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Home > Practice Areas > Youth Services & Positive Youth Development > Other Links and Resources

 
 

Overview of Foster Care Handbooks

Promoting Successful Transitions: Designing a Youth Involvement Initiative

Terry Harrak, Project Coordinator
Maria Garin Jones, Project Manager


I. Introduction

In conjunction with the National Foster Care Awareness Project, project staff for the Youth Involvement Initiative selected five Foster Care Handbooks for review. The handbooks selected are as follows: Maine, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Florida. It is important to note that there are a number of other states that have developed handbooks for youth in foster care. However, for the purposes of this initiative, a decision was made to limit the initial review to five handbooks.

During the Working Group/Orientation meeting in November of 1999, participants conducted an initial review of the handbooks. Strengths and areas for improvement were noted for each of the handbooks. Feedback from the discussion groups has been incorporated into the work of the Youth Involvement consultants.

Consultants conducted an independent review of the handbooks prior to generating recommendations and related resources that would be helpful to youth making the transition to adulthood. Upon completion of the initial review, consultants forwarded their commentary and suggestions to the project staff. Project staff then followed up with individuals to clarify and expound upon the initial review.

There were a number of issues raised by the group of consultants around the fact that young people in foster care do not have access to the information that they need to have while they are in care. There was general consensus that the provision of a handbook to every youth in foster care would begin to bridge the information gap. However, it is important to note that giving a handbook to a young person in foster care does not necessarily ensure resolution of the problem. The youths that participated in the initiative stressed the fact that every young person in foster care needs to have the on-going support of a caring adult who is willing to invest in a quality relationship. Developing this type of relationship requires spending time with young people and getting to know them asking questions and listening to their goals, fears, hopes, and dreams. By identifying key questions, critical subject areas, and components of effective handbooks, this overview of a select number of handbooks represents a starting point for those interested in promoting successful transitions for all foster youth.

II. The Process

During an initial brainstorming session consultants were asked the following question:

Think about your experiences in foster care. What did you need to know? What were some of the questions that you needed answers to?

This brainstorming session, originally scheduled for thirty minutes, actually spanned almost two hours. The consultants had much to share about the lack of information and support that they received during their first days in the foster care system. One young woman, recently reunited with her maternal grandmother in a kinship placement after four years in foster care, is still uncertain about why she and her siblings were placed in foster care. How is this related to the foster care handbook overview? She emphasized the fact that knowing why you have been placed in foster care is an integral part of the interaction that needs to occur at the onset of a child's placement. Clearly, youth should receive the information from an adult involved in his/her life. However, this information should be reinforced by resources such as foster care handbooks.

Amidst the stress and confusion that are often associated with placement in foster care, young people may not have given any thought to questions that they might want to ask their social workers. Initially, the consultants worked on the development of Frequently Asked Questions for foster care youth. However, it soon became apparent that the questions were quite numerous and the answers to many of the questions will vary by state. As a result, the consultants opted to develop a list of Key Questions that should be addressed when developing state foster care handbooks. The list of Key Questions address a variety of placement and transitional issues, including general information, financial preparation, networks of support, educational opportunities, health care, housing, and employment options (See Appendix A). This list is intended to identify pertinent issues as attempts are made to develop handbooks tailored to specific state policies and procedures.

Each of the consultants conducted an individual review of the five state handbooks and identified a list of Critical Subject Areas. Based on this review, the project team developed a table comparing each of the states using the list of subject areas (See Appendix B). The consultants explored a variety of strategies for developing guidelines for effective handbooks and opted to summarize the list of Critical Subject Areas in eight components of effective handbooks.

III. Review of the State Foster Care Handbooks

During the review of the foster care handbooks, there was a general consensus among the consultants that one of the five handbooks addressed the majority of Critical Subject Areas. However, it is important to note that each of the five handbooks served a specific purpose for the state in which it was developed. While a comparative overview is available in Appendix B, a brief overview of each handbook's strengths and needs is addressed in this section.

There were several overriding issues that permeated the handbook review process. First, the consultants emphasized the importance of youth involvement in the development of the handbooks. It was very clear that youth had primary authorship for the handbook developed in Maine. However, in some of the other handbooks, the contributions of youth were acknowledged. Second, the graphics and formatting were also important factors in determining the quality and effectiveness of the handbook.

