Extended Foster Care and Making Systems Accountable to Youth and the Community

Christina K. Sorenson, Zubrow Fellow,

This post is part of our “Doing Extended Care Right” blog series. Each blog highlights promising aspects of a state's extended foster care program. We hope this series will lead to conversations and reforms around extended foster care policies for older youth in care. To learn more about extended foster care laws and policies, visit our Extended Foster Care Review here.

This month we are highlighting the importance of systems of accountability for high quality extended foster care by looking at Maryland’s creation of a dedicated Foster Youth Ombudsman. The Foster Youth Ombudsman is designed to provide a system for responding to individual complaints of youth and has the capacity to raise systemic concerns. One important purpose of accountability measures within extended foster care systems is to provide a process for continuous improvement, and to create a feedback loop to address the needs of youth. For that to occur, youth voice must be heard.

Maryland has a long history of commitment to older youth in foster care. It had an extended foster care program well before the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 gave states the option to draw down federal funds. Maryland now receives Title IV-E funds for extended foster care and also allows re-entry for youth between ages 18 and 21. Innovative work includes the Ready by 21 Initiative, first implemented in 2012, which ensures youth age 14 or older are prepared for adulthood by connecting youth with supportive adults, job training and financial literacy courses, and assistance in finding stable housing and securing healthcare. Recently, Maryland expanded their tuition waiver program for youth in care, allowing youth and alumni under age 25 to access tuition waivers for associate, bachelors or vocational certificates.

The Foster Youth Ombudsman program is an innovative program that stands out in Maryland’s child welfare system and enhances the quality of its extended care system. In 2015, following the drafting of a comprehensive bill of rights for youth in foster care, advocates proposed legislation to create a Foster Youth Ombudsman program. While the legislation did not pass, Maryland’s child welfare agency decided to create its own Foster Youth Ombudsman program. The Office is not independent of the agency it oversees, but the program was designed to provide oversight through investigating complaints and addressing youths’ concerns regarding their rights and treatment. The position reports directly to the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

In October 2017, Shalita O’Neale was appointed as the Maryland Foster Youth Ombudsman. O'Neale is a long-standing advocate and an alumna of Maryland extended foster care. I had the opportunity to interview O’Neale about her position and role. When we spoke about her new position, O’Neale’s commitment to youth voice as an accountability measure and the importance of the foster youth ombudsman position were evident.

“It’s a position…that’s long overdue and should be in every state,” said O’Neale, elaborating that having a foster youth ombudsman recognizes the importance of youth voice. “Many states already have foster parent ombudsmen. [Since states recognize that] their voices are important; they should [also] have [them] for the youth.”

Current and former youth in foster care agree with O’Neale and have identified youth-friendly ombudsman offices as a priority for system reform. In 2017, Keola Limkin, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute Fellow, recommended that all states establish a youth-friendly Children’s Ombudsman Office (COO) / Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) and that these offices be independent from the child welfare agency and have the capacity to receive and respond to the complaints of young people in a youth-friendly way, including though the use of online forms. Limkin noted that the requirement of the Strengthening Families Act to provide youth ages 14 and older a list of their rights provides states an opportunity to consider creating an ombudsman office that can be vehicles for youth voice and responsive to their needs. 

O’Neale hopes that the Foster Youth Ombudsman office will show people that the voices of youth in Maryland’s foster care system are being taken seriously. She believes that taking the voices of youth seriously will shift how the child welfare system works for and with young people and alumni. That shift inevitably requires accountability for those who violate youth’s rights or endanger youth. O’Neale views her role more as a bridge, and both her life and work embody this message. O’Neale described much of her work as outreach and education. “Often our youth are not taught how to advocate on their own behalf effectively,” said O’Neale. “When they do [speak up] it doesn’t come out right—or at least not in [ways that] are heard.” Her work includes ensuring youth know their rights and responsibilities and ways to effectively advocate for themselves. In addition, O’Neale attempts to ensure case workers and service providers are aware of the policies and procedures set up to ensure the safety and well-being of youth.  

When complaints do come in, O’Neale often acts as a mediator. O’Neale starts with the basic belief that everyone doing this work is trying to do what is best for the young person. In some cases, a youth may not perceive this to be the case. O’Neale tries to bridge the gap. She problem solves and supports collaboration. “It’s about how we can work together to get what this young person needs,” she commented. “And if someone needs to be held accountable because they dropped the ball, then we’re going to do that. But it’s because we all want what’s best for the young person.”

When asked about what other accountability measures are needed for a well-functioning extended foster care system, O’Neale returned to youth voice. O’Neale sees authentic youth engagement as the ultimate accountability measure. By “youth,” O’Neale means both those currently in care and alumni; by “engagement,” she means infusing lived experience at every level from front-end workers to supervisors and leadership. “When you have individuals with personal experience working and engaging with the child welfare system in that authentic way, things are bound to shift for the better,” she asserted.

Foster Youth Ombudsman programs can help protect the rights of youth and work to ensure accountability in treatment and service delivery. They can make the system more responsive to the youth they serve which can improve quality of service delivery and confidence among youth and stakeholders. Foster Youth Ombudsman programs can be structured in various ways, but in general, these offices provide accountability through the following activities:

  • Investigating complaints from citizens and families related to government services for children and families.
  • Providing a system accountability mechanism by recommending system-wide improvements to benefit children and families - often in the form of annual reports to the Legislature, Governor and public.
  • Protecting the interests and rights of children and families, both individually and system-wide.
  • Monitoring programs, placements and departments responsible for providing children's services, which may include inspecting state facilities and institutions. 

Maryland’s new program has begun to fulfill some of these roles and serves as a foundation for program growth and increased accountability. The program is able to investigate individual complaints of youth and provide accountability though making system-wide recommendations. At this time, it is not independent and does not have enforcement capacity but is laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive system of accountability that values youth voice at its core.

O’Neale had some advice for states interested in implementing ombudsman offices: “Don’t recreate the wheel; reach out to other states that have foster youth ombudsman programs because, frankly, there’s only a few of us and building up that partnership and support network is important.”

We encourage states to consider this option as they implement their bill of rights and focus on enhancing their extended care systems. 

About the Expert

Christina Kaye Sorenson, Esq., joined Juvenile Law Center as the organization's sixteenth Sol and Helen Zubrow Fellow in Children’s Law. She is currently a Soros Justice Fellow. 

Sorenson graduated from the University of Richmond Law School in 2015. While in Law School she advocated on behalf of youth through her work with advocacy organizations and legal clinics, including the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office as a 2014 University of Michigan Bergstrom Child Welfare Law Fellow. Upon graduation, Sorenson was awarded the Orell-Brown Award for Clinical Excellence by the Children’s Law