How attorneys can help youth in the foster care system and beyond
BY CHRISTINE KUGLIN AND JACQUI MERRILL MARTIN
On any given day, over 424,00011 www.childrensrights.org/newsroom/fact-sheets/foster-care/. children are in foster care in the United States. In Washington, over 10,000 children are currently in the foster care system.22 www.adoptuskids.org/adoption-and-foster-care/how-to-adopt-and-foster/state-information/washington. In 2019, there were more than 20,000 young people in the U.S. who aged out of the foster system at 18 without ever having had permanent families to guide them into adulthood.33 www.childrensrights.org/newsroom/fact-sheets/foster-care/. Research has shown that those who leave care without being linked to a family have a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration as adults.44 www.chapinhall.org/wp-content/uploads/Midwest-Eval-Outcomes-at-Age-26.pdf.
States differ as to the extent of extended assistance offered after a young person turns 18 and leaves foster care, but common examples include financial support for post-secondary education and training.55 www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/grant-funding/john-h-chafee-foster-care-independence-program. This assistance is often subject to legislative funding and not all states provide a sufficient level of care for young adults. In Washington, a state program called the Washington State Independent Living Services (WSILS) provides classes and workshops to help current and former foster youth get and keep a job, find and keep a safe place to live, prepare for training past high school, and many more related topics.66 www.fosterclub.com/resources/washington-state-independent-living-services.
Despite these avenues of support, the WSBA Pro Bono and Public Service Committee recognizes that this is still a pressing issue in Washington. To bring attention and increase awareness, we reached out to knowledgeable individuals and organizations for advice on how the legal community can help young people in foster care as well as those between the ages of 18 and 26 after they leave the foster care system. The advice we received is not limited to legal issues. Washington attorneys are well situated to help in all the ways described in this article.
Attorneys Serving as Mentors
Jamerika Haynes-Lewis graduated from Washington State University and was named USA Ambassador Ms. 2021 through the USA Ambassador Pageant, where her platform is “A Chance to Succeed: Empowering Youth in Foster Care.” Haynes-Lewis grew up in the foster care system. Determined to have a better life, she studied communications and went on to compete in the USA Ambassador pageant in order to create a platform to advocate for foster children. She emphasized that attorneys can serve as strong role models for foster youth—that legal representation is not the only avenue for guiding young adults. Haynes-Lewis explains:
What youth in foster care want from legal professionals is honesty. When I was in foster care, I was very vocal about what I experienced and needed. The point of contact I had from the courts was my appointed GAL [Guardian Ad Litem]. My GAL was very communicative and listened to me.
Haynes-Lewis also encourages lawyers to prepare young clients for the possible outcomes of their case and to connect with other adults in the young person’s circle. These types of cases can include the request for access to medical records or other familial information. “They may require other services such as education, employment, housing, health care, and even counseling,” she says. “The more connected everyone is, the more likely that young person can process what’s happening and move on with their lives.”
For those who want to work with young people who have been in foster care, Haynes-Lewis recommends patience. “Some youths have experienced rejection, neglect, and other mistreatment in their relationships,” she says. “It will take time to earn their trust. When building relationships with these young people, be confident, listen, and tell the young person what your role is. They may not have worked with someone from the legal system.”
Attorneys Providing Legal Advice
Gerry Charvat was a Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) social worker and supervisor from 2006 until 2015. He now works at EWU’s Child Welfare Training and Advancement Program to place students at DCYF and prepare them for a career in child welfare with public agencies. Charvat’s position is that there has been a tremendous change in legislation to extended foster care. Examples of these legislative acts are as follows:
- The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, which provided states with flexible funding to help young people, ages 18 to 21, who were transitioning from foster care.
- The Fostering Transitions to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, which expanded funding to states that elected to extend foster care support to age 21.
- The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, which expanded eligibility for transitional services under Chafee, including the option for states to provide aftercare services up to age 23.
