Bill seeks ‘reasonable’ standard for foster parents

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For Vermont foster kids like Nate Farnham, simple activities that most take for granted – field trips, sleepovers and after-school hangouts – required social worker signatures and state background checks.

“I never went to friends’ houses, and they always asked me why, and I never even wanted to tell them why because they wouldn’t be able to comprehend it,” recalled Farnham, now in his late teens.

A bill moving through the Legislature aims to change that. H.589, which has received House and Senate approval, adopts a “reasonable and prudent parent standard” that limits foster parents’ legal liability for making everyday child-rearing decisions.

The measure has backing from the Department for Children and Families as well as from foster parents and children. While Farnham is transitioning into adulthood and is about to graduate from Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in Hyde Park, he hasn’t forgotten how hard it was to visit his friends back in middle school.

“I’m actually very happy to be a part of getting this bill passed … so other kids don’t have to go through that same trouble that I did,” Farnham recently told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

H.589 stems from a 2014 federal law that requires state agencies to create a new parenting standard encouraging a foster child’s “participation in age or developmentally appropriate extracurricular, enrichment, cultural and social activities.”

That has spurred a change in how states and foster parents handle the issue of liability for the children in their care.

Previously, the state had responsibility for even the most mundane decisions.

Berlin resident Anne Ward, who has served as a foster parent for 23 children, said permission slips for school-related activities would spark a hasty search for social worker approval.

“I’ve had kids who missed opportunities like that because we didn’t have time or no one was available,” Ward told lawmakers.

While the Department for Children and Families adopted a new reasonable and prudent parenting policy as of January, that policy can’t on its own address the legal issues that foster parents face

“This bill addresses the liability that exists for us,” Ward said.

Those liability issues have affected the daily lives of foster children, from big decisions like learning to drive to small diversions like spending an afternoon at a friend’s house.

Farnham recalled that visiting a friend for even a short period of time required social worker intervention, background checks and home inspections.

Matt Bergeron, who is now 19 and spent more than seven years in foster care, said he simply didn’t see his friends as much as he wanted to. “And then, staying the night over at a friend’s house – forget about it,” Bergeron said. “That was way worse.”

Bergeron told legislators about other problems: He failed a history test because he couldn’t get permission to watch an R-rated movie, and he couldn’t accompany his French class on a trip overseas.

“I missed out on a huge cultural opportunity that I was really looking forward to,” he said.

While such incidents might seem relatively minor in isolation, they placed additional burdens on adolescents who already were dealing with the biases that come with being a foster child.

“We are not seen as kids that can come to a Statehouse and testify on a legislative bill,” Farnham said. “We are looked upon as the kids that cause the problems in society.”

H.589 builds on the Department for Children and Families’ new parenting policy by providing “extra protection,” said Karen Vastine, a senior adviser to the department’s commissioner.

The bill says a reasonable and prudent parent standard is “characterized by careful and sensible parental decisions that maintain the health, safety and best interests of a child … while at the same time encouraging the emotional and developmental growth of the child.”

A foster parent “acting in good faith in compliance with the reasonable and prudent parent standard shall be immune from civil liability arising from such action,” the bill says.

While terms such as “careful” and “sensible” leave room for interpretation, the state trial lawyers’ advocacy organization – the Vermont Association for Justice – is supporting the bill.

“This is good for children and families and the public servants working hard in government and social service agencies, because it really provides clarity,” said Adam Necrason, a Montpelier attorney and lobbyist for the association.

“In the end, we want foster parents to feel a great sense of comfort that there’s a lot of shared responsibility – that they don’t shoulder it all themselves,” Necrason told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

That committee’s backing led to full Senate approval of H.589 on Thursday. The House had passed the bill in February, so it will now go to the governor.

While H.589 won’t solve all the problems foster parents and foster kids face, advocates say it’s a step toward “normalcy” that may help combat stereotypes.

“It’s a good feeling to prove people wrong, but we shouldn’t have to do it in that sense,” Bergeron said. “We should just be treated like regular youth – regular people.”

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