In Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, and across the nation, states are loosening restrictions on foster parents in order to encourage normalcy for the growing share of children in foster care.
Before, if a child in foster care wanted to have a sleepover at a friend's house, attend a birthday party or even go on a school field trip, a foster parent had to jump through a lot of hurdles, said Meredith Jackson, a foster parent trainer and recruiter at Youth Villages in Chattanooga.
Teenagers in foster care couldn't date or get their driver's license, Jackson said, and anyone supervising a child in foster care had to be fingerprinted and have a background check run, which could take weeks.
"It was really strict," she said. "It was a lot of planning ahead and a lot of no's."
Often those children lost out on opportunities, because foster parents feared they would be held legally liable if something happened to children during a sleepover at a friend's house or on a school field trip.
The new guidelines, known nationally as "prudent parenting," remove legal liability and allow foster parents to make decisions on the fly as long as they consider the safety risk and the appropriateness of the activity for the child's developmental age. They also have to ask themselves this question: Would they allow their own biological child to be supervised by the person who will be overseeing the foster child in their care?
"There are a lot of reasons for this," said Rob Johnson, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. "You need these experiences to maintain a child's health, safety and best interest. We want to encourage children's emotional, academic and developmental growth."
However, this doesn't mean birth parents are left out of the loop, Johnson added.
Most of the children who enter the foster care system return to their biological parents, he said, and it is still common practice to keep biological parents informed, especially when it comes to travel plans.
"Prudent parenting" policies began to sweep the country several years ago after passage of the federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act in 2014. The law required states to implement a "reasonable and prudent parenting standard" giving foster parents the authority to make day-to-day decisions affecting children in their care regarding extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, social or sporting activities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has championed and tracked the legislation.
A quarter of the nearly 427,000 children in the U.S. foster care system are older than 14, and more than 18,000 young people age out of the system each year. This time last year in Tennessee there were 6,779 children in foster care. Right now, according to the Tennessee Department of Children Services, there are 7,545 children in foster care, an 11 percent increase.
"They are faced with a host of potential problems, including higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, pregnancy and lower level education," the conference of state legislature's website states. "One important way states are working to improve young people's transition from foster care into adulthood is to ensure that youth have the opportunity to engage in a range of developmentally and age-appropriate experiences necessary for healthy emotional and social development."
The new standards are a win for children in foster care, Jackson said. Children who have aged out of the system often said that the limitations on their activity terribly disrupted their lives and made them feel left out and less than others.
But it is also a win for foster parents, she added.
Jackson said it's hard enough to recruit families willing to take in at-risk children. The never- ending paperwork and strict limitations didn't help.
"New foster parents have given great feedback. I get asked, 'How did this just now happen? How is this a new thing?' she said. "I am hoping it will spike interest. It does relieve some of those barriers.
"We want our parents to treat them [children in foster care] as members of the family as much as possible, and this gives more flexibility."
Contact Joan McClane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6601.