Reflections During National Foster Care Month: Groundwork Set for Major Collaboration

By Dawn Rains, Treehouse Chief Policy & Strategy Officer

May is National Foster Care Month, a time to reflect on both the successes and remaining challenges as we work to give youth in foster care a childhood and a future.

On January 1 of this year, there were 9,061 children and youth in foster care throughout the state. They enter foster care primarily due to neglect (62%) driven by substance abuse, mental health challenges and poverty. Physical abuse (29%) is the next leading factor. The median length of stay in foster care in Washington is 19 months, and 57% of children and youth reunify with their parents within three years.

At Treehouse, we believe that all of us have a special obligation to the children for whom the state has become parent. We have a responsibility to ensure not only that they are safe from harm, but that they have all of the love, stability and extra support they need to thrive and achieve their dreams. That is where Treehouse comes in.

For many years, Treehouse took a traditional social service approach to achieving our mission. We eventually realized that we will not improve our youth’s educational outcomes through direct services alone. The systemic challenges reduce the power of our direct service work and even sometimes serve as a significant barrier. The systems must coordinate, share data and maximize the role—and benefit—of state child welfare and school services. If not, we can work smart, long and hard, and we’ll still fail to achieve educational equity for Washington’s foster youth.

To that end, Treehouse champions policy changes and secures resources that we know will make a difference for our students in foster care. This was a very successful legislative session for youth in foster care, and we are grateful that so many in our community reached out to their legislators to advocate for the needs of our youth.

We are excited to share the following legislative highlights with you:

Educational Equity: Under this legislation, Treehouse is partnering with six state agencies and five statewide nonprofit organizations. The goal is to align programs, policy, resources and accountability to achieve educational equity for children and youth experiencing foster care and homelessness by 2027. This legislation lays the groundwork for game-changing collaboration and powerful results for the next decade!

Best School Placement Determination: When kids come into foster care or change placements, school can serve as a stabilizing force where they already know teachers, administrators, friends and coaches. There is state law that says that they have the right to stay in the same school if it is in their best interest and it is logistically possible. This legislation puts best practices of determining which school placement is in the child’s or youth’s “best interest” into law, including consulting with relevant partners such as Treehouse education specialists and advocates. Due to the shortage of foster care placements statewide, caseworkers are often not able to prioritize school stability in placement decisions. Our kids deserve better. We look forward to partnering with the Department of Children, Youth and Families to implement this law and ensure that our kids experience more stability and less trauma that negatively impacts their educational trajectory.

Passport to Careers: For a decade, Washington foster youth have benefitted from the Passport to College Promise program that provides both financial support and navigators on college campuses to help them complete their college degrees. This new legislation expands eligibility substantially to more youth in foster care and unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. The program is also renamed to the Passport to Careers program and will pay for state-approved apprenticeships in addition to college.

Extended Foster Care: For a number of years, foster care has extended to age 21 as long as youth were either working or going to school at least part-time. Youth now may enter extended foster care up to age 21 (was previously age 19). They also can leave the program and re-enroll as needed during the transition to adult independence. This is a significant positive change for youth as they attempt to complete high school and launch their post-secondary plans.

We look forward to working with our state agency and nonprofit partners to implement this legislation, and we are already gearing up for the 2019 session. I hope you will join our Advocacy Action Center to stay up to date. Through the center, it’s actually quite easy and quick to advocate for important policy change and state investment in children and youth in foster care!

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About the Author

As Chief Policy & Strategy Officer, Dawn Rains leads long-term strategy and policy advocacy for Treehouse. She has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit management and fund development.

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