Our Rights, Our Voice: Idaho Youth in Care Bill of Rights Empowers Youth to Become Their Own Advocates

By Janice Beller

It’s 2 a.m. and my mom is gone again. I heard a noise and went into my mom’s bedroom. The bed was still made from when I fixed it yesterday morning before school. When my sister and I got home after school, we saw her passed out on the couch. I woke her up when dinner was ready. She ate with us before she gave us both an intoxicating kiss and said she had to run to the store. When the police knocked on the door, I knew why they were there . . .[i]

Last year, for 3,111 children in Idaho, their stay in foster care began in a similar way, with one or both parents or legal guardians leaving their children in such a state that police had no other option but to declare the children in imminent danger.[ii] Of the children who entered foster care, regardless of their entry date, 91 of them aged out of care in FY2019—meaning that on their 18th birthday, for a variety of reasons, they left foster care unable to return home or without finding a forever family.[iii]

For Each Child, a Village of Voices

A child’s GAL is meant to be the one constant face the child sees during the child’s time in foster care. GALs also serve as the child protection (CP) judge’s “eyes and ears” during the case. In Idaho. CP guardians ad litem come from a network of seven private non-profit programs, one in each of the seven judicial districts. These programs recruit and train community volunteers, but the need consistently outpaces the available resources.

Attorneys can serve as either a GAL volunteer or as an attorney representing a GAL (but not both). For more information on how you can help, check out www. idahocasa.org.

For children entering foster care, it is an overwhelming time. Attempting to mitigate the mental, emotional, and physical trauma these children enter care with, Idaho law has several mandates designed to provide them with supportive adults who can help them navigate the child welfare system. Idaho Code section 16-1614 requires the appointment of a guardian ad litem (GAL) for children under the age of 12, and an attorney for the GAL.[iv] It also requires the court to appoint an attorney for children 12 or older, and a GAL may be appointed if one is available.[v]

While attorneys have a professional and ethical obligation to represent the expressed wishes of the children they serve, courts task GALs with reporting to the court what they believe is in the best interest of the child, among other duties.[vi] Under Idaho Juvenile Rule 40, foster parents also have a right to be heard in proceedings involving the children in their care.[vii]

For some children, a public-private partnership with the Casey Family Programs may provide additional services or a case manager who can help them navigate their options for other available community-based assistance.[viii] The Casey Family Programs organization, operating as a non-profit in all 50 states, works on multiple levels with the mission to “provide and improve – and ultimately prevent the need for – foster care.”[ix] Their services include direct work with foster children, partnering to support state child welfare agencies, and providing non-partisan data to public officials to inform system-level change.[x]

At the system level, other non-profit advocacy groups like Idaho Voices for Children join Casey Family Programs, working tirelessly to raise awareness of child welfare issues within Idaho’s legislative and policy-making bodies. In 2018, the Idaho Legislature added “citizen review panels” tasked with the goal of “evaluating and providing recommendations for the improvement of the child protection system” within each local health district.[xi]

And somewhere in this collage of faces that come and go, in the chaos of having one’s life packed into a black garbage bag, and on this trail of bread crumbs children desperately hope will lead back to their own beds, foster children are told they have a right to be heard too.[xii]

The only problem, said Ivy S., who aged out of foster care in 2016, is that kids have no idea what to say.

Ivy’s Story

Ivy S. entered foster care at age 12, just as she began her freshman year of high school. She was removed from the care of her mother, whose rights were never terminated, but with whom Ivy has no contact.

During her six years in care, she had “four or five” foster homes and endured a failed attempt to reunify with her biological father in California. Ivy uses the term ‘reunify’ loosely; she noted she had never lived with her father and had only briefly met the man once in the last 18 months. Her out-of-home placements included a stay in a group home, which she was told was meant to last only a couple of weeks but lasted two years. Fortunately, it was at this group home she was first introduced to a document called the “Youth in Care Bill of Rights.”

