollectable juvenile court debt (SB 5974)

Lead Organization: Stand for Children Washington

Art Longworth, Treehouse Policy Specialist, testifying PRO for SB 5974. Click the image to watch his testimony!

When a young person exits the juvenile legal system, they are often assigned Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) that can fall into two categories: 1) financial restitution to victims who were injured and/or suffered property loss or damage; and 2) fines and fees to cover the court proceedings. Youth who are unable to pay often re-enter juvenile rehabilitation facilities as a result, driving them deeper into the legal system.  

We know that young people in foster care may not have the economic resources to pay these fees and that Black, Latino and Indigenous youth are disproportionately impacted by the juvenile legal system. Legal fees make it difficult for young people to successfully transition back into their communities, meet their basic needs and pursue their education and career goals.

SB 5974, led by Stand for Children Washington, focuses on LFOs related to fines and fees to cover court proceedings. The bill builds upon legislation passed in 2023 that prohibits the collection of non-restitution legal fees for juvenile court debts. SB 5974 phases out most fines and fees filed between 2013 and 2023, ensuring that they do not affect an individual’s credit, cannot be recalled from a collections agency, and do not appear in any background check. The state is also actively partnering with advocates to propose a community compensation fund to ensure restitution is provided without saddling the entire burden on young people who cannot pay.

Result: Passed. Gov. Inslee signed into law on March 13, 2024.

Restraint or isolation of students in public schools and educational programs (HB 1479)

Lead organizations: Disability Rights WA and ACLU Washington

Marshelle, Treehouse alumni, testifying PRO on HB 1479. Click the image to watch her testimony!

In Washington state, public schools are allowed to use isolation or restraint practices when “reasonably necessary”. Isolation means restricting a student alone within a room or any other form of enclosure from which the student may not leave. Restraint means physical intervention or force used to control a student, including the use of a restraint device (such as metal handcuffs, plastic ties, ankle restraints, pepper spray, tasers) to restrict a student’s freedom of movement.

During the 2021-2022 school year, over 2,900 Washington public school students were restrained in over 13,000 incidents. During that same year, over 1,400 students were isolated 7,900 times. Isolation and restraint practices tend to skew toward K-8 students and disproportionately impact youth in foster care.

Based on disciplinary data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction from the 2022-2023 school year, youth in foster care were more likely to experience disciplinary exclusion compared to non-foster youth — about 6.8x for grades K-5, 4.8x for grades 6-8 and 4.9x for grades 9-12. A 2023 report from ACLU Washington found that restraint and isolation practices cause physical harm/injuries, exacerbate behavioral and mental health problems, erode trust of adult relationships and educational institutions, as well as traumatize students.

HB 1479, led by Disability Rights Washington and ACLU Washington, would eliminate improper use of isolation and restraint practices in schools. The legislation sought to protect students from physically harmful and emotionally traumatic practices by eliminating both mechanical, such as plastic ties and handcuffs, and chemical restraint like pepper spray; prohibiting the use of physical restraint solely for the purpose of student discipline or staff convenience; increasing the training and technical assistance provided to school staff; and enhancing public accountability of those using these practices.

Result: The bill gained traction and achieved bipartisan support but ultimately did not pass the legislature this year. We will continue to advocate for fairer, more humane practices for youth in foster care.

Increased funding for Independent Living Services

Lead organization: Washington Association of Children and Families (WACF)

According to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “research shows that young people who have experienced foster care have worse outcomes than their peers in the general population across a variety of service categories — from education and employment to housing and early parenthood”.

To support youth aging out of foster care, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) contracts with local community-based organizations and federally recognized tribes through their Independent Living (IL) program to provide independent living skills to young people. Those services include, but are not limited to, life skills, educational support, career exploration, vocational training and employment assistance.

Independent Living programs are becoming unsustainable, though, due to a decline in federal assistance. To meet the need, the Washington Association of Children and Families (WACF) —which represents most of these program providers — requested a budget increase to better compensate providers and maintain services. Treehouse supported this measure in the hopes that Independent Living programs can continue to provide youth and young adults transitioning out of care a more equitable footing.

Result: The Legislature approved $1.9 million in funding to backfill declining Federal dollars, but this amount fell short of the $4.25 million needed to sustain and stabilize services. We are committed to pushing this priority forward in the future.

To stay informed on Treehouse’s policy and advocacy efforts and how you can advocate, sign up for the Advocacy Action Center.

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