RALEIGH — Efforts to improve conditions for foster children and parents have resulted in special recognition for Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy, who serves Surry County in the N.C. General Assembly.
Stevens, a Republican who was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2008, received the Champion for Children Award Tuesday night from the Children’s Hope Alliance and Benchmarks, which is a child-welfare advocacy organization.
Stevens was one of only five people in the state Legislature getting that honor, which occurred at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. The others awarded included Sen. Tamara Barringer, along with three others in legislative leadership positions: House Speaker Tim Moore, House President Pro Tem Paul Stam and Rep. Nelson Dollar, budget chairman.
Numerous foster and adoptive families were in attendance, including a couple who had fostered more than 45 North Carolina children.
The local lawmaker was a bill co-sponsor in this year’s General Assembly session, along with Sen. Barringer, of new legislation to address various issues related to foster families. Their joint efforts produced a number of bills to better the lives of foster children and help them have the highest quality of life.
These efforts resulted in Gov. Pat McCrory signing two bills into law earlier this month, Senate Bill 423, or the Foster Care Family Act, and House Bill 669, which changes juvenile law relating to abuse, neglect and dependency.
The Senate law includes a number of provisions to improve the care of foster children and allows foster parents to obtain liability insurance for the children under their care.
The House measure will require county social services departments to find foster children permanent placements, among other steps.
The Surry representative, whose 90th District House seat also includes Wilkes County, was singled out for two specific parts of the legislative package pertaining to foster care.
One involved her work on Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard provisions, which will allow foster children to live more complete lives.
“Until we passed this bill, a foster child could not go on a vacation with his foster family or participate in sports,” Stevens explained Wednesday. Foster children also have been prohibited from other after-school functions, such as being a member of the band, or even holding sleepovers with friends.
“They couldn’t even be a page down here in the N.C. General Assembly,” Stevens continued, “because nobody could be given permission” (for such activities).
“I couldn’t believe how much they were tying the hands of these foster kids,” said the local House member, who has been an attorney for about 30 years and dealt with family law issues. “I didn’t know it was going on, or I would have been working on it sooner.”
Stevens said the new law additionally reduces barriers for foster children in obtaining driver’s licenses.
The providing of liability insurance for foster parents means they can’t be sued if a child is injured on their premises.
Another portion of the legislative package for which Stevens was recognized Tuesday night relates to reunification of foster children with their natural parents, which has long been a goal of the system.
But the recent changes in Raleigh will lessen that emphasis in a process in which “the parents had no obligation whatsoever,” Stevens said.
Reunification with the natural parents will still be a goal. “But the parents need to step up,” Stevens said.
Greater participation in the process will be required by them, or else the children will be placed into a safe home situation that is more permanent — quicker than what has occurred previously.
House Bill 669 will serve to help place abused and neglected children with relatives rather than leaving them in the custody of the Department of Social Services.
County social services departments are required to work diligently to find foster children permanent placement with either a parent, relative, guardianship or adoptive placement if at all possible.
House and Senate proposals both extended the age of foster children, to 21, for ease of transition into adulthood.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.