CASA Deep Dive: Normalcy for Children & Youth in Foster Care

In this CASA Deep Dive, we’re diving into normalcy for children in foster care: what it is, why it’s important, some of the barriers to achieving it, and what advocates can do to help overcome these barriers and give kids a more normal childhood and experience while they’re in the system.

What Is Normalcy?

Under 26 TAC Section 748.701, “normalcy” is defined as the ability of a child in care to live as normal a life as possible, including engaging in childhood activities that are suitable for children of the same age, level of maturity and developmental level as determined by a reasonable and prudent parent standard.

In the simplest terms, it’s the opportunity for these children to feel normal – to fit in with their peers and just be a kid.

The unfortunate reality is that there is nothing normal about foster care, and too often, kids in the care of the state are forced to grow up too fast. They are removed from home due to abuse or neglect and placed in an unfamiliar environment, sometimes far away from everyone and everything they know. While their peers’ schedules are filled with things like rehearsals, part-time jobs and late-night study sessions, these youth are doing their best to stay afloat in school while balancing caseworker and family visits, doctors’ appointments and court hearings.

Getting the chance to participate in everyday, age-appropriate activities with peers is critical to any child’s healthy social and emotional development. But due to liability concerns, financial and transportation issues, and other barriers that we will get into in the next section, kids in foster care have been historically denied access to activities that other children tend to take for granted.

A foster care system that does right by the children it serves should keep them safe from harm and help facilitate healthy connections and growth – not isolate and punish them for things beyond their control. As advocates for these vulnerable youth, we know that their safety is, and should be, paramount. But just because their circumstances are different, doesn’t mean their desires to connect and fit in with their peers, pursue their hobbies, participate in fun activities and just be kids should fall by the wayside.

What Are Some of the Biggest Barriers to Normalcy for Children in Foster Care?

Finances, scheduling and transportation. In some cases, limited finances can mean foster parents, relatives and other caregivers cannot afford to support children’s participation in certain activities. Balancing schedules and transportation can also be an issue, especially in busy households with multiple children.

Liability concerns. Caregivers are protected from liability as long as they use a “reasonable and prudent parent standard” to decide what kids can and can’t do. Although the Texas Administrative Code has basic guidelines for this standard, the guidelines can be easily misunderstood, and what someone considers reasonable and prudent is inherently subjective. For some caregivers, the risk associated with an activity is enough to prevent young people in their care from participating.

Placement changes. Children in foster care tend to move from placement to placement, sometimes without clear rhyme or reason. So, even when they establish a good group of friends and get connected with activities they enjoy, there is always the risk that they will be uprooted from that community they’ve made for themselves, and be forced to start all over again.

And last but not least, the nature of the foster care system itself. Caseworker visits, family visitation, therapy, psychological assessments, doctors’ appointments, court hearings and so on are all essential to ensuring the safety and well-being of children in foster care. But it’s difficult for them to feel normal when they have to explain to their peers why a caseworker comes to see them at their school, or why they have to miss yet another swim meet for a court date.

What Can Advocates Do to Help?

Start by talking with youth about normalcy. Ensure they are aware of their rights to have a normal life. In age-appropriate ways, ask youth for their ideas on how to help their day-to-day feel more normal. Keep their feedback in mind as much as possible, and relay it to others involved in the case. Are you comfortable with your caseworker coming to school, or would you rather talk to them outside of school hours? Do you want to attend your court hearings? How can we make sure you make it to play practice AND your weekly therapy appointments? And keep in mind that works best for one child might not necessarily work best for another.

In addition, remember that children who grow up at home, with a loving, stable family, are surrounded by people who know what they like in terms of clothes, food and hobbies. Children in care, however, are thrown into new environments, often with caregivers who mean well but don’t necessarily get the opportunity to get to know them. CASA volunteers and other advocates do have that chance – so in addition to watching out for their needs and safety, take the time to talk to them about the activities that make them happy, and consider how you can help them pursue them.

Collaborate and communicate with those involved in children’s service planning to make normalcy a priority. When advocates, caregivers, caseworkers and others are deep in a child’s case, they can get caught up in the must-do’s, and forget that friendship and socialization are equally important for a child’s well-being. Work together to be mindful of normalcy when scheduling things like visitation, therapy, appointments and assessments, working around things like school and extracurriculars whenever possible.

Educate caregivers on the importance of normalcy. Ensure that caregivers are aware of their protections under Texas Family Code Section 264.114. Help them understand why it is so important that they allow kids to participate in social activities and extracurriculars they enjoy. If they are concerned about the financial burden, connect them to free activities and help them leverage community resources.

Also, make sure they understand that for children in care, normalcy is about more than just school and extracurriculars – it’s also about how they are treated in the home. If it’s a multi-child household, ensure that they are treating all children the same, and holding them to the same rules and standards.

Ensure children are in the most normal placement possible. Whenever safe and possible, it is best for youth to be placed in kinship care with relatives. When this is not an option, they should be placed in the least-restrictive, most-homelike environment based on their level of need. Highly restrictive placements like residential treatment centers, where normalcy activities can be very limited, should be viewed as a last resort.

Advocate for school and placement stability. The less children have to move, the more likely they are to form positive, healthy and trusting relationships with peers, mentors, advocates, caregivers and others. Stability also gives them a better opportunity to invest in community and school activities they enjoy, like sports, music lessons, youth groups and more.

For older youth, help integrate preparing them for adulthood into their everyday lives. It is not normal for kids to have to take Preparation for Adult Living classes. It is normal, on the other hand, for kids’ caregivers to teach them how to do things like cook, get a bank account, write a check and sign a lease. Encourage caregivers to do what they can to prepare youth for independent living and life after foster care.

View normalcy with a holistic lens. Normalcy is just one of the many factors advocates must consider when planning for children’s safety, permanency and well-being. Always view normalcy through a holistic lens, also keeping in mind physical, emotional and mental health, and educational and medical needs of the young people you serve.

Children in foster care are forced to endure things that no child should have to experience, like the trauma of abuse and neglect, placement insecurity, and separation from their home communities, due to no fault of their own. We know that true normalcy is only achieved for these kids when they are out of care and in a safe, loving and permanent home, surrounded by supportive friends and family. But by making normalcy a priority, encouraging open communication and collaboration on a case, and ensuring children’s voices are heard, CASA volunteers and other advocates can help create a better experience for children in care – setting them up for success and giving them a better chance at a brighter, happier future.

References & Recommended Reading

Check out our other CASA Deep Dives!