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Teens in foster care lobby lawmakers for ‘normalcy’ law

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Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Recently, a girl in foster care who is a high school cheerleader faced a dilemma.

A team at her school had advanced to the state tournament. Because attending the tourney required travel, she would not be allowed to cheer at the game unless she jumped through the hoops of getting the approval of her caseworker, who in turn would have to obtain the OK of a supervisor, get the girl's court-appointed legal guardian to sign off after the lawyer consulted with the judge overseeing the girl's foster care placement.

"All of this had to happen in a split second so she wouldn't miss those state games," said Jennifer Larson, adolescent program services manager for the state Division of Child and Family Services.

Teens in foster care told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee they would like the state to change the law to empower foster parents to decide whether children in their care can take part in typical childhood events such as extracurricular activities, attending school dances, learning to drive or simply going to a sleepover at a friend's house.

HB346, sponsored by Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, would help to "normalize the life of a child in DCFS custody" by empowering their caregivers to decide whether the child can participate in activities based on "reasonable and prudent parental standard," according to the bill.

The legislation also provides legal protection to caregivers who OK participation in activities if a child is harmed during that activity providing the parent "has acted with a reasonable and prudent parent standard," the bill states.

Breana Powers, 17, said she has "been in foster care awhile," and she wants the same experiences her peers have.

"My whole life, I just wanted to be normal. Personally, I've never been to a homecoming dance or a prom dance," Powers told committee members.

Sandra Navarro, 19, who was placed in foster care when she was 15 and eventually adopted by her foster parents, said empowering her foster mother to allow her to attend activities or spend time with friends helped her develop life skills and taught her to be accountable for her time.

"I feel like it built her trust in me because I respected that curfew," Navarro said.

But there were other times while she was in foster care that the requirements were intractable and seemingly unnecessary. Like the time she wanted to get a haircut and struggled to get the system to grant permission.

On Friday, Navarro spoke on behalf of the state Youth Council, which represents youths in foster care. This summer, during the annual foster care summit for all teens in foster care, the teenagers devised a bill of rights. The "normalcy" bill was a product of those discussions.

In September, youth council members took their concerns to the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel, Anderson said.

"The reason they were there was they wanted to talk to the panel about what we in the Legislature can do to help them have a little more normal adolescence than what they currently get to have. That's the reason for this bill," Anderson said.

Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, noted that he and Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, who also serve on the child welfare oversight panel, were grinning ear to ear Friday.

"This is exactly why we serve. We are so proud of you kids here today. This the leadership we hope to see, the leadership we dream about carrying on after we're gone. … It's like a graduation with our own kids," Cosgrove said, his voice breaking with emotion.

More than a dozen members of the youth council attended the meeting, during which the committee voted unanimously to support the bill.

Navarro said speaking before state lawmakers "was kind of a nerve-racking experience, maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But I'm glad I got the opportunity to do it. We're very happy we made a change for the whole foster care system."

The bill will now be considered by the House.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com