23 Things they don’t tell you about the foster system bill of rights


How can children in the foster care system know when his or her rights have been violated, especially if he or she is in a group home setting where they feel isolated and scared to speak out? Along with a variety of internalizing symptoms, such as anxiety or depression, this child isn’t in a healthy mindset to be brave and advocate for themselves, let alone speak out when rights have been violated.

They are at an unfair disadvantage because they do not know if the person they turn to will be able to help them. The repercussions can be too scary. So in their mind, they wonder why even try.

On top of everything, children in the system do not have a healthy example of what a loving caregiver should be because their caregiver (who they still love) didn’t protect them! This can affect their judgment and develop a deep-rooted belief system that he or she is unworthy of love, thereby allowing group home staff to mistreat them.

It’s time we change that by discovering how group homes mistreat foster care children so that policymakers can begin creating healthy boundaries.

California’s Foster Care System Bill of Rights

In 2001, California enacted the following of rights along with a provision to its Health and Safety Code requiring that foster care providers must give every school-age child and his/her authorized representative an age-appropriate orientation and an explanation of the child’s rights. Furthermore, any facility licensed to care for six or more children in foster care must post those rights in the form of posters provided by the State Foster Care Ombudsperson (Section 1530.91) The rights are listed in the Welfare and Institutions Code (Section 16001.9) as follows: 

Foster Care Right No. 1

To live in a safe, healthy, and comfortable home where he or she is treated with respect.  

What they don’t tell you.

In the group home, children are often mistreated without any accountability from the unit managers, directors, or the CCLD. They put the child in a “home” where they don’t know anybody, isolate them from the community, and expect them to feel safe or comfortable. The residents aren’t allowed to leave, go out, and have fun with their friends. It’s as if they are stuck on an island, where kids every day are put into these types of restraints and are led to believe that they deserve it.

They can’t speak out about it because if they push back they will face consequences. The child is made to feel, “I am a bad kid, why else would I be here?”

However, not every child is placed in higher levels of care because they were the worst of the worst. Far too often, kids are placed in in-patient facilities not because that place has the specific services, needs, or was the best placement for that child. It was because they had an empty bed.  

The staff does not trust what the children have to say. An example was when a resident was explaining what happened to him at his previous school. The child shared his experience of a time when a male staff member inappropriately searched him. The staff members said to each other, “You can’t always believe what they tell you.” The staff do not believe the child, therefore making them feel unsafe and unprotected.

A group home or residential treatment facility is not a home, but rather a structured placement where the kids are not able to enjoy basic civil liberties like the right to free speech, privacy, and unreasonable searches of their home. It makes no sense that kids who have committed no crimes are taken and put in places where they lose all of their civil liberties. Where they have to ask permission about everything. The minor is not in control of where they live, let alone the abuse they’ve experienced. 

The walls in some group homes are made of cinder blocks so everything is always cold. Their bed frame is just a metal box. Sleeping on a metal slab with a dormitory mattress is not what you’ll call comfortable. 

Foster Care Right No. 2

To be free from physical, sexual, emotional, or other abuse, or corporal punishment. 

What they don’t tell you.

A big one in the group home is emotional abuse. There are so many microaggressions that after a while the children are used to being discouraged and insulted by the staff around them.

There are many times when the staff will put down a resident by making fun of them, using their insecurity as a way to feel powerful. An example is when a foster child wets the bed. I’ve seen staff shame them and then publicly embarrass them by talking about it with other staff. The morning staff wants the child to hear them as they talk about the incident in front of their bedroom door. The child listens since he can’t leave his room until 8:00 am.

Being in places where you’ve already been abused, it would make the child think that’s normal. The lines of tough love are really blurred. A lot of times these programs unfortunately are a continuation of the same kind of abuse. If you’re only used to a certain type of abusive environment, then it’s hard to see the signs of abuse when you are a child.

Foster Care Right No. 3

To receive adequate and healthy food, adequate clothing, and, for youth in group homes, an allowance.

What they don’t tell you.