- The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 — passed during the coronavirus pandemic — which provided a one-time allotment of $400 million in additional funding for Chafee programs offering housing, education, and direct assistance to current and former foster youth, and temporarily expanded eligibility through age 26.77 www.aecf.org/blog/extended-foster-care-explained.
Young adults aged 18 and older may have access to public defense, but gaps still exist in their ability to obtain services and proper access to family information such as medical histories and birth records. These young adults are legally emancipated based on termination of parental rights but are generally considered legal orphans.88 “In the dependency court system, a legal orphan is a child whose parents’ rights have been terminated and who has no legal permanent connection to a family. The child remains in foster care and has not been adopted or placed in a legal relationship with a guardian or with kin. A legal orphan may have no legal relationship with her parents’ extended families, might not inherit from his parents or their families, and is effectively a child of the state. With no family connections, these children frequently age out of the foster care system once they reach adulthood. At that point, they face statistically poor outcomes.” National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. More information at www.ncjfcj.org/publications/forever-families-improving-outcomes-by-achieving-permanency-for-legal-orphans/. Attorneys can help these young people to navigate the complex system of records and court documents and to access benefits they may be entitled to receive.
One organization helping to address this need is Legal Counsel for Youth and Children (LCYC). Lu Jiang is the Pro Bono Manager of LCYC, a nonprofit that protects the interests and safety of youth in Washington by advancing their legal rights through direct legal representation, strong community partnerships, and systemic advocacy. LCYC recently launched a Pro Bono Champions program that offers free civil legal assistance to youth experiencing homelessness across the state.
Through this program, legal professionals and community members alike can help remove legal and social barriers so that youth aged 12-24 have the opportunity to build toward their future. Areas of focus include name changes, record sealing (outside of King County), emancipation, and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Attorneys have the option of volunteering for virtual legal clinics, as legal experts in substantive areas, or by providing direct representation. For more information, visit https://lcycwa.org/pro-bono-champions.
Attorneys and Foster Youth—Advice for the Future
Most children have parents or guardians to teach them academic, social, emotional, and general life skills. There are integral steps along the way and children need adults they can trust to guide them. For example, parents or guardians may teach young people how to drive, help them secure an internship, or connect them to a family member or neighbor to do yardwork and earn some money—things that help to develop soft skills. A parent or guardian may also help teach more formal skills like opening a bank account, applying for a loan, preparing for college, or negotiating the purchase of a car.
Many of the youth who age out of foster care have never had a home where such help and guidance was available. In only rare circumstances will they age out of a home that was healthy, where the adults will continue to be helpful to them. Karen Pillar, director of Policy and Advocacy at TeamChild, emphasizes that if pro bono attorneys want to get involved with foster youth, they should be thinking about and holding onto this context—many of these young people have not had the opportunity to learn these skills, and many do not trust that adults in their lives will follow through in supporting them.
Pillar and TeamChild aim to help youth overcome obstacles that get in the way of their success, such as securing ID cards, assisting with employment, supporting with banking and consumer issues, and helping with access to education, among other areas. There are a number of wonderful organizations that are doing critical work in this space in addition to TeamChild, including Mockingbird, YMCA Transitional Housing, and Treehouse. Attorneys seeking to help foster youth could reach out to these organizations and offer their services, in whatever manner they can.
The consensus is that there is a tremendous need to expand and blend the areas of service of the legal and social work communities to assist foster youth. Legal professionals are uniquely situated to step up and support these young people in overcoming the barriers they face.
8. “In the dependency court system, a legal orphan is a child whose parents’ rights have been terminated and who has no legal permanent connection to a family. The child remains in foster care and has not been adopted or placed in a legal relationship with a guardian or with kin. A legal orphan may have no legal relationship with her parents’ extended families, might not inherit from his parents or their families, and is effectively a child of the state. With no family connections, these children frequently age out of the foster care system once they reach adulthood. At that point, they face statistically poor outcomes.” National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. More information at www.ncjfcj.org/publications/forever-families-improving-outcomes-by-achieving-permanency-for-legal-orphans/.