By Michael T. Hughes, Chief Executive Officer of A New Leaf
The recent news that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed HB2442 – “Jacob’s Law” – was met with great enthusiasm among foster families across the state. The new legislation will ensure easier, better access to behavioral health care for Arizona foster kids and families.
To a foster parent, nothing is more emotional than seeing a little face peeking out of the back seat of the car, a child who will soon be placed in your home. Feelings of protection and love wash over you. Your home is a new start – one that will ripple through your foster child’s life in a transformative way.
Foster care is a critical part of our community’s safety net. Along with education, economic growth, and transportation and other Arizona policy priorities, the safety and welfare of our state’s children should be of utmost urgency. Opening up our homes to foster children is a pressing need.
Nearly 19,000 children are in need of foster homes and there are only 3,500 homes statewide currently to place them in, according to Arizona’s KNXV News. This gap reflects the challenges of resourcing our state’s foster care system and also the lack of education among the general public to understand the benefits of foster care and the vital role it plays in our community.
A New Leaf recognizes that children thrive in a loving home with a strong support structure. A New Leaf’s HOPE foster care program provides a wide range of services, including foster care licensure and certification and placement for children with behavioral challenges.
Forces outside a child’s control like abuse and neglect often bring children into the state’s custody. Situations like parental homelessness, addiction and domestic violence are the chief reasons for removal of a child from the family of origin. Offering a foster care solution that is reliably safe and nurturing is key to addressing the immediate needs of Arizona’s most at-risk children, while the state works to alleviate the factors that break down the original family.
While the Valley’s efforts to open more homes to foster care placement are expanding, A New Leaf recommends four areas to be targeted for improving our community’s foster care system:
First, we must work to ensure that permanent placement is a case plan priority, whether through reunification or a forever home via adoption. For example, children from birth to one are the single largest group of children entering foster care – in some cities they represent up to 25 percent of new entrants – and these placements should be channeled toward permanency rather than temporary status.
Second, youth and teenagers growing up in foster care should be assured of normal adolescent experiences. In the past, rules made regarding liability and protection sometimes have gotten in the way of normal activities like studying with a friend or engaging in a sporting event or extracurricular activity. Young people in foster care should have every opportunity to develop independence and self-reliance.
Third, every effort must be made to ensure that families have a strong relationship with Department of Child Safety Case Specialists, who represent the wealth of experience and best practices that can enhance the foster care experience. A family’s foster agency licensing worker can help ensure effective communication between the Department of Child Safety specialist and family occurs.
Finally, enhanced screening and a more robust matching process for foster care placements should be consistently applied across the Valley. New systems, screening techniques, and technologies are increasing the odds of success with placements, ensuring a right match and long-term success occurs in these life-changing events.
Improving our Valley’s foster care system will require sustained investment from all sides, working to build stronger families – and communities – that will change the trajectory of our at-risk children’s lives. Despite difficult circumstances, foster kids can be the next great generation - paying forward the love and care they have received from devoted foster care parents.