by Mary Nelson, JD
Everyone has certain basic, fundamental rights, including religious freedom, free speech, due process, and so forth. Yet, some jurisdictions have decided to especially protect and preserve the rights of youth and children, our most vulnerable citizens, by memorializing a “Youth Bill of Rights”. Read along as we explore DC’s version of a Youth Bill of Rights specifically created to reflect the unique experiences of youth in foster care.
Officially known as the “Foster Youth Statements of Rights and Responsibilities Amendment Act of 2012”, the Youth Bill of Rights was approved in January of 2013. Every youth age 14 and up receives their own copy of the Youth Bill of Rights. For younger children, their Guardian ad Litem (GAL), the youth’s attorney, receives a copy. Team members, including CASAs, are also aware of the Youth Bill of Rights. An important part of CASA advocacy is ensuring that the youth’s rights are protected, and any concerns are heard and addressed by the youth’s team and court.
“No one may scare, bully, or abuse you. No one may punish you with hitting or other violence. No one may refuse to help you or disrespect you because of your race, color, religion, appearance, sexual orientation, or disability. Adults must take good care of you.”
The Youth Bill of Rights starts out by describing the respect and dignity that must be upheld for youth in foster care. The section goes on to explain that youth always have the right to speak up if they feel they are being mistreated, and outlines who they may turn to when they are concerned or upset. This includes the youth’s social worker, GAL, and of course, their CASA.
Youth have a right to know who their team members are, including their social worker, GAL, CASA, and other service providers such as therapists or educational advocates, and how to contact them. Not only that, but youth have a right to know when hearings and meetings related to their case are scheduled, and be allowed to attend, so long as it is in their best interest.
Personal Information and Privacy
Youth have a right to know information such as why they are in foster care, who is making decisions about their life, and why those decisions are being made. Information should also not be shared with “outsiders”.
Within reason, and the rules of the household, youth have a right to privately store their belongings, make phone calls, and use their computer in privacy.
Thirty days before leaving foster care the child welfare agency must provide personal papers, such as a social security card, birth certificate, and medical or school records, to the youth’s legal guardian, or to the youth themselves if they are over 18. When a youth emancipates out of foster care, the team is responsible for creating a transition plan to help the youth plan for their future. Social workers should also help the youth in obtaining things like an ID or drivers license.
Home, School, and Other Activities
Youth have a right to live in a safe, clean home. The Youth Bill of Rights reads, “Your foster family should help you feel comfortable. Including you in family activities is one way for them to do that.” Youth also have a right to a safe way to travel to and from home, school, appointments, family visits, and other activities, such as work or extracurriculars. Youth may also attend religious services of their choosing, but cannot be forced to attend religious services of any kind.
Youth have a right to a basic education, and must be enrolled in school. Even when youth moves out of a school district, they may generally attend the same school they started at. Youth should be supported in attending school, and taking part in other activities, such as sports or clubs.
Whenever possible, youth should live with their siblings in foster care. But, even when not possible, unless it is deemed unsafe or harmful by their team and court, youth have a right to visit, email, call or otherwise be in touch with their family members.
Youth have a right to regular, quality medical, dental and eye care, and access to mental health services and substance abuse counseling. Youth also have a right to healthy food options and personal hygiene products. Available food must also accommodate health or religious restrictions.
As previously mentioned, youth have a right to store their own personal belongings, such as clothes, cell phones, computers, hygiene products, and other personal affects. The child welfare agency is responsible for making sure youth have the clothing and supplies they need for the school year, including necessary uniforms. However, youth also have a right to make some individual choices about the clothing they wear. No one may keep a youth’s personal property once they leave a placement. When youth reach age 14 their team may help them open a bank account for personal money, and also run an annual credit report.
Read a complete version of the DC Youth Bill of Rights here. To read more about youth rights generally in DC, check out The Young Women’s Project Youth Rights summary.