The Florida handbook, entitled Foster Care through the Eyes of Teens, was noteworthy for its bright blue color and compact size. Several of the consultants highlighted the fact that the handbook could conveniently "fit in your back pocket." The wording and graphics on the cover were also very appealing to youth. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the handbook was the fact that the State Teen Advisory Board of Florida included their mission statement on the first page of the handbook. Not only did this inclusion prompt one to think about their statement, but it also highlighted the fact that young people could become involved in advocacy work within the state. In terms of areas for improvement, it would have been helpful if a table of contents and contact numbers were readily available. If a young person were interested in becoming involved with the Advisory Board or needed additional information, he/she might be deterred by the absence of contact information.

The Tennessee Handbook for Teens in State Custody appears to be geared towards a younger population. While the authors included graphics, they did not seem to correspond with the subject matter presented in the handbook. For example, when addressing rights and responsibilities, the graphics included a baked potato, strawberries, pizza, sandals, and a figure standing on his head. The color of the print and the overall format of the handbook were appealing. It was helpful that the handbook provides an explanation of why a young person may be in foster care. Given the fact that the handbook was developed by the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council, it would have been beneficial to include some quotes or inspirational vignettes written by the youth.

Kentucky's handbook entitled Independent Living Guidebook for You was specifically designed to address the needs and issues facing young people transitioning out of foster care. The handbook highlights a variety of issues, but does not provide comprehensive information to the reader. For example, there is a section that highlights the Independent Living Teen Conference. However, there is no contact or follow-up information included. The graphics are pleasing, but would be more appealing if they were in color. The consultants were concerned about the lack of introductory information in this handbook. For older adolescents that enter care and participate in Independent Living services available in Kentucky, it would be helpful to have some of the basic information about foster care, rights, and responsibilities. If there is another handbook that is distributed to foster youth, it might be beneficial to combine some of the information.

In Mississippi, the Handbook for Teens in Foster Care appears to be written by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Division of Child and Family Services. However, they do note that several youth made contributions to its development. The handbook provides an excellent definition of foster care and makes a statement about why one child might be removed from a home, while siblings are able to remain in the home. This handbook also includes a Bill of Rights for Foster Children and is very specific about the rights of children in care. However, the consultants reported that the format was not well organized. While the content was strong, there did not appear to be a logical progression for the information included in the text. A table of contents would have been helpful. Furthermore, the absence of graphics and use of black ink on white paper made the handbook a bit monotonous to read.

Answers...A Handbook for Youth by Youth in Foster Care, developed by the state of Maine, was definitely a favorite among the consultants. This handbook covered twenty-two of the thirty Critical Subject Areas identified by the consultants. The cover graphics and the use of heavy cardstock indicated that a great deal of effort was put into the printing and publication of the document. The initial pages included contact information and instructions for using the handbook. The consultants found the question and answer format to be helpful. The Maine Handbook was noteworthy for all of the "extras." For example, the pocket folder in the back of the handbook was a nice touch. The quotes from youth really contributed a lot to the handbook. Young people need to be inspired and motivated by other youth that have had similar experiences. Throughout the handbook, the input and authorship of young people permeated the content. The chain of command section was interesting. However, the consultants suggested that it would be helpful to include information on the actual process for getting in contact with personnel beyond your immediate social worker, including names and phone numbers. The transition checklist was helpful, but the consultants suggested that they go beyond the checklist and supplement the existing information with regard to transition issues. In general, the handbook was extremely comprehensive and user-friendly. It was very well put together and it was evident that a great deal of time and effort was put into the development of this resource for foster youth.

IV. Components of Effective Handbooks

Part One: Introduction

This component should contain the following sections:
  1. An introductory paragraph that includes information about how the handbook could be utilized and who is responsible for its development.
  2. A mission statement developed by the organization/group responsible for the handbook.
  3. A table of contents that provides a quick overview of the handbook's contents.
  4. An overview of foster care and a generic explanation for a child's placement in foster care.
Part Two: Knowing Your Rights

This component should contain the following sections:
  1. An overview of rights, including the rights of youth, biological family, foster and adoptive parents, and care providers. If possible, the Bill of Rights for Foster Children should be included in this section. An overview of visitation policy and procedures, as well as implications for visitation with the youth's family should also be addressed in this section.
  2. An overview of responsibilities, including the responsibilities of youth, biological family, care providers, foster and adoptive parents.
  3. Information about the grievance procedure for the organization/agency that has custody of the young person, including names, addresses, and phone numbers for the personnel specific to one's state. This section should assist the young person who feels his/her rights have been violated with filing a formal complaint.
  4. Information about the chain of command so that youth have a sense of how the system is structured.
  5. Information about how to advocate for oneself and a listing of advocacy resources, including the names, addresses and telephone numbers of local, state, and national child advocacy organizations. For example:
    • Youth Law Center; Washington, DC; San Francisco, CA
    • National Youth Law Center; San Francisco, CA
    • Youth Advocacy Center; New York, NY
    • California Youth Connection; San Francisco, CA
    • Child Welfare League of America; Washington, DC
    • Children's Defense Fund; Washington, DC
    • American Civil Liberties Union; New York, NY
Part Three: General Information
  1. An overview of confidentiality and what it means for youth in foster care.
  2. Definitions of "system" and legal terminology.
  3. An overview of placement options for youth in foster care.
  4. An overview of independent living services for youth in foster care.
  5. An overview of court procedures.
Part Four: Real Life Stories
  1. This section should include a variety of inspirational quotes and anecdotes written by other young people in foster care for the purpose of letting other foster know that they are not alone.
  2. An overview of opportunities for youth to become involved at the local, state, and national levels. Contact information should be provided.
Part Five: Frequently Asked Questions

In developing a handbook specific to one's state, it might be helpful to ask a group of foster youth to identify some questions that they had when they entered care. If this is not possible, please see Appendix A for a list of questions generated by current and former foster youth.

Part Six: Independent Living Supplement

This section is designed to assist the young person making the transition to adulthood. For each of the six challenges of transition, an overview of services specific to one's state should be provided. The six challenges of transition are as follows: education, employment, housing, health care, financial preparedness, and support network. For example, in the education section, states should provide information regarding tuition waivers, funding to cover college applications and related expenses, and scholarships and stipends that are available to foster youth. Additionally, states might opt to include a transition checklist aimed at assisting foster youth with acquiring necessary documents and developing a timeline for obtaining insurance and employment.

Part Seven: The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999

This section is designed to familiarize each youth with the John H. Chaffee Independence Program, established by the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999.

Section Eight: Personal Information and Notes
  1. In this section, youth should have space to document pertinent information, including the names, addresses, and phone numbers of family, friends, and other members of one's support network.
  2. Space for notes should also be included.

V. Summary

When the work of the consultants was initiated, they were asked to think about the types of information that they needed as they transitioned from foster care to interdependence. The consultants identified a number of issues in the form of key questions. In reviewing the individual foster care handbooks from Maine, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky, the consultants initiated the process by highlighting the strengths and areas for improvement. As the review progressed, a number of critical subject areas emerged, eventually totaling thirty areas for consideration. From these critical subject areas, eight key components for effective foster care handbooks were identified. The guidelines established in this document are intended to provide a template for the development of additional resources for foster youth.

Though the consultants were charged with the task of providing guidelines to those interested in designing handbooks that will be useful to youth in foster care, they also remained very concerned about how the guidelines would be utilized in the field. The consultants emphasized the fact that the distribution of foster care handbooks to foster youth in isolation does not address the fact that these young people do not have the information that they need to successfully transition to adulthood. In addition to information, all young people need to have the on-going support of caring adults in their lives. Youth in foster care are no exception.

Throughout the process, the consultants underscored the fact that these guidelines were designed to assist those interested in developing resources for foster youth. For states that are interested in developing handbooks based on the guidelines provided, it is critical to point out that there is room for interpretation and the inclusion of other materials that could be helpful to youth.

In closing, to disseminate information about the challenges that young people transitioning out of foster care are facing, we need to reach out to all of the individuals involved in the lives of foster youth. It is critical to remember that young people need to be meaningfully engaged in the process because their stories and experiences are of paramount importance. The voices of foster youth should guide our efforts. The work of the Youth Involvement Initiative project team represents a starting point. It is intended to get people thinking; not only about what types of information young people in foster care need to have access to, but about the tremendous contributions that young people can make when they are provided with opportunities to be heard.

