A first step to encouraging foster parents

This legislative session made several weak efforts to improve the lives of foster children in Washington state.

For example, there was a bill to assign legal counsel to foster kids, a bill to expand the foster care to 21 programs and a bill to give foster parents the right to sign permission slips. Much of that legislation sounds more impactful than it actually is.

Then in the last days and with little fanfare, the Senate passed House Bill 2582, an act relating to filing a petition seeking termination of parental rights.

As a foster parent, I’m often approached by folks who have thought about foster parenting but have hesitated because they have heard terrible stories about parents who have raised neglected and abused children, and then, after years of court hearing after court hearing, the child is returned home to their biological family.

The foster parents are devastated, and the child’s future is uncertain. It’s an understandable fear. It’s hard to sign up for many years of struggle and uncertainty. Parenting a child who needs you is tough enough.

My foster daughter’s parents never had their rights terminated. The state is not in the practice of doing that for teenagers because they are not likely to be adopted and termination of the biological parent’s rights would make them orphans.

HB 2582 will change that. It will terminate the rights of parents who have children in foster care for more than a year.

For my foster daughter this would have meant freedom. She has lived in limbo since she was 10. She is one of many teenagers who’ve had multiple placements because the state’s priority is to return kids home – for many kids, that’s just not going to happen.

Adoption won’t happen either, and why should it? Teenagers who’ve been neglected and abused don’t benefit from losing the services they get in foster care. And without the support of the community, adoptive parents can get in over their heads.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s priorities include returning children home and reducing time in foster care. That may be good for young children, but it’s completely unrealistic for any child over 12. For most teenagers the best possible option is long-term foster care.

Ideally that long-term placement is in a home where they are the only child, with plenty of resources to help them where they will get plenty of attention. But those ideal placements happen by accident. It’s time for long-term foster care placements to be encouraged and incentivized.

I saw a startling report from OSPI this week that 36 percent of foster children graduate from high school – that’s lower than homeless children, children of migrant workers and children who speak limited English. This isn’t a statistic we can afford, and given the state’s obligation to educate children, it’s one we have to fix.

I often joke that foster care is the only area of life where you are penalized for doing a good job. The longer you have a child and the more stable they become, the less support you get. That includes financial support, which you aren’t supposed to want. It’s unseemly. You aren’t supposed to profit from children.

Except that financial support usually means more time devoted to the child’s welfare. More support also means more opportunities.

There is a direct correlation between the 64 percent of foster kids who drop out of high school and rates of crime, homelessness and economic struggle in our community. Kids don’t have a lot of time to waste. Unless we want 100 percent of foster children to drop out of school, it’s time to be realistic.

We want educated, resourceful people to take kids in for as long as they can, and give them financial incentives to keep them in their homes, to keep them in the same school and to invest in their success.

Those factors encourage foster kids to graduate.

Our state is short on foster home placements by thousands. This year, the Legislature took a first step to correct that situation. Now I’m ready for them to take the next one, and the one after that.

Emma Margraf is a writer, director of community outreach for Sidewalk, a foster parent and a court-appointed special advocate. She can be reached at margrafemma@gmail.com.