To receive adequate and healthy food in the group home is an understatement. The food they eat day in and day out is similar to what you would eat in a public school cafeteria. Imagine eating that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

Paying out of pocket the least amount of money, the food in an in-patient facility is disgusting. Food that is greasy, frozen, and heavily processed isn’t what you’d call healthy. When you look at how much these places are paid per day, per child they should be able to afford higher quality, healthier food.

Using food as a form of punishment, the staff limited how many snacks a resident could eat, or how much punch a resident could self-pour. There was literally a bolt on the snack cabinet and a second fridge where items were stored away in the staff’s office. 

Foster Care Right No.4

To receive medical, dental, vision, and mental health services.

What they don’t tell you.

The quality of mental health services remains an area for improvement in the foster care system, especially for in-patient facilities such as congregate care. Mental health services, such as therapy or behavioral healthcare, are suitable for children who have been traumatized but need assistance where they feel safe to open up.

Most of the therapists were recent graduates and pre-licensed clinicians, which is what I saw while working in a level 14 treatment facility. To qualify for a level 14 placement, a youth must be classified as a “seriously emotionally disturbed child or adolescent.” What does that mean to be a seriously emotionally disturbed child? Having one mental disorder and two impairments in the following areas: self-care, school functioning, family relationships, or ability to function in the community. 

Most of the therapists were unlicensed, inexperienced, and underpaid. (I’m not discrediting their heart. A few choosing to stick with this population and doing an amazing job). The pre-licensure clinician working at the level 14 group home was in the process of working towards their licensure requirements, their hours to become a licensed therapist. And once gaining their hours, they moved on to higher-paying positions. 

Specialized therapies, such as dog, art, horse (equine) and other types of trauma-informed practices, would have benefited the children. At least at the STRTP that I worked for, they were not available, offered, or provided.

The quality of therapy wasn’t meeting the mental health needs to treat the children who lived 24 hours a day at the facility. It made me wonder, does an unlicensed therapist have the experience and training to provide the highest quality of care for seriously and emotionally disturbed children?

Suppose group homes, residential treatment centers, or mental institutions were indeed in the business to help emotionally disturbed children in the foster care system. Wouldn’t they provide the best services they can? Showing their patients, their staff and community that we’re not an enterprise to make money, but rather one that benefits the most vulnerable, abused and neglected children?

Unfortunately, it is not what I experienced. Look at how many youth age out who become homeless, incarcerated, or drug-addicted. This is evidence that in-patient mental health services, without the support of a loving family, do not work. I may go as far as to say, it harmed them further.

Foster Care Right No. 5

To be free of the administration of medication or chemical substances, unless authorized by a physician. 

What they don’t tell you.

You are not in control of your own body or the medication prescribed to you. A lot of the children do receive medication like antidepressants, which are used to numb the pain they have experienced and continue to feel at the group home because of their neglect or abuse. A lot of these numbing medications are used to deal with their behavioral issues. Medication is just a tool the staff use in order to deal with the child, but there are deeper issues with each child that are not easily fixed with medication.

I believe those issues are not being addressed because the staff does not want to go through the hassle of having to work with their clients. These issues stem from a variety of reasons, but I believe medication isn’t always the answer when trying to help a child in the foster care system.

Minors who have been involuntarily detained or hospitalized have a right to refuse administration of antipsychotic medication. Sounds appropriate, right? However, if you look closely, there are always loopholes. In the case of an emergency, a person may be treated with antipsychotic medication over his or her objection prior to a capacity hearingHarm to self or others does not need to take place in the case of anemergency.” (Page 15)  

Foster Care Right No. 6

To contact family members, unless prohibited by court order, and social workers, attorneys, foster youth advocates, and supporters, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and probation officers. 

What they don’t tell you.

A lot of times the foster care children that I worked with did not have the phone numbers of their CASA worker, probation officer, or even family members. It’s important that the foster care child is able to reach out to their support team and build that connection. Everyone who is involved in this child’s life needs to know what’s happening and that requires that the child always have their contact information, and vice versa.

