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 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 nation, state and county child-welfare agencies are considering how to carry out the 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 to adulthood.
Some veteran foster parents in Florida are bowing out, uncomfortable with the new responsibilities. But Mike Watkins, chief executive of a Tallahassee-based agency involved in foster care, said they 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 among many in the child-welfare field, it also is 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 when he was 10.
Now a social-work major at the University of Houston-Downtown, Sharp has testified before the state Legislature about his experiences. That testimony included an account of sexual abuse by an employee at a now-closed, high-security residential center.
Sharp said a caretaker at the center confiscated his Beyonce CDs 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 engaged in efforts 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," he 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 a 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," she 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, driving and similar activities. Florida's law includes a provision that a foster parent is not liable for harm caused to a foster child during an activity deemed reasonable in accordance with the "prudent parent" standard.
Florida also is offering to pay the cost of auto insurance for foster children who get drivers' licenses, Carroll said.
"Does driving raise the risk of a car crash? Sure," Carroll said. "But every kid has that risk. It's the same level of risk that you and I have for our own kids."
Florida is not 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.
"The reaction has been totally positive," said Jennifer Strus, a senior official in Washington's Department of Social and Health Services.
Her department has issued detailed guidelines to foster parents explaining what activities are now permissible without a court order or caseworker's approval. Among them: sleepovers, school field trips of up to three days, and family camping or river-rafting trips. Foster youth 14 and older can drive snowmobiles, jet skis and power lawn mowers.
Beth Canfield, co-president of Washington's foster parent association, said the new policy also 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.
Lawmakers in several states, including Connecticut, New Mexico and Oregon, have introduced bills to conform to the new federal policy. In Oregon, a group of foster youth helped draft an additional bill that would require foster parents or staff at group homes to arrange at least one extracurricular activity for each foster child.
"Some foster youth grow up not feeling welcome in extracurricular activities, so they lack social skills," said Joshua Ashbaugh, 18, part of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection contingent that lobbied at the statehouse.
Ashbaugh, who lives in a group home near Portland, recalled an earlier stint with a foster family who initially rebuffed his pleas to join a school skateboard club.
"They didn't want me to injure myself," he said. "It was a struggle for a few months, but in the end I joined."
By the latest federal count, there are about 402,000 children in foster care in the U.S. 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.
The 2014 federal law is intended to apply to all foster children, including those in group care. The law says group facilities should assign a staff member for each child to apply the "prudent parent" standard and make decisions about extracurricular activities.
Carole Shauffer, a senior director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, said the federal mandate to promote normalcy is likely to make significant headway only in states that emphasize the importance of skilled, loving parenting.
"The language of the law is so vague you could drive a truck through it," she said, warning that some states might make only a token effort to comply out of fear of giving foster parents too much discretion.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will provide technical assistance to help states comply. But in general, despite complaints from some advocacy groups, it has avoided enforcing child-welfare guidelines through financial penalties.
JooYeun Chang, who oversees $7 billion in federal funding for child welfare as the head of HHS's Children's Bureau, said it makes more sense for the government to work in partnership with the states.
"To take dollars from an already underfunded system is not going to help children and families," she said.
Chang has met with numerous former foster children. The concept of normalcy, she says, "was the issue they were most passionate about."