Appendix A: List of Key Questions

General Information:
  • How do I obtain my social security card?
  • How do I obtain my birth certificate?
  • Can I get a driver's license? If so, who will cover the costs for driver's education?
  • How long will I have health insurance?
  • Are there any programs that will assist me with health insurance once I am no longer covered by the state?
  • How will I pay for medical visits/medications etc.?
  • Can I stay in foster care after my 18th birthday?
  • Can I have a car?
  • Do I have a role in determining my placement? Can I request to move to another placement?
  • Can I participate in meetings, staffings, and/or conversations that pertain to me?
  • Why am I in foster care?
  • How long do I have to stay in foster care?
  • How and when will I see my birth family, siblings etc.?
  • Why do you have to go through all of my belongings?
  • Do I have any privacy?
  • Who can I call when I need to talk to someone, have a problem etc.?
  • What are the responsibilities of my foster parents/placement etc.?
  • Do I have an attorney? If so, how do I contact him/her?
Financial Issues:
  • Can I manage the money that I earn from a job?
  • Can I open a bank account?
  • Where can I get help with filing taxes?
  • How can I establish a good credit history?
  • Can I have a credit card? How many is too many?
  • Who can I talk to about credit questions?
  • How do I rent an apartment?
  • Where can I get information about my credit history?
Support Network:
  • Who can I talk to when I need support?
  • Can I call/see my family when I want to?
  • What is the process for visiting my friends and family?
  • Will the department help me/my family with transportation?
  • Do I have access to community-based organizations such as the local YMCA, Big Brothers, Girl Scouts, and 4-H?
  • Can I still go to my church in my community of origin?
  • Can I participate in afterschool/extracurricular activities with my friends?
Educational Issues:
  • Do I have to switch schools if I move?
  • How do I access my educational records?
  • Can I get a tutor if I need help with school?
  • Can I go to college?
  • Who will assist me with college applications?
  • Can I visit schools that I apply to?
  • Is there financial assistance for college applications, SAT/ACT tests, and trips to visit schools?
  • Is financial assistance available to me if I want to go to college?
  • How do I pay for school activities, sports, pictures, prom, and graduation?
  • Can I get lunch money or do I have to eat "free lunch?"
  • What support is available to me if I have a learning disability?
  • Who is responsible for updating my IEP before I graduate from high school?
Health Issues:
  • What type of health insurance do I have?
  • What do I do when I am sick?
  • How do I get information on preventive medicine?
  • Information on health education, birth control, sexual behavior, and yearly check-ups.
Housing Issues:
  • Do I have to share my living space/can I have my own room?
  • Where will I live when I leave care?
  • Are there any funds available to assist me with housing after I leave care?
Employment Issues:
  • Can I work while I'm in foster care?
  • Will my IL stipend be affected by how much I earn from my job?
  • Will my foster care payments be affected by my earnings?
  • Are there any job training programs available to me?
  • How many hours can I work?
  • Can I get assistance with transportation to work?

Appendix B: Table of Critical Subject Areas

Handbook Component

Name of State

Maine

Kentucky

Mississippi

Tennessee

Florida



Table of Contents

X

X

     


Introduction

X

 

X

 

X



Mission Statement
       

X



Why I'm in Care? What is Foster Care?

X

 

X

X

 


Rights of Youth

X

 

X

Includes Bill of Rights for Foster Children

X

X

Includes rights of youth, foster, adoptive parents & counselors.



Responsibilities

X

Includes biological family, provider, Caseworkers

   

X

Addresses youth responsibilities

X

Includes foster parents, counselors



Grievance Process

X

       


Resources
         


Contacts

X

       


Visitation

X

 

X

X

X



Quotes/Youth Voice

X

     

X



Definitions/Glossary

X

     

X



Overview of IL services

X

X

X

X

 


Overview of Placements

X

X

 

X

X



Questions you should ask

X

X

     


How to Advocate for self
         


Chain of Command

X

       


Explanation of Confidentiality

X

 

X

   


Court Procedures/ Legal Terminology

X

X

X

 

X



Education

X

X

X

X

X



Employment
   

X

   


Housing
         


Health Care

X

 

X

   


Support
   

X

   


Financial Preparation
 

X

X

   


New IL Legislation
         


Transition Checklist

X

X

     


Pertinent Information

X

X

 

X

 


Written by Youth

X

   

X

X



Graphics

X

       



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