I believe the foster care system should also provide every foster care child with an address book along with an electronic copy to whoever is in charge of them. Some of that information like their CASA worker or family members were not listed for the staff.  

Foster Care Right No.7

To visit and contact brothers and sisters, unless prohibited by court order. 

What they don’t tell you.

Many times, the children in the group home that I worked with did not know who their brothers and sisters were. If they did, they didn’t know how to contact their siblings and that really bothered them.

I believe it requires someone to take initiative to connect the children with their younger or older brothers and sisters. It’s important that siblings stay connected in the foster care system because they feel alone in this process. Foster care children need to build that community around them so that they know they have people who love and support them, especially their close of kin.  

Foster Care Right No. 8

To contact the Community Care Licensing Division of the State Department of Social Services or the State Foster Care Ombudsperson regarding violations of rights, to speak to representatives of these offices confidentially, and to be free from threats or punishment for making complaints.  

What they don’t tell you

I think there needs to be a better way for the foster child to call the Ombudsperson because none of the phone calls are confidential. Every phone call is observed by the treatment counselors and documented in the phone log. The phone is placed where staff can monitor, so everyone including the staff member who violated their rights, will know when a child speaks to representatives of the CCLD or Ombudsperson office.

Foster children do not have the privacy to make a complaint and may feel there will be repercussions. There has to be a better way to reach out to someone if they are feeling like they are being treated unfairly.

When in congregate care, the child can barely go to the bathroom without staff keeping their eyes on them. Staff stand in front of the open bathroom door and during times they can’t see — only feet under a stall for example — they listen. 

Foster Care Right No. 9

To make and receive confidential telephone calls and send and receive unopened mail, unless prohibited by court order. 

What they don’t tell you

A lot of the children we have in the group home have to make their phone calls in front of a group setting. There really isn’t a place for them to make confidential phone calls. To do so would mean the child has to use their own personal cell phone and many of them do not have one.

There is no designated telephone area where staff can supervise while also letting the child make or receive confidential telephone calls. Several of the children have family members who are in jail, such as their mother or father, and do not know what jail they are located in order to send them a letter.

I believe all of that information needs to be presented to them in order for them to make that decision if they wish to stay in connection with their biological parents. That way they can send and receive letters.  

Foster Care Right No. 10

To attend religious services and activities of his or her choice. 

What they don’t tell you.

A few of these children in the foster care system like to go to church, but the church they want to go to is really far and they will not be able to go every single week. The group home will provide transportation every other weekend. I believe since it is their personal right, the child should go every week if they desire to go. 

Sometimes the group home will prevent a child from attending a religious service if they feel that they are acting bad and cannot act right in public.   

Foster Care Right No. 11

To maintain an emancipation bank account and manage personal income, consistent with the child’s age and developmental level, unless prohibited by the case plan.

What they don’t tell you.

Children in a group home do not know what an emancipation bank account is, let alone have one. I believe many of the foster care children would want one of these if this resource was explained to them by their social worker or case manager.

Foster children do not know they have the right to get an emancipation bank account, so they do not ask. Group homes also don’t want the residents to have any money, because they will be motivated to spend it but aren’t able to leave the facility. They will AWOL and have to be searched by staff by emptying out their pockets, shoes, and backpack, before entering back into the cottage. 

Foster Care Right No. 12

To not be locked in any room, building, or facility premises, unless placed in a community treatment facility. 

What they don’t tell you.

In a group home, you are locked under a facility premise, but children who are locked up also feel the need to escape. This can put them at risk of actually running away and being picked up by a child predator. That’s why it is so important that foster children get off campus and do extracurricular activities so that they don’t feel bored or so caged. 

Foster Care Right No. 13

To attend school and participate in extracurricular, cultural, and personal enrichment activities, consistent with the child’s age and developmental level. 

What they don’t tell you.

Foster children do not ask to participate in extracurricular activities or they are told they’re unable to because they are not following the group home’s program. Group home staff may also use the excuse that there is not enough staff to take them to their extracurricular activities if it’s off-campus. And that is unacceptable!  

