State foster parents get bill of rights: New law expands training, resources for parents

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-08-2023 11:27 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A new state law that was approved last week will expand and codify rights for foster parents, and better protect a child’s welfare, according to a state advocacy group.

The Children’s League of Massachusetts said the Foster Parents Bill of Rights, filed in the Senate by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, is aimed at creating a stronger partnership between foster parents and the state’s Department of Children and Families, which will improve how decisions are made for the child’s best interest.

The bill of rights includes several initiatives for foster families, including access to training and resources; the right to appropriate communication between the state department, courts and others involved with caring for the child; and the right to be free from discrimination.

It also outlines the use of the “reasonable and prudent parenting standard” to support decisions focused on child safety and routine, as well as enabling participation in developmentally appropriate family, recreational and social events and experiences.

Comerford praised the Legislature for passing the bill, noting she has been a foster parent and wants the foster care system strengthened.

“Foster parents are true unsung heroes, providing unmatched dedication, commitment, compassion and love to those who need it the most,” she said in a statement. “This bill creates a framework so that foster parents will be honored with dignity, respect, privacy and consideration in caring for children in their care so they can provide the best care in loving homes.”

The bill requires the Department of Children and Families to communicate with parents about available payments and other financial aid they may receive for fostering; develop a standardized “pre-service training” for foster parents; and provide foster parents with information about a foster child’s physical and behavioral health, history of trauma and high-risk behavior, and education needs before placement.

At the Northampton-based Friends of Children, the state legislation is seen as encouraging foster parents to be part of a team, to be at the forefront of decisions related to a child’s physical and mental health, and to feel less marginalized when caring for children.

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“I see it as a fabulous move toward including the people who have physical custody of their kids,” said Debi Belkin, director of programs at Friends of Children.

Belkin, who spent more than 30 years working for the state’s Department of Children and Families, said she is familiar with the issues the bill can address.

As one example, Belkin said a foster child who wants to spend a night with another family may not ask to do that, knowing that the other family would have to go through a criminal background check. The legislation, Belkin explained, permits a “prudent parenting” philosophy.

“It’s a document that affords more responsibility to foster parents and their decisions with these kids,” Belkin said.

The law also entitles foster parents to respite from the care of a foster child, though Belkin notes that the challenges in finding placements for children remains a crisis for the state agency.

The Children’s League of Massachusetts thanked those who championed and sponsored the bill, including Comerford, Sen. Diana DiZoglio and Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Paul Donato and Vanna Howard, along with other advocates, including the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Massachusetts Alliance for Families, the state’s foster parent association.

Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said that she, Comerford and others worked tirelessly on the legislation to support foster parents in Massachusetts.

“Our foster parents deserve so much for all they do in opening their hearts and their homes to our most vulnerable children,” Farley-Bouvier said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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