Foster Youth Bill of Rights, New Narratives
by: Oregon Foster Youth Connection, Lydia Bradley Posted on: July 08, 2013
Editor’s Note: Continuing our coverage of rights-based narratives. Foster youth in Oregon are working to explicitly recognize rights of theirs that are being violated. What can we learn from their logic? Below is a written conversation between Read the Dirt editor Simon Davis-Cohen and Lydia Bradley, Oregon Foster Youth Connection Program Manager—working to pass a Foster Youth Bill of Rights in Oregon.
Simon Davis-Cohen: Can you give a very brief synopsis of Oregon Senate Bill 123 and the future of the Oregon Foster Youth Bill of Rights?
Lydia Bradley: Senate Bill 123, drafted by the Oregon Foster Youth Connection with input from over 100 foster youth and championed by Senator Chip Shields and Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer, creates a Foster Youth Bill of Rights guaranteeing basic rights for the 13,000 foster children in state care. The bill establishes a foster care ombudsman in the Governor’s Advocacy office to address reports of violations of foster youths’ rights. It finally establishes a clear requirement for informing kids in foster care about the rights they have under state law.
SDC: What rights of Oregon foster youth are not being enjoyed today?
LB: The life of a child or youth in foster care is complicated. At very young ages, youth are expected to make decisions that have lifelong consequences with little information. They are forced into a complex system, with no firm understanding of their role or rights. SB123 establishes clear requirements for informing kids about those rights. Many foster youth do not understand their rights and it is unclear where they should turn when those rights are violated. Oregon does not have a uniform system for informing youth of their rights or a formalized grievance process for foster youth to follow when those rights are violated. This keeps many of Oregon’s 13,000 foster youth disconnected from their siblings or on unwanted psychotropic drugs. Not knowing you have rights – or not having anywhere to turn when those rights are violated – is like having no rights at all.
Royce Markley was one of the voices behind SB 123 and was one of roughly thirty Oregon Foster Youth Connection members who advocated for the bill during session. Now 19, Royce spent eight years in the Oregon foster care system, where he says he experienced abuse—and fall out from attempting to complain—despite having a supportive team of advocates. “I still had many challenging experiences while in care that required me to have a better understanding of my rights than I had,” he says. “Things such as knowing I had access to a lawyer if I needed one, that I was able to keep and spend my own money, that I could have scheduled visits and be transported to see my siblings in different homes and, maybe most importantly to my case, knowing that I had the right to make a private complaint. It’s a lot harder to get through the system, an already difficult system, if you don’t know your rights.”
SDC: How would a Bill of Rights help?
LB: While current law already protects youth’s basic rights in theory, gaps in policies and protocols still keep many foster youth from ever knowing their rights in care and, worse, leave them without safe means to report violations. Nico Marquez was one of the youth voices behind SB 123 and a member of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection. Now 20, Nico was raised in the Oregon foster care system and lived in more than 16 homes since being removed from his mother at birth. Nico describes episodes of excessive housework while in care, of being denied calls to his case worker, of being punished and humiliated, of having to wear shoes long after they no longer fit his growing feet. He describes friends who were only fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at every meal, or forced to wear the same underwear for days because they weren’t given access to clean clothes in their State-assigned homes. None of them knew they had a right to say anything about it. Moreover, kids in foster care are often overmedicated (prescribed psychotropic drugs at a ratio of 4:1 compared to non-foster youth), but don’t have any say in their medical care. The Foster Youth Bill of Rights seeks to correct these injustices.
SDC: How did the idea of a Foster Youth Bill of Rights come about?
LB: From the onset of convening youth. These issues were identified by the youth themselves last summer during a three-day policy-focused foster youth summit convened by the Oregon Foster Youth Connection, a program of the nonprofit child advocacy organization Children First for Oregon.
SDC: To what extent is the bill of rights an educational and organizational tool to empower and connect foster youth and former foster youth in Oregon?
LB: Governor Kitzhaber’s statement after signing Senate Bill 123 summed it up nicely: “Foster youth deserve to know their rights and should be empowered to assert those rights. While we need to reduce the need for foster care, we also have a responsibility to do everything possible to make foster care safe and supportive. The Foster Youth Bill of Rights ensures Oregon’s foster youth have access to tools and support they deserve while helping them reach their full potential. I commend the Oregon Foster Youth Connection members who helped advocate for this important legislation.”
Some of the programmatic goals of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection are youth empowerment and connection to a foster care community. Royce Markley, a youth member of our Legislative Action Team describes his experience and validates the impact of our work: “As a kid and as a foster youth, you never grow up thinking, ‘when I’m 19, I’m going to be in Salem talking to legislators, I’m going to be making big changes for myself and for other foster youth.’”
SDC: Do you see a parallel between foster youth’s advocacy for a bill of rights because current law is failing to protect their rights, and a sentiment within the general public that might be interested in passing bills of rights for analogous reasons? Do you think the greater public has something to learn from the bill of rights tactic that Oregon Foster Youth Connection has embraced?
LB: We hope the general public can learn the lesson we’ve embraced: that everyone’s voice, especially those directly impacted by a system is important and critical to making positive changes in our community.
Photo: Lydia Bradley
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