I believe group home staff need to initiate extracurricular or personal enrichment activities in their life so that foster children are able to build up their self-esteem. The group home should feel more responsible for getting every child into an extracurricular activity. That is a requirement.

Foster Care Right No. 14

To work and develop job skills at an age-appropriate level that is consistent with state law. 

What they don’t tell you.

Kids in the group home should be able to take job skills classes because at the age of 18, they will be “aging out.” I do believe group home directors do not make it a priority for foster care children to develop these skills

According to their personal rights, developing job skills is a requirement. It’s also subjective if they wish to do it. However, I strongly believe since they are children they should be told that they need to develop these skills in order for them to be ready when they go out into the real world. That is a requirement. Make them a part of that process and let them pick which job skill they wish to pursue.

Children who are in congregate care will not be able to have a job, even if they want to, because depending if they are following their program, they can be denied that right. 

Foster Care Right No. 15

To have social contact with people outside of the foster care system, such as teachers, church members, mentors, and friends. 

What they don’t tell you.

People who know foster children need to reach out to them to let them know they want to be a part of their lives. That they are not alone and that they are there to help them as a friend through this difficult season.

A lot of times, the foster child doesn’t know they can invite a guest to the group home because they do not feel their acquaintances even want to come. The foster child may not trust their staff and will therefore not even mention it, so they are not disappointed.

I believe the staff of the group home need to let the foster care child know that they are able to have guests but would need to ask the staff so they could put them on their visitor list and schedule a visit.

Staff, please build that rapport with your client and get to know who is in your client’s life. Do your homework and schedule that visit. If you know a foster child, please reach out and let them know how much you care and want to visit them at the group home. And make that phone call!    

Foster Care Right No. 16

To attend Independent Living Program classes and activities if he or she meets age requirements. 

What they don’t tell you.

Independent Living Program classes are necessary for foster children about to “age out” of the system because they need to start learning things that will prepare them to live successfully on their own. The group home should feel this is a requirement so that they feel confident when they send them out into the real world.

However, according to the Jim Cassey Initiative, 1 in 4 foster children will experience homelessness. And that’s unacceptable. 

Foster Care Right No. 17

To attend court hearings and speak to the judge. 

What they don’t tell you.

Foster Children need to learn how to advocate for themselves when they speak to the judge. The foster child should be prepared beforehand and present a list of demands and concerns to the judge because the court setting is the safest place for them to share what is happening in the group home.  

Foster Care Right No. 18

To have storage space for private use

What they don’t tell you.

At the group home after a resident leaves and moves on to a different placement, their belongings are stored in trash bags and will sit in a storage room. The foster child’s personal belongings will then sit until the social worker picks them up. Sometimes the social worker or group home will not follow up and the foster child’s belongings will be left behind. The process of transferring a foster child every six months and repacking their things can leave a trail of unclaimed personal belongings.  

Foster Care Right No. 19

To review his or her own case plan if he or she is over 12 years of age and to receive information about his or her out-of-home placement and case plan, including being told of changes to the plan

What they don’t tell you.

The case plan is discussed in the Child and Family Team meeting (CFT). Every foster child will attend their own CFT, but will not be told they can have whoever they want to represent them when it comes to their treatment counselor.

The treatment counselor will be the person that is going to tell the CFT members what the foster child needs to work on. So it’s important that the foster child feels the treatment counselor is on their side because they will be discussing future placement options.

CFT’s also need to be explained as to why they are having them so that the child understands what they are designed for. Does everyone at the table want to do what’s best for the child? Better placement should always be the goal of every CFT but is clearly not represented as being in the child’s best interest.

When a child is removed from the group home, they are not always told as it can come as a surprise. With their bags all packed, the social worker will pick them up, without letting them know their case plan has been changed. 

Foster Care Right No. 20

To be free from unreasonable searches of personal belongings

What they don’t tell you.

When you’re in a group home your personal belongings will be touched because the treatment counselors have to make sure the foster child’s room is clean for licensing purposes. When treatment counselors are “cleaning” the foster child’s room, this gives them the ability to search their personal belongings. Claiming when they find something, it was found spontaneously.

