The Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council held a webinar on November 20, 2023, to discuss their recommendations for decriminalizing the foster care system and preventing foster youth from entering the juvenile justice system. The panelists shared stories of three African American youth who were killed by law enforcement while in the foster care system. Seventeen-year-old Cedric Lofton and sixteen-year-olds Cornelius Frederick, and Ma ‘Khia Bryant, were only teenagers when their lives ended at the hands of law enforcement.

Being in foster care increases the likelihood of a young person to have interactions with law enforcement and entrance into the juvenile justice system, therefore it becomes crucial the system works to address these disparities and work towards positive outcomes for children. The Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy council recommended three priorities, first, those in charge of the safety of foster care youth must remember that they are children and teenagers. Second, caregivers must understand personal trauma and how that influences behaviors. Lastly, they asked Child Welfare leaders and policymakers to disrupt the foster care-to-prison pipeline with intention and urgency.

The first priority asks caregivers to recognize that children in the foster care system are just like other kids and teens with similar aspirations. In the poll conducted by the Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council that had 138 respondents, 81% reported interacting with law enforcement while in foster care, with 23% on a monthly basis. Rather than calling law enforcement, the panel recommended training on the adultification bias, youth brain development, and de-escalation strategies for foster parents, congregate care staff, and all others that care for foster children. Additionally, they recommended creating a response system for foster youth, caregivers, and others so they can request immediate help in a crisis. Lastly, to limit police involvement in family removal, and inform young people in foster care of their rights and who they can contact if their rights are violated.

The second priority aims to ensure caregivers understand the behavior of children and the experiences foster youth have had. Children in foster care are often labeled as “bad kids,” who are in care because of their own behavior. 65% of survey respondents indicated that someone introduced or reinforced the idea to them that they were a “bad kid,” “troublemaker,” “troubled kid,” or a “drug addict.” Caregivers should be aware of the harm perpetuated by these labels and stereotypes and be trained to respond to trauma-related behaviors. Other suggestions included alternatives for law enforcement involvement, such as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline that has over 200 centers across the country. Furthermore, to implement peer support and peer navigation that is developed with the youth and to decriminalize trauma by training foster caregivers, kinship, law enforcement, and facility staff on brain development, normal adolescent behavior, and de-escalating crises. Lastly, to provide young people with comprehensive mental health supports and services that meet the diverse needs of youth in foster care.

Their final priority is to encourage efforts to be made by policymakers and Child Welfare leaders to disrupt the foster care-to-prison pipeline. Putting foster youth in settings where teen behaviors or mental health trauma are likely to trigger response from law enforcement, such as when there is a shortage of foster homes and kids are placed in offices, hotels, congregate care, and detention facilities. Those in charge of care and safety in these settings rely on law enforcement when kids exhibit otherwise normal teenage behavior. Youth placed in a group setting are 2.5 times more likely than their peers to be involved in the juvenile justice system and 90% of kids will be in the juvenile justice system if they have had 5 or more placements in homes or facilities. The Foster Youth & Alumni Policy Council recommends that if it is at all possible for children to stay home safely to avoid removal. If removal is necessary, the first placement should be with extended family or fictive kin and all efforts should be made to identify people that foster youth trust. Next, to increase communications across agencies and departments connected to child welfare, juvenile justice and criminal justice and prevention, and to develop partnerships between community, advocates, and lived experts to identify alternative strategies. Additionally, to Increase partnerships with States, housing authorities and non-profit organizations to secure safe and stable housing, to prevent children transitioning out of foster care from becoming homeless. Their final recommendation is to prioritize programs and services delivered by peers to provide guidance and support for young people transitioning from foster care.

By Harper Dilley, Policy Intern