March 21, 2017
From Lisa McMahon, Oregon Foster Youth Connection, Program Director
Importance of Sibling Connections
Long-term connections are rare for many children in the foster care system. Caseworkers change and foster parents are often temporary. A Sibling can feel like the only truly permanent relationship for many foster youth. Unfortunately, many youth feel out of control when trying to maintain relationships with siblings over the course of their time in foster care.
Maintaining and strengthening sibling bonds was the goal of 31 current and former foster youth who gathered in February at the 2017 Advocacy Convening organized by Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC). A program of Children First for Oregon, OFYC empowers and trains youth to actively participate in the development of policies, programs, and practices that improve the lives of kids in foster care. OFYC members gathered for the weekend to gain support from each other while learning how to advocate for their policy priority aimed at keeping siblings in foster care connected: the Foster Children Sibling Bill of Rights (HB 2216). In addition to discussing the importance of sibling connections and their experiences losing contact with siblings, OFYC members learned how to talk to legislators about the bill and effectively use their stories. The weekend of preparation culminated on Monday when OFYC youth attended a total of 43 meetings with Oregon legislators to discuss their experience in foster care and advocate for their bill.
The Sibling Bill of Rights was one of seven policy suggestions OFYC members developed at their Policy Conference in the summer of 2016. During a long weekend together, youth broke out into groups, shared stories, looked for themes, and identified problems with Oregon’s foster care system. With the support of a curriculum developed by Foster Youth in Action, youth then developed solutions and policy recommendations. On July 19th, they presented these recommendations to an audience of lawmakers, administrators, and service providers. Since this presentation OFYC members have been meeting monthly with the Department of Human Services to implement these ideas. Due to the significance of the sibling relationship, this recommendation became OFYCs legislative priority for the 2017 session.
Many OFYC youth were separated from their siblings and struggled to maintain those relationships during their time in foster care. Right now, most siblings separated in foster care have difficulty keeping in contact with one another. The Sibling Bill of Rights would grant foster youth the right to maintain contact and visits with siblings, including their right to transportation so visits can take place. OFYC youth have led legislative wins for foster children within each of the past four longer sessions. Because of OFYC, foster youth in Oregon now have important Assistance Obtaining Driving Privileges (2009); A Tuition Waiver for former foster youth entering community college or state university (2011); A Foster Child Bill of Rights & Foster Child’s Ombudsman (2013); access to at least one ongoing extracurricular activity (2015); and access to savings accounts at the age of 12 (2015).
The Oregon House unanimously supported HB 2216 on March 16th. The Foster Children Sibling Bill of Rights has been referred to the Senate Human Services Committee. For many OFYC members, this is their first experience advocating for themselves and their needs — let alone statewide policies to improve foster care in Oregon.