Their motive when cleaning can be to dig up things to get them in trouble or to find items they feel are dangerous so that those items are removed and placed in the office. These items that are confiscated and placed inside the office include colorful sharpies so they cannot graffiti or skateboards so they cannot run away.

Reasonable searches should be conducted by the campus supervisor where there is a discussion, addressing the treatment counselors’ concerns and a decision addressing if there are reasonable grounds to perform a search. I believe treatment counselors should never be able to search through a foster child’s personal belongings unless they are able to see it without digging.

Searches are conducted every time a child leaves a group home facility. Before entering their rooms, they are required to take off their shoes, empty out their pockets and let staff search their backpack so they don’t have any weapons or contraband. 

Foster Care Right No. 21

To confidentially of all juvenile court records consistent with existing law

What they don’t tell you.

Juvenile court records are not shared in the group home, but when a treatment counselor finds out a foster child has a probation officer, you can bet the staff are forming unconscious biases.

Adding to their confirmation bias, these children in group homes are labelled “bad” kids and justify the treatment counselor’s belief system that “I can treat them unfairly because they deserve it!”

Although living in a group home or residential facility isn’t a prison, there are many similar qualities. Living in an institution where the child is constantly being controlled, told what to do, when it’s lights out, and random searches so they don’t have any weapons or contraband on them sounds a lot like prison. 

Foster Care Right No. 22

To have fair and equal access to all available services, placement, care treatment, and benefits, and to not be subjected to discrimination or harassment on the basis of actual or perceived race, ethnic group identification, ancestry, national origin, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental or physical disability, or HIV status.  

What they don’t tell you.

When you are in a group home, the staff will not explain or connect them to all the available resources, explaining things to them only when they ask. Access to all available services requires the group home child to understand. A lot of times, the person who is working closely with that child, such as the treatment counselor, doesn’t even know what services are available to the client so they can advocate for them.

The case manager shouldn’t be the only one who is knowledgeable about their services. During the Family Team meeting or court appointments, all staff should be trained on available services so that they know when services are not rendered or can advocate for them appropriately. If a child is in congregate care and is not following their program, those services might also be denied if it requires them to leave off-campus or have access to money.    

Foster Care Right No. 23

At 16 years of age or older, to have access to existing information regarding the educational options available, including, but not limited to, the coursework necessary for vocational and postsecondary educational programs, and information regarding financial aid for postsecondary education

What they don’t tell you.

What I don’t understand is why group homes that have been in business for many years, some as long as 100 years, do not have the available resources or connections to a few vocational and postsecondary educational programs that will work with their 16 or older foster care clients. Group homes do not provide foster care children with the available resources in order to make informed decisions and plans for their future.

Group homes should require all of their 16 and older clients to take a skills test and then plug them in with a vocational or postsecondary educational program. Most children in the foster care system do not have good grades and lose the bigger picture for their lives when they turn 18.

The case manager or director needs to let them know what programs they can get into, what schools they can get into, and what jobs are available to them at an entry-level that can pay top dollar,. They should also share what post-secondary education can be beneficial for them if they want to make this x, y, z amount of money.

Why it is important to know our rights.

We all take things for granted that we think are normal until we meet someone else and compare our experiences. As you then suddenly realize, “That wasn’t normal at all.” As a child, you could have been taken advantage of, especially if you didn’t have any support system (close friends, relatives, or acquaintances) in your corner who looked out for your best interest.

Please share your story or comment below if your rights as a foster child were compromised while living in a residential treatment center, group home, or mental institution.

It takes all of us—the former and current foster child and the adults who worked with them, to band together and stand up for children who continue to live in those conditions. Because it’s not okay. When we see injustice in our country and in the world when we see children too weak or vulnerable to defend themselves, we have an obligation as human beings, as a society, or as Americans to do our part.

Please share your story at Fostering Teen Voices if you’ve experienced or observed a violation of a child’s foster care rights.