Vol. 20, No. 1 • November 2015

Navigating Reasonable and Prudent Parenting

by Teresa Strom

For years, many young people in foster care have been prevented from participating in everyday activities essential for their development and for a successful transition to adulthood. Because of real and perceived legal and policy constraints, many have missed out on the chance to engage in simple, commonplace activities such as going to a friend's house, taking a school trip, working a job after school, joining a club, dating, attending the prom, and learning to drive (Pokempner, et al., 2015).

To address this problem, recent federal and state laws have introduced the "reasonable and prudent parent standard." This standard, which went into effect in North Carolina on October 1, is something foster parents, group homes, and child welfare professionals should understand well.

The Standard
Earlier this year, in response to federal legislation (Public Law 113-183), North Carolina passed Senate Bill 423, also known as the "Foster Care Family Act."

According to this law, foster parents and group homes must use the reasonable and prudent parent standard when deciding whether children and youth in foster care can participate in normal childhood activities. This standard is really no different than the standard most parents use when making decisions about children's activities.

The standard states that foster parents and group homes must consider the health, safety, and best interests of each child and youth, as well as their needs and situation, when deciding whether they can do things such as playing school sports or going on an overnight field trip.

The law explicitly states that children and youth in foster care are to be allowed to participate in extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities as long as those activities are appropriate to the child's age, development, and maturity level. The child's cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral capacities must also be taken into consideration to identify suitable activities for them.

The Standard in Action
What does the reasonable and prudent parent standard look like when it is applied in the day-to-day activities of children and their caregivers? Although the standard sounds straightforward, there is no black and white answer to this question. Following the standard means carefully applying it to each individual child and youth in foster care. To help foster parents, social workers, child-placing agencies, residential child care facilities, and other institutions in their decision making about which activities youth and children in foster care participate in, the NC Division of Social Services has developed two tools:

The scenarios below illustrate what it is like for a parent to apply the reasonable and prudent parent standard. These scenarios aren't black and white, but they do depict the critical, careful, sensible thinking the standard requires.

Two Illustrations of Applying the Standard

You've been a foster parent for eight years. Adam is an 11-year-old in foster care. He's lived with you for 13 months. When Adam first came to you, the agency didn't know much about him. His grandmother, who was his primary caretaker, had died. His father is unknown. Due to her substance abuse, his mother has had little contact with Adam over the years.

Adam appeared to have some issues with authority, often appeared angry, and did not like school. His only activity aside from school and going to church with you has been weekly therapy. You have worked to provide structure for Adam and he has not had any serious behavior issues in the home for the last 8 months.

Adam's Opportunity, Your Decision
Adam recently made honor roll and the school is planning a special overnight field trip for everyone on honor roll to see a professional baseball game. Adam has come home excited about the field trip and asks you for permission to go. You want to be sure to correctly apply the reasonable and prudent parenting standard as you make this decision, so you do the following.

You consult NC's Reasonable and Prudent Parent Activities Guide. It tells you that a foster parent can provide approval for a school field trip lasting less than 72 hours without notifying the child's social worker.

Next, you consult Applying the Standard. Participating in this extracurricular activity is reasonable and age-appropriate for Adam and would promote both his social development and his self-confidence. It would also help him feel like all the other children at school who earned the trip. You know several parents who are planning to go on the field trip, including a neighbor who knows Adam. His participation in this trip would not contradict a court order or safety plan. You are not aware of any other issues or concerns that should prevent Adam from participating in the field trip.

Based on all this, you tell Adam he can attend the overnight field trip and you sign the permission slip.

You've been a foster parent for three years. Lukas, a 15-year-old, has been with you for three months. This is his second placement. He came into foster care through delinquency court for shoplifting. He also has a history of exposing himself to girls, although this has not happened since he has been in your home.

Lukas is the youngest of four boys. His mother passed away years ago and his father says he can no longer manage Lukas' behaviors. Two of Lukas' brothers are incarcerated; Lukas doesn't know where his other brother is.

Lukas follows the rules of your house. He is not involved in any extracurricular activities and has struggled to make friends at school. He also seems lonely.

Lukas' Opportunity, Your Decision
Lukas comes home saying he has been invited to hang out at a male classmate's house to play video games next Friday night. You want to be sure to correctly apply the reasonable and prudent parenting standard as you make a decision about this, so you do the following.

You consult NC's Reasonable and Prudent Parent Activities Guide. It tells you that a foster parent can provide approval for normal childhood social activities outside the foster parent's direct supervision without notifying the child's social worker.

Next, you consult Applying the Standard. You believe Lukas has been doing well overall. This activity would be good for Lukas' self-esteem and confidence. It doesn't interfere with his schedule.

You don't know Lukas' classmate's family, so you call them. You learn that in addition to their son, there are also two daughters in the home. You conclude the call but don't commit, saying you still need to discuss the plans. You're concerned about Lukas being around the girls in the classmate's home with less supervision and worry that might trigger Lukas to expose himself.

Based on the circumstances, you decide to ask Lukas to invite his classmate over to your house instead, so that he can still benefit from this activity.

It is important to realize that the reasonable and prudent parent standard must be applied individually to each child and youth, based on the totality of their situation. The standard and the passage of the Family Foster Care Act do not mean that every foster child or youth can automatically participate in anything. It means that foster parents and social workers must use all the tools at their disposal--including shared parenting, child and family team meetings, and monthly visits--to ensure they have a good grasp of the child's strengths, needs, and skills. They must also engage the birth family (if their whereabouts are known) so they can express their desires for their children.

The emphasis on normalcy that comes with the reasonable and prudent parent standard is the right thing for children and youth in foster care. When they are grown they should be able to recall their childhood friends, the field trips they went on, and the other childhood experiences so many of us take for granted. It's up to us to find balance in addressing the needs that bring children and youth into foster care while still allowing them to grow up with normal childhood memories.

Teresa Strom is the Child Welfare Services Local Support Team Leader for the NC Division of Social Services.

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Applying the Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard

  1. Is this activity reasonable and age-appropriate?
  2. Are there any foreseeable hazards?
  3. How does this activity promote social development?
  4. How does this activity normalize the experience of foster care?
  5. Will this activity violate a court order, juvenile justice order, a safety plan, a case plan, or a treatment plan or person-centered plan (PCP)?
  6. Will this activity violate any policy or agreement of my licensing agency or the child's custodial agency?
  7. If appropriate, have I received consultation from my social worker and/or the child's social worker?
  8. If able and appropriate, have I consulted with this child's birth parents about their thoughts and feelings about their child participating in this particular activity?
  9. Will the timing of this activity interfere with a sibling or parental visitation, counseling appointment, or doctor's appointment?
  10. Who will be attending the activity?
  11. Would I allow my birth or adopted child to participate in this activity?
  12. How well do I know this child?
  13. Is there anything from this child's history (e.g., running away, truancy) that would indicate he may be triggered by this activity?
  14. Does this child have any concerns about participating in this activity?
  15. Has this child shown maturity in decision making that is appropriate for his age and ability?
  16. Does this child understand parental expectations regarding curfew, approval for last minute changes to the plan, and the consequences for not complying with the expectations?
  17. Does this child know who to call in case of an emergency?
  18. Does this child understand his medical needs and is he able to tell others how to help him if necessary?
  19. Can this child protect himself?
  20. When in doubt, refer to number 7.

Adapted from Florida's Caregiver Guide to Normalcy

Click here for references

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~