Idaho Youth in Care Bill of Rights

All children and youth in care have the right to:

1. Have lifelong family connections, including siblings, grandparents, and extended family.
2. Live with, be loved by, and cared for by those they consider family.
3. Be who they are.
4. Be included in their case planning with a team of people that advocate with them and for them.
5. Have an informed choice in the types of physical, dental, and mental health care they receive.
6. Have a qualified advocate representing them and helping the youth advocate for themselves.
7. Participate in and receive a high-quality education, including the ability to participate in extracurricular activities.
8. Receive the skills, knowledge, and resources needed to be a successful adult after they transition from foster care.

“It took me months before I noticed the paper posted on the bulletin board,” Ivy said. “The home staff didn’t emphasize what it was, but when I realized what it provided me with, it was powerful.” She also noted, “When I left the group home for my last foster placement at 16, I made sure I had a copy with me.”

Written for Youth, by Youth

The Youth in Care Bill of Rights, while it does not carry the full force and effect of law or judicial rule, is part of the standard of care for foster youth in Idaho. Drafted by the Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board (IFYAB) in 2015, it was a collaborative effort between the IFYAB and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW).[xiii] The document includes eight general rights foster youth have while in care. Each general right has specific details listed underneath it. Many of the enumerated rights are guaranteed to foster youth by either state or federal law.

Every child age eight or older reviews and receives a copy of the document, which is signed by the child, the child’s foster parent, the child’s IDHW case worker, and any additional relevant case worker or service provider.[xiv]

The Youth in Care Bill of Rights in Action

When I spoke with Ivy for this article, she—rather proudly—noted that “. . . she doesn’t take no for an answer very well.” She observed that during her time in care, she was often asked what she wanted, but then was told that while her opinion had been noted, “we know what you need.” Ivy found a source of strength in the Youth in Care Bill of Rights.

In high school, Ivy noted that foster youth are at a particular disadvantage. Not only do they endure all the ritual social drama and unrest that marks a teenager’s life, but foster kids often navigate these rough waters with handicaps other kids do not. Foster kids try to make friends, but something as simple as hanging out at a friend’s house becomes so complicated, parents of potential friends choose not to get involved.

Extracurricular events and after-school jobs become critical for a sense of normalcy but can be threatened by transportation limitations. Foster youth often don’t have cell phones and rarely are permitted to obtain a driver’s license because of the liability and costs associated with each. With the Youth in Care Bill of Rights in her corner, Ivy fought to overcome these logistical issues and secured transportation for her activities. Not only did she serve as her school’s drama club president, but she also worked as a ski instructor at Bogus Basin. That job, Ivy recalled, allowed her to apply for a college scholarship that required recipients to save at least $1,000 to receive the benefit of their offering.

In her last foster placement, Ivy developed an illness for which she requested to be taken to a doctor, only to have her foster parent insist on homeopathic and natural remedies. Ivy used the Youth in Care Bill of Rights to insist she be taken to a doctor of her choosing. Strep throat was quickly diagnosed and treated. She also used the document to exercise her right to explore religious and spiritual enrichment activities different from those practiced in her foster placement.

Ivy was quick to share the credit for some of these successes with her Casey Family Programs case worker. Paired with Ivy when she turned 16, Ivy credits her case worker with taking the language of the Youth in Care Bill of Rights to heart and fighting right alongside Ivy for what she needed to be successful.

“I graduated from high school at 17, which meant I was still a minor when I tried to move into the dorms my freshman year at BSU,” said Ivy. “The judge in my child protection case yanked me out of the dorms, and my foster parent refused to take me back and forth from school every day. My dreams of college and the scholarship I’d worked so hard for were gone, just like that. My Casey [Family Programs] caseworker stood with me, testified on my behalf in court, and didn’t let me give up. I finally won the right to live in the dorms and attend college.” She graduated in May with a double major in environmental studies and political science, and is headed straight off to graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in public administration.

Setting Kids Up for Success

When asked why the Youth in Care Bill of Rights was important, Ivy noted—quite plainly— that “any kind of empowerment or control in the system can mean the world to a kid in foster care.” Adults, she noted, forget that when a child enters foster care, they often go from being the “grown up” in a situation to having no control at all. Kids are forced to relinquish the safety of what they know and must trust people in a system they do not understand.

Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board Mission Statement:

The Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board empowers youth by uniting our voices to provide leadership, gain trust, and create youth informed change that will improve the quality of life for future youth.

Ivy also speaks of serving as a mentor for other foster youth navigating the system. She noted that when she lived in the group home and started getting the things discussed in the Youth in Care Bill of Rights, other children living at the home began to realize they could speak up too. That desire to serve as a mentor led her to join the Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board in 2016.[xv] She currently serves at the Board’s secretary. But her aspirations go far beyond that.

She is concerned that kids exiting the child welfare system today are left with little in the way of options and even less information about how to make good choices. She noted that only 50% of foster youth have either their high school diploma or GED by the time they turn 18.[xvi] One in four foster youth suffer from a varying degree of PTSD from the trauma of their childhood experiences.[xvii] The future for a child leaving foster care currently, in her experience, leads to one of four outcomes: homelessness, pregnancy, couch surfing, or incarceration.

Ivy’s last school project before graduation? A paper that advocated for the extension of services for foster youth to age 21. She is motivated by the fact that kids exiting foster care are quick to want to leave care but have no idea what to do once they are independent. “Kids want to leave,” she noted, “but then want to come back and seek more assistance. Most don’t know they can. So many kids don’t know all these services [are] available to them.” Ivy added, “It’s not like we’re given a list that we can access. You have to, as a kid, go to someone and say, ‘I need this specific thing,’ and then find out if that help exists. A lot of kids don’t know it’s OK to ask those questions.”

As she reflected on what the Youth in Care Bill of Rights did for her, she noted, “I was used to fighting for what I wanted, but there were a lot of roadblocks where [people] would say ‘no.’ If I didn’t have that physical copy [of the Youth in Care Bill of Rights] to point to and lean on . . . ,” Ivy’s voice trailed off, then she continued, “I could show them I have this right and you can’t say ‘no’ to me because I’m entitled to it,” Ivy paused again, “It gave me that sense of not having to accept what I felt was an injustice. And I think that can be a really powerful tool.”

Janice Beller served as a child protection guardian ad litem and spent seven years working at the Idaho Supreme Court with the child protection program. Her passion for giving children a voice led her to law school. She is a 2016 graduate of the University of Idaho College of Law. Thanks to her guitar-playing teenager, her knowledge of Metallica’s song catalog is rapidly expanding.

[i] AUTHOR’S NOTE: I served as a volunteer guardian ad litem for a number of years. While based on very real stories and situations of children in care generally, this particular vignette is entirely fiction.

[ii] Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Facts and Figures and Trends 2019-2020, https://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/Portals/0/AboutUs/Publications/FFT2019-2020.pdf, 46 (2020).

[iii]Id. at 48.

[iv] Idaho Code § 16-1614(1).

[v] Id. at (2).

[vi] Idaho Code § 16-1633.

[vii] Idaho Juvenile R. 40(a).

[viii] Casey Family Programs, What We Do, https://www.casey.org/what-we-do/direct-services/ (last visited April 30, 2020).

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Idaho Code § 16-1647(1).

[xii] Idaho Juvenile R. 40(b).

[xiii] See Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Idaho Youth in Care Bill of Rights, 3 (2015),  https://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/Portals/0/Children/AdoptionFoster/YouthInCare-BillofRights.pdf.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] For more information on the Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board, visit their 2019 legislative presentation. Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board, https://legislature.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/sessioninfo/2019/interim/190228_cplo_IFYABFCAwareness.pdf, (last visited April 6, 2020).

[xvi] National Foster Youth Institute, Education, https://www.nfyi.org/issues/education/ (last visited April 6, 2020).

[xvii] Casey Family Programs, Improving Family Foster Care: Findings from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study, 2 (2005) https://caseyfamilypro-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/media/AlumniStudies_NW_Report_FactSheet.pdf.