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Public Hearing Bill 19-803 Foster Youth Rights Amendment Act of 2012

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Testimony of Director Brenda Donald

Government of the District of Columbia
Child and Family Services Agency

Testimony of Director Brenda Donald

Hearing, Bill 19-803, Foster Youth Rights Amendment Act of 2012
Committee on Human Services

Jim Graham, Chair
July 11, 2012
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 120
Washington, DC 20510-6250
3:30 pm

Good afternoon, Chairman Graham and members of the Human Services Committee. I am Brenda Donald, director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. I am testifying today about Bill 19-803, the Foster Youth Rights Amendment Act of 2012.

All of us here today can agree that a clear, consolidated, and comprehensive list of rights is an important tool for serving children and empowering youth in care. It would serve as a sound framework for service from CFSA and our providers, allow older youth to advocate for themselves, and assist others in advocating for the younger children not yet old enough to raise their own voices.

Belief in the value of articulating the rights of children and youth in the District system has spurred two notable attempts to date. In 2010, the CFSA Youth Advisory Board drafted a bill of rights for youth in care, which CFSA incorporated into an administrative issuance. Foster youth created this document, and its merit is that it reflects needs and concerns from their point of view. However, it does not comprehensively cover legal rights available to children and youth in care. More recently, the Young Women’s Project prepared a draft of items they believe should be included in sections of the DC Code governing rights and responsibilities of foster children living in foster homes (29 DCMR § 6004), of youth residents in group homes (29 DCMR § 6203), and of youth residents in independent living programs (29 DCMR § 6303). This is a major positive step toward consolidating local regulations—but may not be comprehensive in terms of including foster child and youth rights under federal law.

We agree with having a comprehensive set of rights, providing that information to youth, ensuring social workers and others are knowledgeable about the information, and the overall intent of this bill as we understand it. However, the legislation as proposed is too broad and ambiguous in some regards and, as such, is not yet ready for passage. We have four primary concerns.

  • The proposed legislation would require adherence to all existing rights without specifying exactly which laws and regulations constitute rights. Rights and responsibilities under federal law may not be reflected, and the term “youth” is used without definition.
  • CFSA’s ability to amend and update agency policy would be hindered if we are mandated to include certain policy provisions in laws or regulations. If that requirement were to become law, we would lose our ability to amend or update any policy touching on rights without the arduous process of seeking modification to legislation or regulations. While that may be an unintended consequence, it points to the need for further work on this legislation.
  • The proposed legislation would require CFSA to implement penalties and remedies through rulemaking for when a youth’s rights are violated. Violations of youth rights are serious and need to be treated as such. However, we prefer a strong administrative rather than legislative response. Of course, all kids in care have lawyers to represent them and protect their interests. In addition, we have an Agency Ombudsman and will soon have a Youth Ombudsman to facilitate and respond to concerns.
  • The last section of the proposed legislation seeks to require CFSA to conduct an analysis to revise stipend and allowance amounts to account for inflation. The amount of stipends or allowance is not germane to the intent of addressing youth rights.

To address these concerns, we have invited the Young Women’s Project, and they have agreed, to work with us to redraft the bill. Specific steps include the following.

  1. CFSA will join with the Young Women’s Project and other interested parties to identify federal legislation regarding the rights of children and youth in the child welfare system.
    We will develop a comprehensive statement of child/youth rights that incorporates federal and District legal mandates along with the desires of youth. This document should be organized and written for ease of understanding by the primary target audience of young people.
  2. This document will become the basis for revising this proposed legislation so that it is more focused and specific. I would like to see all these actions on a fast track for completion by the end of this fiscal year.
  3. CFSA already has an agency ombudsman, and we are moving forward to recruit and hire a youth ombudsman specifically to address youth issues, including rights violations, on a case-by-case basis. Access to this ombudsman will become one of the rights youth have. At the same time, our overall drive for better outcomes will result in increased accountability of both CFSA and our private providers.
  4. And finally, without the need for a legislative mandate, CFSA commits to review the amount of stipends and allowance that regulations currently prescribe for youth in group homes and independent living programs. We will provide a report of findings, recommendations, and fiscal impact to this Committee in December 2012.

I have a passion for identifying the gifts, meeting the needs, and broadening the horizons of youth in the child welfare system. One of the ways I’m using that passion at CFSA is by having our youth services program report directly to me. I am very much involved in the day-to-day operation of the program with the intent of measurably improving outcomes, especially around youth well being, preparation for adulthood, and permanence. I know members of the Committee and others here today share that passion, and I look forward to all we can accomplish together on behalf of the deserving youth we serve.