Not Knowing Your Rights is Like Having No Rights At All – Oregon’s Foster Youth Bill of Rights Demonstrates the Power of Youth-Led Advocacy


Pamela Butler, Child Welfare Policy Manager, Children First for Oregon

PamelaButlerOn June 27, Governor John Kitzhaber signed Senate Bill 123 into law, establishing a Foster Youth Bill of Rights for children in Oregon. The bill passed both the House and Senate with unanimous support—a rare victory in a legislative session otherwise defined by partisan gridlock. Not only did this win prove that legislators and state agencies can come together to make a difference for kids in challenging political and economic times, it was also a testament to the power of the youth voice at the policy table.

Drafted with the input of more than 100 current and former foster youth from across the state, SB 123 finally establishes a clear requirement for informing children and youth in foster care about the rights they have under state law. While existing laws already protected those rights in theory, gaps in policies and protocols still kept many of Oregon’s 13,000 foster youth from ever knowing their rights in care and, worse, left them without safe means to report violations. SB 123 bridges those gaps and creates a legal framework for guaranteeing the basic rights of foster children while in state care.

The bill also calls for the creation of a staffed hotline in the Governor’s Advocacy Office to take calls from youth regarding their care and rights. In addition, the new law will require that youth be provided with basic resources to ensure their success in care: a copy of their rights, contact information for all those involved in their case, and materials for older youth regarding their transition from foster care to adulthood.

OFYC

What’s more, the effort to pass SB 123 was led by the Oregon Foster Youth Connection’s (OFYC) Legislative Action Team (Leg. Team). The Leg. Team, made up of five youth elected by their peers at a statewide conference, underwent intensive legislative training led by Children First for Oregon staff in order to represent OFYC at hearings, legislator meetings, and negotiations along the way.

Royce Markley was one of the voices behind SB 123 and was one of roughly thirty Oregon Foster Youth Connection members who advocated for the bill during the 2013 legislative session. Now 19, Royce spent eight years in the Oregon foster care system, where he says he experienced abuse—and fall-out from attempting to complain—despite having a supportive team of advocates. “I still had many challenging experiences while in care that required me to have a better understanding of my rights than I had,” he says, “such as knowing I had access to a lawyer if I needed one, that I was able to keep and spend my own money, that I could have scheduled visits and be transported to see my siblings in different homes and, maybe most importantly to my case, knowing that I had the right to make a private complaint. It’s a lot harder to get through the system, an already difficult system, if you don’t know your rights.”

In his signing statement, Oregon’s Governor acknowledged the important role of youth-led advocacy in influencing policy:

“Foster youth deserve to know their rights and should be empowered to assert those rights. While we need to reduce the need for foster care, we also have a responsibility to do everything possible to make foster care safe and supportive. The Foster Youth Bill of Rights ensures Oregon’s foster youth have access to tools and support they deserve while helping them reach their full potential. I commend the Oregon Foster Youth Connection members who helped advocate for this important legislation.”

The foster youth Bill of Rights is not only a strong step forward in building a better child welfare system in Oregon, it also represents the fourth consecutive policy victory for the members of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection. This success rate teaches us that committing to youth engagement throughout the process of developing and advocating for child welfare policy can yield powerful results.