Not so long ago, if foster children in Florida wanted to spend the night at a friend's house, the parents hosting the sleepover faced a criminal background check. Taking the kids on an out-of-state vacation required official permission from a state agency.

"That was ridiculous," said Mike Carroll, who as head of Florida's Department of Children and Families is overseeing a bold initiative that has scrapped many of those old restrictions and now gives foster parents more of the same freedoms — and responsibilities — of other parents.

Launched by legislation two years ago, the initiative is credited with attracting record numbers of new foster parents in Florida. Its core principle is seeking "normalcy" by recognizing the right of foster children to engage on a regular basis in extracurricular and social activities. That idea was incorporated into a federal foster-care bill passed in September by Congress.

Across the country, state and county child-welfare agencies are considering how to carry out this new federal mandate. Bills to comply with it have been drafted in several states, and others will follow.

The normalcy initiative is the latest strategy to improve a system with a long record of failure for some of America's most vulnerable children. The ultimate goal is to ease the stigma that affects many foster youth and smooth their often bumpy path toward adulthood.

In Michigan, officials began working on a new rule requiring extracurricular activities for foster care children prior to the actions by Congress, said Bob Wheaton, communications manager for the state Department of Human Services.

The state rule, which took effect Jan. 5, says a foster parent "shall provide opportunities for, and encourage a foster child to participate in, a variety of indoor and outdoor recreational activities that are appropriate for the child's age and ability."

Wheaton said the rule was developed by the department, state Court Administrative Office, the courts, the Michigan Foster Care Review Board, private foster care agencies and foster parents. Michigan also has a Foster Parent Bill of Rights that went into effect April 1 and, in some ways, implements the normalcy principles, Wheaton said.

Officials in Florida report that some veteran foster parents are bowing out of the program, uncomfortable with the new responsibilities. But Mike Watkins, chief executive of a Tallahassee-based agency involved in foster care, said those former participants are outnumbered by eager recruits.

"We have a whole new crop, saying, 'Hey, this is what I always wanted to do,' " he said.

While the new approach is kindling excitement, it's also raising questions.

Some advocates worry that broad language in the federal bill might make it hard to enforce. Others are skeptical that foster children in group homes will benefit fully, even though the federal bill also applies to them.

"How are you going to integrate normalcy into a non-normal environment?" asked Kristopher Sharp, 25, who spent seven years shifting through more than 20 foster care placements in Texas, mostly in group homes, after being removed from the care of his abusive mother at age 10.

Now attending the University of Houston-Downtown, Sharp has testified before state legislators about his experiences. That included an account of sexual abuse by an employee at a now-closed, high-security residential center. Sharp said the center confiscated CDs of music by Beyonce on the premise they were a bad influence. In another placement, he wasn't allowed to attend a school prom or take a part-time job.

In both the federal bill and Florida's "Let Kids be Kids law" of 2013, the crucial terminology is "the reasonable and prudent parent standard." In essence, it means that foster parents, while always expected to keep a foster child's safety in mind, should allow them to experience a full range of activities just as other parents do for their children.

"Before, we were trying to keep kids from getting hurt. … We put them in a room and made sure nothing happened to them," Watkins said. His agency, Big Bend Community Based Care, is working to recruit highly motivated foster parents who embrace the normalcy concept.

"If we're going to expect a higher order of care by the foster parents, we need to allow them greater authority," Watkins said. "We don't want supervisors. We want people to parent. We had created this artificial relationship where you had state-sanctioned individuals in a home acting like a jailer."

Among the upbeat parents in Watkins' North Florida region is Cathy Harcus of Panama City. She and her husband have cared for 20 foster children over the past 11 years, including a 16-year-old girl who is with them now.

"When we started fostering, you had to ask permission for everything. It was just awkward," Cathy Harcus said. "Imagine what it's like for a teenager: 'I'd love to come to your birthday sleepover, but your parents will have to get fingerprinted.' "

"Now you're able to be a 'prudent parent,' " Harcus said. "Whatever decision you'd make for your biological child of that age, you make the same decision for the foster child."

One tangible benefit: the Harcus' foster daughter already has her learner's permit in pursuit of a driver's license.

There are some risks, such as those inherent in swimming, bicycling, contact sports and driving. Florida's law stipulates that a foster parent isn't liable for harm caused to a foster child during an activity deemed reasonable under the "prudent parent" standard.

Florida isn't the only state with a prudent parenting law. California approved a more limited version in 2005. Ohio, Utah and Washington state passed laws last year.

In Washington, new guidelines to foster parents explain what activities are now permissible without a court order or caseworker's approval.

"The reaction has been totally positive," said Jennifer Strus, a senior official in Washington's Department of Social and Health Services.

Beth Canfield, co-president of Washington's foster parent association, said the new policy enables foster parents to recruit a friend or neighbor to watch over foster children in an emergency, without needing a criminal background check.

"It used to be that if you had to take one of your foster children in for stitches, you had to take all the other kids with you," said Canfield, who along with her husband has cared for dozens of foster children.

By the latest federal count, there are about 402,000 children in foster care in the United States. Nearly 30 percent were placed with relatives, close to half were with foster families not related to them and 14 percent were in group homes.

Detroit News Staff Writer Gary Heinlein in Lansing contributed.

Foster care and adoptions in Michigan

Michigan uses its annual Adoption Day festivities to highlight the importance of adoption and the needs of children in foster care.

In late 2014, there were about 12,800 children in the state's foster care system.

Among children in foster care, about 2,500 children are eligible for adoption because their parents' rights have been terminated.

More than 2,160 children were adopted in Michigan between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2014.

Source: Michigan Department of Human Services


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Read or Share this story: