Psycho-legal considerations of placing children in foster care

A healthy 3-year-old is placed in a foster home. A month later, a 16-year-old with a history of borderline personality disorder is placed in the same home. Without permission, the 16-year-old decides to give the 3-year old a bath. Tragically, the 3-year-old drowns. Whatever the exact circumstances, and the foster parents’ behavior and liability aside, was it negligent of the agency initially to place the teenager in the same home as the young child?

When a child is placed in a foster home it is the responsibility of the placing agency to evaluate the prospective home by considering its environmental, physical, emotional, medical, and educational benefits and hazards. Finding a compatible foster home is not just a question of finding the right foster parents. If there are other children in the home they are also crucial to the selection process.

The placement process is a very personal and intentional one. Some variables can be controlled; others cannot. For instance, one controllable variable is the maximum number of foster children that can be placed in a foster home. For most states, it is usually no more than six. Other variables may include limiting the number of very young children; capping the total number of children in a home; limiting the number of special needs or medically fragile children. Among the exceptions to the above limits may be in those instances in which the placement of a sibling group in a family foster home with no other children in the home would exceed the mandated limit.

It is axiomatic that the behavior of a child is affected by its peers. To detect, measure, and predict such peer effects is a daunting task. In the foster care context, relatively little is known about how other children in the home – be they other foster children, their own siblings, or the biological children of the foster parents – actually affect a particular foster child. So, back to our original query: From a psychological, legal, and financial risk perspective are there certain children who should not be placed in a foster home which houses other children with specific psychological diagnoses? Assuredly. A teenage boy with a history of being a sexual abuser of young girls should not be placed in a foster home comprised of potential victims.

Quite simply, it is not good public policy to have the fox living in the hen house.

But we need to move beyond the obvious. If we had greater insight into the nature of peer influences in the foster home context it would have important policy and legal placement implications. As Wichita, Kansas attorney James A. Thompson poignantly asserts:

Despite explicit policies stating that the needs and safety of the child are to be the foremost consideration when considering placement, the reality is that child placement is too often based only on the availability of a foster home. Rather than protecting children, workers herd children into the first available home. The needs of the child become only a talking point at a meeting or a box to be checked on a report rather than contemplating why the child is in foster care and what effect the other children in the home will have on the child. Workers often lack a fundamental understanding of how peer relationships inside the foster home will affect the newly placed child because they have not received sufficient training in this area. This failure can devolve into a game of Russian Roulette where the child will eventually be harmed or killed. Any action, or inaction, that leads to a child being harmed or killed will also lead down the road to litigation and all the resulting costs and expenses associated therewith. Failing to understand foster peer relationships not only affects the bottom line in a cost/benefit analysis, but more importantly, this lack of understanding fails the children we as a society are tasked with protecting.

In any camp or college application there always seems to be a disclaimer that “Assignment with a roommate that matches lifestyle preferences or compatibility cannot be guaranteed.” But foster care is not camp or college. Whether it’s racial, cultural, or behavioral, there still needs to be a fundamental personality compatibility with others in the foster home. Toward this end, compatibility is important for purposes of basic safety and to maximize the potential of the overall placement.

Formal research into this understudied area may yield valuable new approaches to placement of foster children. Just as the quality of a child’s schoolmates is an important determinant of academic performance so too the quality of a foster family can have life changing effects on a foster child. A good placement will reduce the necessity of replacement, resulting in less work for placement staff, higher occupancy of available foster homes, more satisfied foster parents and better outcomes for children.

Daniel Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD is Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, New York City, and is a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases. E-mail:; 212-960-0836.

This article originally appeared in Policy & Practice, 72(5), 36

Anonymous versus Identified Reporting of Child Maltreatment


The child abuse and neglect hotline rings. All other factors being equal, does it matter if the reporter is anonymous or identified?

Effective child maltreatment investigation relies to a significant extent upon information supplied by anonymous reporters. Reliance on these reporters presents the child protection, law enforcement, and judicial systems with a challenge: giving proper weight to such reports while safeguarding everyone’s constitutional rights.

During FFY 2012, child protective services agencies received 3.4 million referrals involving approximately 6.3 million children. Among the 46 states that reported both screened-in and screened-out referrals, 62 percent of referrals were screened in and 38 percent were screened out. [Child Maltreatment 2012, p. Summary x.] “For 2012, professionals made three-fifths (58.7%) of reports of alleged child abuse and neglect. The term professional means that the person had contact with the alleged child maltreatment victim as part of his or her job. This term includes teachers, police officers, lawyers, and social services staff. Nonprofessionals—including friends, neighbors, and relatives—submitted one-fifth of reports (18.0%). Unclassified sources submitted the remainder of reports (23.3%). Unclassified includes anonymous, “other,” and unknown report sources” [emphasis added]. [Child Maltreatment 2012, p. Summary xi.]

All professions struggle with the concept of information which is supplied anonymously. An example that quickly comes to mind is law enforcement. This past term, the U.S. Supreme Court considered Navarette v. California, a case which asks whether the Fourth Amendment requires a police officer, who receives an anonymous tip about a drunken or reckless driver, needs to corroborate the dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle. In the child abuse context, one court has held that, “Just as ‘an anonymous tip, standing alone, is rarely sufficient to provide probable cause for a warrant,’ Kohler v. Englade, 470 F.3d 1104, 1110 (5th Cir. 2006), an anonymous tip regarding child abuse will rarely be sufficient to justify the seizure of a child. However, anonymous tips that have been independently corroborated by government officials may provide sufficient grounds to seize a child. See United States v. Martinez, 486 F.3d 855, 863 (5th Cir. 2007).” Gates v. Tex. Dep’t of Protective & Regulatory Servs., No. 06-20763, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 537 F.3d 404; 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 15947, July 28, 2008. It is worth emphasizing that a report of child maltreatment is, by definition, an assertion that abuse or neglect has likely already taken place. It may be continuing in the present or future, but it is not principally predictive; it is retrospective.

Child maltreatment reporters who seemingly have the greatest veracity are those who give their name and address, or self-identify in such a way that they can be held accountable for the report. Next on the scale of reliability are those who, although they do not identify themselves, give sufficient information that their identity may be discerned—for instance, where reporters call from their workplace. In theory, least reliable (but not necessarily unreliable!) are anonymous reporters, whose veracity cannot be determined, and from whom it may not be possible to obtain additional or clarifying information.

There are numerous reasons why people prefer to make reports anonymously:

  • The child they are reporting may be related to a relative, neighbor, friend, or colleague at work. They are concerned that the report will be detrimental to their relationship or to their employment.
  • They may not be fully confident about whether their allegations are sufficiently accurate to warrant a report.
  • They may be fearful of financial repercussions.
  • They may be concerned about being ostracized.
  • They may be wary of legal retaliation, e.g. a defamation lawsuit.

In general, are reports attributed to anonymous sources more or less accurate than identified sources? If not, in what ways does their trustworthiness differ? To the receiver of the report, is there a practical difference in terms of how to act on the report? A seasoned attorney in the child protection field, South Carolina’s Diane Rodriguez, notes that anonymous tips “may be based on improper personal motivation. There’s no way to tell if the caller is a truly concerned citizen or is being vindictive. Every effort should be made to urge anonymous reporters to identify themselves. I have been involved with clients who had been reported when they should not have been. They wound up caught in the system for years and had to spend thousands of dollars fighting a false accusation. Of course, there are plenty of other children who have been saved because of a caring anonymous reporter.”

As concerns about Fourth Amendment protections have arisen in the child protection context, will the courts get involved in further defining the parameters of the veracity of anonymous reporters? [E.g. Camreta v. Greene, 131 S.Ct. 2020 (2011); Jones v. Hunt, 410 F.3d 1221 (10th Cir. 2005); Doe v. Heck, 327 F.3d 492 (7th Cir. 2003); Roe v. Texas Dep’t of Protective & Regulatory Servs., 299 F.3d 395 (5th Cir. 2002); Brokaw v. Mercer Cnty., 235 F.3d 1000 (7th Cir. 2000); Wallis v. Spencer, 202 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 2000).] I am unaware of any recent definitive studies that have assessed the reliability of anonymous versus. identified reporters in the child maltreatment reporting context. Perhaps it’s time to undertake this effort.

Daniel Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD is Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, New York City, and is a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases. E-mail:; 212-960-0836.

This article originally appeared in Policy & Practice, 72(4), 30-36.

Signs of Sexual Abuse: Tip Sheet for Media

A pamphlet developed by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), What Is Child Sexual Abuse?, highlights various forms of sexual victimization and their distinctive signs and symptoms. Targeted to media professionals, the pamphlet summarizes common behavioral red flags displayed by sexually abused children. A checklist of warning signs to help with the detection and identification are also provided, including:

  • Bodily signs (i.e., bedwetting, stomachaches)
  • Emotional signs (i.e., fear, sadness, acting out)
  • Sexual signs (i.e., inappropriate sexual behavior)
  • Verbal signs (i.e., narrative accounts of non-age-appropriate sexual activities)

The brochure illustrates characteristic behaviors exhibited by child sexual abuse perpetrators and cites common factors influencing children’s ability to disclose sexual abuse. Finally, data on the prevalence of this problem is presented and briefly discussed.

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Children’s Law Center 2014 Helping Children Soar Benefit

Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Kennedy Center Roof Terrace Restaurant

Benefit Co-chairs: Jessica Abrahams and Ted Segal

Join Children’s Law Center as we celebrate with supporters who have helped us make a lasting difference in the lives of DC’s most vulnerable children. We believe that with a quality education, good health, and a permanent, loving home, all children can reach their full potential. Last year, we helped 5,000 District children and families soar to new heights. Come to the 2014 Helping Children Soar Benefit and help us find solutions for even more children!

Thank you to our generous sponsors who help children soar!

Host Committee

Sandy AinJoe Figini and Jason DenbyCreighton and Vicky MagidNancy and Simon Sidamon-Eristoff
John T. BentivoglioMarc and Phyllis FleischakerFranklin McLartyMartha Ann Sisson
Charles BerkMichael FletcherCarmen and Carson McLeanPage and Howard Smith
Elizabeth Russell BoeNina Gross and Steve AsherJ.B. and Kate MeekKatie and Dick Snowdon
Nancy Taylor BubesSteven K. Heger, CLUPamela and Byrne MurphyBob Tyrer
Janis and Wiley BuchananAnthony HermanDenis and Tamara O’SullivanHank Warner
Dory and Chad ClarkSusie HoffmanElise RabekoffRenee Weir
April McClain-DelaneyJack Horan and Renata BakerAlan Raul and Mary Tinsley RaulRobert Zelnick
A. Patrick Doyle and Elizabeth DownesPhilip and Roberta HortonJeniffer and Cornelius RobertsWill Zerhouni
Evan and Amanda FarberAimee ImundoRaymond S. and Deborah Sams Sczudlo

Download sponsorship forms or become a benefit sponsor online.

See photos and highlights from last year’s event.

For more information, please contact Development Manager Billy Fettweis at (202) 467-4900 ext. 597 or

Thank you to our Benefit sponsors!*

*as of July 16, 2014


Latham & Watkins LLP


Arnold & Porter LLP

Covington & Burling LLP

Diana and Stephen Goldberg

Wendy and Fred Goldberg

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP



Crowell & Moring LLP

Children’s National Health System

Finnegan Henderson Farabow Garrett & Dunner LLP

Elizabeth and Michael Galvin

General Electric Company

McKenna Long & Aldridge Foundation

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

Sidley Austin LLP

Steptoe & Johnson LLP

Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young LLP

Williams & Connolly LLP


Jessica Abrahams * Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP * John T. Bentivoglio * Clifford Chance LLP * Joseph C. Figini and Jason Denby * Hogan Lovells US LLP * Holland & Knight LLP * Hunton & Williams LLP * Jones Day * Locke Lord LLP * Mayer Brown LLP * McDermott Will & Emery * The Morrison & Foerster Foundation * Theodore Segal and Joyce Wasserstein * Nancy and Simon Sidamon-Eristoff * Page and Howard Smith * Katie and Dick Snowdon * WilmerHale * Peter and Sylvia Winik


The Advisory Board Company * AHT Insurance * Arent Fox LLP * Cindy and Mark Aron * Elizabeth Bausch * Marcia and Donald Bisenius * Janis and Wiley Buchanan * Tom and Kristy Bulleit * Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP * Delaney McKinney LLP * Delta Star, Inc. * A.Patrick Doyle and Elizabeth Downes * Evan and Amanda Farber * Vicki and Michael Foster, MTFA Architecture * Fragomen Del Rey Bernsen & Loewy LLP * Melissa Galetto * Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP * Anthony Herman * Jackson & Campbell, P.C. * Kirkland & Ellis LLP * McGuireWoods Consulting * Donna and Mack McLarty * Merchant & Gould, P.C. * MorganFranklin Consulting * Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP * Quarles & Brady LLP * Raffa Financial Services, Inc. * RML Automotive * Salamander Hotels & Resorts * Martha Ann Sisson * Lila and Brendan Sullivan * Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP * UBS Financial Services, Inc. – Washington DC office * Walker & Dunlop * White & Case LLP


Ain & Bank, P.C. * Anonymous * Elizabeth Russell Boe * Bryan Cave LLP * Carlton Fields Jorden Burt * Steven Cline and Christopher Bolcik * The Cohen Group * H. Guy Collier * Cresa * Debevoise & Plimpton LLP * Evermay Wealth Management LLC * Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP * Justin Gray and Gray Global Advisors * Nina Gross and Steve Asher * HawkPartners * Jones Lang LaSalle * K&L Gates LLP * Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP * Linklaters LLP * Littler Mendelson * Evan Miller and Nancy Hedin * Nicole and Joshua Mintz * Carmen and Carson McLean * John and Jan Purcell * Quadrangle Development Corporation * Alan Raul and Mary Tinsley Raul * Judith Sandalow * Van Ness Feldman PC * Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation * Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP


The Anne and Ronald Abramson Family Foundation * Kady Ashley and David Luigs * Kathryn Kavanagh Baran and Jan Witold Baran * Nathaniel and Lee Beers * Charles M. Berk * William and Brigid Brakefield * Branden and Jennifer Brough * Jill Caiazzo * April McClain Delaney * Heidi Eitel and Brian Yourish * John N. Estes III and Veronica Angulo * Debbie Feinstein * Marc and Phyllis Fleischaker * Michael Fletcher * Bob Gage * Andrew Greenfield * Michael J. Gridley * Sarah and Thomas Hall * Nancy Hendry and William Baer * Philip and Roberta Horton * Jack Horan and Renata Baker * Geoff Klineberg * Annie Gray and Charles T. Lane * Beth A. Levene and David A. Becker * Creighton and Vicky Magid * Mary Catherine Martin * James Marsh and Amy Fastenberg * Bandele and Robin McQueen * JB and Kate Meek * Byrne and Pamela Murphy * Alan Pemberton * Andrea Reister * Jeniffer and Cornelius Roberts * James Rocap * David and Mary Ellen Rogers * Jessica Rosenbaum * Rick and Ellen Rule * Raymond S. and Deborah Sams Sczudlo * Dave Wharwood, Mary Hope Garcia Wharwood, and Evangeline Wharwood * Paul F. Wight * Maryelena and Gino Zaccardelli * Robert Zelnick * Will Zerhouni

Revisiting the Presumption of Jointly Placing Siblings in Foster Care

Until fairly recently, it was assumed that when parents divorced and custody was being assigned, it was in the child’s best interest to be placed with the mother. It took time and some tragic and avoidable situations to inform policy makers that this blanket assumption should be rebuttable—if a presumption at all. We have now come to a similar crossroad involving the placement of children in foster care.

There is a presumption in law and policy that it is in the best interest of children going into foster care that they be placed together with their siblings. We address the strength of this assumption and propose that, while children may have sibling relationships lasting longer than relationships with partners, parents, or children, the presumption that keeping siblings together is always best should be carefully evaluated to take individual circumstances into consideration.

Rivalry and violence between siblings are unfortunate realities that must be considered when determining what would truly be in the best interest of the children.

We begin by presenting an overview of the scope and magnitude of the issue. Following this introduction, we provide an overview of states’ laws and policies concerning the placement of siblings in foster care. This is followed by a review of relevant federal laws and programs, followed by a brief case study and analysis. The last section of this article reviews some recent studies and theories that can help inform practitioners in the child welfare system.

In the United States, the proportion of children that did not live with two married parents in 2012 was 36 percent. An estimated 424,000 children were living in foster care in the last quarter of 2009. Further, an estimated two-thirds of children in out-of-home care have siblings, and of those, 30 percent entering foster care have four or more siblings.

“The majority of child welfare professionals strongly support the idea that keeping siblings together is in their best interest, in most circumstances[,]” and have historically advocated placing them together.

There are surely benefits in many cases to placing siblings together. When early sibling bonds are positive, they then can serve as foundations for later relationships. Siblings who have been placed together in foster homes were reported to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than those who were placed alone, and studies have shown that siblings placed together stay in one placement longer and experience fewer moves in the foster care system.

As discussed in the cases and policies section of this article, other reasons for keeping siblings together include maintaining attachment to and connectedness with family members, the preference of the children, emotional support, strong ties that may have developed due to shared experiences in a dysfunctional home, and the ease of visitation with birth parents.

However, other considerations should equally play a role in the determination of whether siblings should be placed together. Sometimes there are factors at play that have more to do with the process than the children themselves.

Some such factors preventing the placement of siblings together include a lack of resources, a large number of cases per caseworker, and the need to quickly find appropriate placements for children whose families have entered a period of crisis. Also, there is the constant challenge of finding an adequate number of foster parents. When sibling sets are large it is often difficult to find available foster homes that are large enough, and it may be more important to get the children placed in a safe and secure setting rather than delaying a placement in order to keep the sibling set together.

There is little consensus concerning the advantages or disadvantages of keeping sibling sets together in foster care placements. One study author reported that “[o]f children who enter foster care, research into placement outcome reports comparatively favorable adjustment for those placed with siblings.” Another article reports that children placed with siblings displayed fewer behavioral problems and had fewer previous placements.

Even though research has found that relationships with brothers and sisters are often highly valued, a review of research for its guidance on fostering did not find conclusive evidence that placing siblings together improves their outcomes during or after placement. And a psychotherapist reported that foster children separated from their siblings exhibited fewer psychological symptoms in placement and that separated siblings had better school performance. Further, he noted that other researchers reported that foster mothers perceived foster children in sibling groups as having more difficulty adjusting to a new foster placement than single foster children separated from their siblings.

Other potential disadvantages for the insistence on maintaining sibling groups include placement difficulties, lack of resources, lack of foster families prepared to take large sibling sets, and conflict between the siblings.

With respect to the children, broad age ranges can make it difficult to meet the children’s disparate needs in the same setting, and strong sibling rivalry can make siblings too difficult to manage in one placement. Further, it has been reported that sibling separation could in fact lead to improved sibling relationships in certain cases.

Separation has been shown to ease conflict and sibling rivalry between children, while visitation allows for increased positive interactions. It is also beneficial for the siblings to be placed separately when one or more of them have special needs. Siblings placed together can reinforce behavioral problems that are used as coping mechanisms in an abusive home. It is often easier to place individual children for adoption than to search for a home that will take the entire sibling group, which delays permanency for each child and works to the detriment of the siblings in the long run.

In situations where siblings are raised in separate households, they may not know of their brothers or sisters. Thus, prioritizing joint placement based on a theory of maintaining close sibling relationships may not be rationally based, and it is sometimes the children themselves who request separation. Other situations where separation should be considered include instances of violent behavior—which may include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse—occurring within the sibling set. This will be explored in more depth later in this article.

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A National Responsible Father Registry: Providing Constitutional Protections for Children, Mothers and Fathers

The United States Supreme Court initially acknowledged the right to raise children in 1923 when it held that the liberty interest referred to in the Fourteenth Amendment was “not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to … establish a home and bring up children ….” Despite this well recognized right, many parents chose to place their children for adoption for a myriad of reasons.

Over the years, adoption in the United States has become more recognized, legally structured and more common. In fact, today every November is National Adoption Awareness Month. In many states, the Probate and Family Courts set a specific day as National Adoption Day and judges make a concerted effort to clear their dockets to finalize the adoption of children who have been in state foster care.

There is a voice in the adoption process that is often unheard. Often to the detriment of children, that voice belongs to the unknown or unnamed father. Many possible fathers are never given the opportunity to decide whether to parent their child or participate in the adoption planning. Why is this so? Quite simply, many states have no adequate process of notifying the father, or expectant father, other than the mother’s identification.

For instance, the Massachusetts statute states that for a possible father to preserve his rights, he must take action prior to the termination of the mother’s rights. The statute presupposes that the mother has identified the father and that he is aware of the mother’s pregnancy and adoption plan. If the father is not notified by the mother of her pregnancy and plan to adopt, the father’s rights to the child can be terminated before he ever knows they exist.

Consequently, the father is in the precarious position of relying upon the mother to have his voice heard. A solution to this problem is a National Responsible Father Registry (hereinafter “NRFR”). This is a confidential database where a possible father of a child to be born, or of a child who has been born out of wedlock, may file notice of intent to claim paternity within a prescribed time. A NRFR would protect the right of a possible father to receive notice of any proceedings involving paternity, termination of rights, or a pending or planned adoption of a child he may have fathered. The registry would also give him notice of the child entering into state custody. With the notice that a child has been born, the father may also come forward and assert his parental rights and the opportunity to parent his child.

A NRFR also relieves the mother of having to identity the father, should she not want to, for whatever reason. For example, she would not have to disclose to anyone that she did not know the father, or that she is afraid that disclosing the father’s identity will jeopardize her safety or that of the child. With an active and well thought-out NRFR, the mother will not circumvent the child’s or father’s parental rights, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Having the father involved from the outset has many advantages for the child, including the possibility of an early adoption into a stable family environment. Gone will be the fear of adoptive parents that a father may show up later and disrupt the adoption. The placement will be a permanent one. Additionally, in situations where the father chooses to participate in the adoption process, more reliable medical history and other notable information will be available.

A NRFR does not compel a possible father to identify himself. It simply levels the playing field so a possible father may assert his parental rights to choose to be a father and take an active role in making decisions for the health, welfare and best interests of his child, without the father’s rights being obstructed. All of the participants who can and want to contribute to placing children in safe and loving homes deserve a voice in the process.

There are responsible father registries in at least 33 states. This article addresses the importance of establishing a NRFR which, by its very nature, will allow possible fathers to exercise their parental rights if a pregnancy and eventual birth results from sexual relations with a woman while balancing the constitutional rights of all those involved in the pregnancy. Part II of this Article will discuss the trends in adoption in the United States as well as the rise in state-run father registries. Part III will discuss the constitutional concerns presented in the absence of a NRFR, the constitutional challenges that the state-run father registries have confronted and the efforts that have been made to date to establish a NRFR. Part IV will conclude by discussing the need for a NRFR and the constitutional balance a NRFR provides among all those involved in the adoption proceeding.

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Writing for Teenagers in Foster Care about their Legal Rights

Teenagers in foster care need to know what rights they have. Writing for teenagers in foster care about those rights is, to say the least, challenging. The writer must be thoroughly familiar with the law, be succinct, and be deeply in touch with the gamut of emotional aspects of the lives of their audience. The successful writer cannot be judgmental or patronizing and must be keenly aware that teenagers are in constant motion – alternating between feeling vulnerable and invincible, inconsequential and essential. The perspective needs to be honest and real-life. It is no easy task to convey adult information and wisdom. It requires the writer artfully to get into the teenage mind and offer just the right combination of substance and style.

This article briefly identifies and reviews some of the recent legal materials written specifically for teenagers in foster care.

  1. Legal rights of teens in out-of-home care (January, 2011) Youth Law Center
  2. A teen’s legal guide to foster care in Oregon (2013) Youth, Rights & Justice
  3. Legal rights of teens in foster care (n.d.) The Children’s Aid Society
  4. Handbook for youth in foster care (2010) New York State Office of Children and Family Services
  5. Knowing your rights: A handbook for kids in foster care (2011) Children’s Law Center of Minnesota
  6. Handbook for youth in foster care (2012) Wisconsin Department of Children and Families
  7. Your rights, your life: A resource for youth in foster care (2011) Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Children’s Administration; The Mockingbird Society
  8. These, and other similar handbooks, introduce the teenage reader to their rights and responsibilities, as well as mentioning such things as the structure of the department, the fair hearing/grievance procedure, skills for daily living, and a list of helpful resources. In addition, there is discussion about legal terms, confidentiality, housing/independent living, employment, education, finances, and health care options. The length, style, and content of each of these manuals is affected by how it is intended to be used, and by the audiences it targets.

    The Audience

    Of the nearly 400,000 children in foster care on September 30, 2012, 20% were between the ages of 10 and 14; 20% were between the ages of 15 and 17, and 4% were 18 or over. However, during all of fiscal year 2012, a total of 23,439 youth turned 18, 19, or 20, and aged out of foster care.

    Children in Foster Care 2012

    The challenges of aging out of foster care are well-documented. Too often, those who exit foster care do so without the family and social networks that so many young people rely on, and are expected to make it on their own. See Hook, J., & Courtney, M. (2011). Employment outcomes of former foster youth as young adults: The importance of human, personal, and social capital. Children and Youth Services Review, 32(10), 1855-1865. Whether foster youth are just curious or are actually in the process of aging out of foster care, it is clear that good information about their own legal rights is critical to their well-being.

    Youth in Foster Care

    The Manuals

    The manuals reviewed here range in length from a simple two-page pamphlet (#3), to an 82-page, detailed handbook on various facets of foster youths’ lives (#4). Some seem geared toward younger audiences (#5, #6), some are more technical, focusing on the procedural details of the courts (#1, #2), while others strike a balance between readability and honesty about the difficult situations in which foster teens may find themselves (#4, #7).

    All address foster youths’ basic rights and needs: a contact caseworker, safety, medical care, school attendance, etc. Some include rights regarding quality of life – to be treated with dignity and respect, to be given fair rules, to be involved in major decisions about their own lives, etc.

    All provide helpful contacts and a space for other important numbers. Washington State’s booklet, among others, has a deeper level of interactivity. It is located on a website dedicated to independence for youth in foster care ( The website is an engaging tool that has videos, resource tabs, and easily accessible contacts where visitors can direct questions.

    Most of the manuals take a stance of encouraging self-advocacy, but also lay out the responsibilities of other professionals: social workers, lawyers, courts, foster families, etc. A manual’s tone may relate to how well these contacts and networks actually function on behalf of foster youth. For instance, New York’s handbook is divided into clear sections with titles like “Everyday Life”, “Big Questions”, and “Legal Issues”; it uses boxes to set off useful information, and it includes helpful quotes from other foster youth about their experiences of the system and of using the manual itself.

    Next Steps

    It would be helpful to hear from youth who have used these documents to see what worked for them. The Casey Young Adult Survey (2008) makes several recommendations for information emancipated youth might need upon exiting foster care. Some of the greatest needs identified were related but not exclusive to legal rights within the foster system, including creating a written transition plan; compiling a file of important personal documents and phone numbers; information about addiction and substance abuse; obtaining a high school diploma or GED; and, advocating for mental health services.

    In general, those resources that acknowledge each youth as a whole person seem to be most accessible and useful, in part because they communicate that someone really cares about that youth’s legal rights.

    Daniel Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD is Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, New York City, and is a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases. E-mail:; 212-960-0836.

    Kate Elias is a social worker and editor in Seattle, Washington, and currently works at a youth and community development non-profit agency.

    This article originally appeared in Policy & Practice, 72(3), 32-33.