The legislation ensures that foster children can file complaints, be notified about court hearings and reviews and get transportation to them. The bill also guarantees that they receive information about establishing a bank account, acquiring a driver’s license and other rights.
To make sure all that happens, the bill creates a position to staff a new hotline that foster children can call if they feel their rights are being violated.
Approximately 8,700 children are in foster care in Oregon, with an average stay of 457 days, according to the Department of Human Services. Some foster kids can spend years bouncing from one foster family to another, separated from siblings and from their parents who often are addicted to drugs, incarcerated, or otherwise abusive or neglectful.
Senate Bill 123, which the Senate approved June 12, heads to Gov. John Kitzhaber, who will sign it.
The legislation stemmed from about 30 foster children who attended a conference last summer that was organized by Oregon Foster Youth Connection, a program created in 2008 by Children First for Oregon, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group.
“It became really apparent that kids didn’t really know what rights they had,” said Patrick Kindred, 21, who attended the conference. “When it’s written out, it’s a right, and it’s easier for a foster child to say ‘If you’re not going to give me these things, I can take legal action because I have these rights.'”
Kindred, who spent 17 years in foster care, is one of the five youths selected by his Oregon Foster Youth Connection peers to form the legislative action team.
Kindred and other team members from around the state met with legislators early in the session to advocate for the bill. They also testified at a March public hearing on the legislation.
The new hotline will help foster children and parents alike, said Pamela Butler, child welfare policy manager for Children First.
“We’ve taken countless phone calls from youth and foster parents and biological families about concerns and issues they’re having with the system,” Butler said. “Up until this point, there hasn’t been much to refer them to.”
Lobbying for the bill didn’t come easily. Kindred had to ride the bus, take the train or hitch a ride from Eugene each of the five or six times he visited the Capitol.
Cain Stellings, 17, traveled from Imbler, near La Grande, to testify at the March hearing.
“I love talking in front of crowds, but this isn’t just a regular speech you give,” he said. “This speech impacts whether or not you’ll be able to have an impact on thousands of lives, so it does get a little bit nerve-wracking.”
Stellings’ work with Oregon Foster Youth Connection and his lobbying on behalf of the bill have inspired him to seek a career working with troubled teens, perhaps as a case worker or alternative education teacher.
Lobbying for the bill also inspired Kindred, a rising senior at the University of Oregon who is double majoring in philosophy and in public policy, planning and management. He has a job lined up with the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group in Eugene and hopes to work in politics and policy once he graduates.
“I want to be in their shoes one day,” Kindred said of the lawmakers he spoke with. “Knowing how I felt when I was approaching them and learning those different things, that was probably one of the best experiences I could get. I thought it was a great opportunity.”