Two new pieces of legislation aim to offer improvements to the lives of the nearly 15,000 foster children in Pennsylvania.
Act 75 of 2015 and House Bill 1603 came about a result of the 2014 federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which mandated that every state had until Jan. 1, 2016 to pass laws that would help foster youth.
The laws are intended to give youths in the foster system more of a sense of normalcy, said Jennifer Pokempner, supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, an organization that works in this field. She said it will most help the 700-800 young adults who age out of Pennsylvania’s foster care system annually.
“We’ve been making improvements in Pennsylvania and across the country in serving them but we need to do much more and I think this law is going to really help in exposing them to more of the experiences, relationships, skill-building experiences that are going to make that transition to adulthood more successful for them,” she said.
One aspect of the law will give foster parents more power over foster children. This way, when a child wants to go to a friend’s house, participate in an after-school activity or volunteer, the parent or caretaker in a group home can decide if it’s appropriate and give them permission, rather than go through bureaucratic red tape, which in some cases, involves going through the courts.
Pokempner said participating in social and civic activities independently and with peers is an important part of growing up – and one, that with the restrictions foster parents had before this law, wasn’t always accessible.
“Those are daily opportunities you can miss if you don’t have someone saying, ‘Yes, of course you can go,’ or, ‘Yeah, I’ll drive you.’ So, this new law really reduces the barrier so kids can be kids,” she said.
The law will also require child welfare agencies to find every child, including those who are aging out of the foster care system, some sort of permanent family connection or mentor who can help guide them through early adulthood. Pokempner mentioned some of the things young people need, such as a loan, a meal, laundry or answers to questions about new experiences, such as filing taxes for the first time.
“But a lot of it is just the connection knowing you have somebody who cares about you unconditionally and I think the law really says kids in the system – all kids – deserve it and we can’t ever stop trying to put in the support services, the efforts to make sure they get those things,” she said.
Both bills also have provisions to help children who run away from the system, to help prevent them from becoming sex trafficking victims.
Both laws take effect immediately.