Governor to Sign Foster Youth Bill of Rights into Law
September 13, 2013 – On Monday, Governor Kitzhaber will sign Senate Bill 123-A into law. The new law, developed with the input of more than 100 foster youth across the state, will guarantee the basic rights of foster children—rights to things like clothes that fit, proper nutrition, contact with their siblings, and their safety. While the existing laws already protected these rights in theory, the youth told lawmakers that gaps in policies and protocols still left many of the 13,000 children in state care from ever knowing their rights and, worse, left them without safe means to report violations.
Among other reforms, the law will put a foster care ombudsman in the Governor’s office to address reports of violations. It will also finally establish a clear requirement for informing kids in foster care about the rights they have under state law. These provisions will be an important step forward in establishing and formalizing protections for youth in care. Moreover, more than one-third of Oregon foster children over the age of 9 will face a long-term future there without a plan to be reunited with their families or find a permanent, loving home. “For these youth, having the tools to advocate for themselves in a complicated system is critical,” says OFYC Program Manager Lydia Bradley.
The solution of a Foster Youth Bill of Rights was proposed by the youth members of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection, a youth-led program of the nonprofit child advocacy organization Children First for Oregon, and was co-sponsored by Senator Chip Shields and Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer.
Royce Markley was one of the voices behind SB 123. Now 20, Royce spent eight years in the Oregon foster care system, where he says he experienced abuse—and fall-out from attempting to report the abuse—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.”
On Monday, Markley and the other Oregon Foster Youth Connection members will have a reason to celebrate. Markley adds, “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.’”
Children First’s Child Welfare Policy Manager, Pamela Butler, applauds the state for showing leadership on this issue, which passed with unanimous support. “Because Oregon has one of the highest rates of children languishing in foster care, it’s critical that we offer these children all the protections and opportunities we can while we explore solutions to unite them with permanent, loving families. Leadership is paying off and things are getting better in our state. The Governor and the bill’s co-sponsors, Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer and Senator Chip Shields, have been great allies in championing measures to protect children in foster care.”
This is the fourth consecutive legislative victory for OFYC, which passed the college tuition and fee waiver bill for Oregon foster youth in 2011.