Answers to Your Legal Questions

Note: The following legal columns were published in Represent magazine between 1997 and 2008, with information provided by Theresa Hughes, Caridad Peña, Mary Ellen Shea, Betsy Krebs and Alison Wright. We will attempt to keep this information current, but some laws and policies may have changed. Use this information as a guideline for conversation with your lawyer.

Q: What is my agency supposed to do for me before I age out?

Q: How can foster care help me pay for college?

Q: Can I remain in foster care after I turn 18?

Q: What should I do if I want to sign myself out of care?

Q: I’m living in a group home and like it here. My caseworker wants to find me a family to live with. Why is that? Do I have to go?

Q: A guy on my block told me that I couldn’t get locked up for hustling drugs because I’m a kid. Is that true?

Q: My friend told me that since I live in foster care there is a special way to get me a green card. Is she right?

Q: I used to live in Queens and now I am in a group home in Brooklyn. I want to go to my old high school, but my caseworker says I have to go to the school closest to my group home. Is that true?

Q: I was adopted when I was 3 and now I am in foster care. How can I find my birth mother?

Q: What are my rights in therapy?

Q: My therapist said our talks are confidential. What does that mean?

Q: What if I don't want to take my medication?

Q:  Can my foster parents punish me by hitting me or not giving me food?

Q:  One of the staff people in my group home is always putting us down. Don't we have any right to stop this?

Q:  My agency is always having meetings about me. Don't I have a right to be there?

Q: I'm getting ready to leave foster care soon. Does my agency have to help me find a place to live?

Q:  Can my agency help me pay the rent when I move out on my own?

Q:  I live in a foster home. How much allowance should I get?

Q: I'm pregnant and I'm in foster care. What rights do I have?

Q: Who has legal custody of my child when we're in mother-child foster home or group home?

Q: Can ACS separate me from my child?

Q: What kinds of help can my child and I get in care?

Q: I’ve heard of teen moms in foster care getting their kids taken away because of neglect or abuse. What exactly constitutes neglect or abuse?

Q:  Can my parents say where they want me to be placed?

Q:  Under what conditions can I be put in a mental hospital?

Q: What about an RTC or RTF?

Q:  What can I do to get out of a psychiatric hospital, RTF, or RTC?

Q: What is a diagnostic center?

Q: Can I change my social worker? How?

Q: If I go away to college, can I stay with my foster family?

Q: Can my agency withhold my stipend or clothing allowance as punishment?

Q: What can I do if a group home staff member or social worker gossips about my personal problems to other staff?

Q: I want to see my sister. I've only seen her twice since I was placed into foster care five months ago. What should I do?

 

Q: What is my agency supposed to do for me before I age out?

A: Just before you leave care (whether on a trial discharge or a final discharge), there are several things your agency has to do to get you ready.

First, and probably most important, the law says your agency has to make sure you have a place to live, and a “reasonable expectation” that you’ll be able to live at that place for at least a year after you leave care. That means your agency should help you:

1. Find a source of income (like a job or Social Security benefits) so you can pay rent.

2. Apply to live in public housing (from the New York City Housing Authority).

3. Apply for an ACS housing subsidy of up to $300 a month (if you’re under 21), or a special housing grant of up to $1,800 to help you with moving expenses or your security deposit.

Your agency cannot make you leave foster care if you don’t have a place to live. If you turn 21 and you have no place to live outside foster care, your lawyer can ask the family court to extend your stay in care until you do.

The law also says that your agency must make a list of the people who can help you out once you leave foster care, like family members and service providers in your community.

There are a few things that you should ask your caseworker and lawyer to get for you, even though they aren’t required by law.

For instance, ACS has a policy (not a law) of giving $750 discharge grants.

Your agency should also make sure that you have health insurance or Medicaid, and it might be a good idea to schedule one last checkup before you leave care.

You will also need important documents like your birth certificate, Social Security card, and state ID card or green card before you leave care, so make sure to ask your agency for those.

Your agency must schedule a discharge conference for you before you leave care, to address all of the above issues.

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Q: How can foster care help me pay for college?

A: In New York City, if you choose to go away to college and live in a dorm, your agency should pay for your room and board. They must pay an amount equal to the funds they would receive if you were living in the agency's own foster care setting. The agency must also provide a place for you to stay when you are on school vacation. This assistance must be provided until you are 21 years old and may be provided up to age 23. If your agency is not covering your room and board in college, talk to your lawyer and your caseworker (and talk to his or her supervisors if necessary).

To pay for tuition, fees and books, you should apply for financial aid programs. Because you are in foster care, you should be eligible for many types of financial aid, including scholarships and grants, which provide you with cash assistance that you do not have to repay. For example, youth in foster care are eligible for ETV vouchers, which give you up to $5,000 a year to pay for books and other school-related expenses. Your agency may also have a scholarship for residents who go on to college.

Talk to your agency and your school guidance or college counselor about all of the financial aid and scholarship programs you may apply for. And find more information in our Education Resources section.

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Q: Can I remain in foster care after I turn 18?

A: Yes. In New York State, you have the right to remain in foster care until you turn 21. To remain in care after you turn 18, you must be attending some type of educational or vocational program, or be unable to live independently. Some agencies may not let you stay in their program if you are not in school. They can transfer you to another agency, but they cannot kick you out of foster care.

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Q: What should I do if I want to sign myself out of care?

A: There are a lot of benefits to staying in care until age 21. But if you’re over 18 and want to leave foster care, ask about a trial discharge.

A trial discharge is like a rehearsal for leaving foster care. You live on your own, but your agency has to give you after-care services if you want them. That means your social worker will still call you to check up on you, and you can call your social worker if you need help finding a job or a place to live. Also, if you become homeless during trial discharge your agency has to help you find a place to live that isn’t a homeless shelter.

A trial discharge usually lasts six months, but it can last until you’re 21 if you and your agency agree that it should.

After your trial discharge, you’ll get a final discharge, which means you’re leaving care for good. Even after your final discharge, if you’re under 21 your agency will keep calling every month to check up on you, unless you ask them to stop. You can also call your agency and ask them to refer you to organizations that can give you services you might need—like help finding a job or a place to live. Once you ask for help, the law says your agency has to make sure that you actually do get help.

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Q: I’m living in a group home and like it here. My caseworker wants to find me a family to live with. Why is that? Do I have to go?

A: In 1997, a law called the Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed which says any child in care more than two years should be adopted. Because of this law, caseworkers and social workers try to move kids out of group homes and in with foster families that might adopt them.

You don’t have a legal right to refuse placement with a certain family or group home. But you can play an active part in making the decisions about where you are going to live. Let your caseworker, social worker and law guardian know your preferences. You should also attend your court hearings and talk to the judge yourself.

The judge is the one who ultimately decides where a child should live. Tell him or her what you want and the reasons why. If the judge is convinced that there is a “compelling reason” why it is not in your best interests to move, you may be able to remain where you’re living.

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Q: A guy on my block told me that I couldn’t get locked up for hustling drugs because I’m a kid. Is that true?

A: Young people in this country definitely do get arrested and prosecuted. In fact, youth make up about 17% of all arrests in the United States. That’s a lot of youth getting arrested.

But when a kid is arrested, they usually go through the juvenile/family court system (as opposed to the adult criminal court system). Each state decides at what age a youth may be prosecuted in criminal court.

In New York, you will be prosecuted in family court if you are under the age of 16 when the crime was committed. (For some serious crimes you can be tried as an adult even if you are under 16.)

If you get arrested as a juvenile, what usually happens is that the police decide whether to hold and charge you, or release you. The next step is a referral to the probation department, where the probation officers decide whether to end the matter or to send it to a prosecutor to have a case filed in court. If your case does go to court, you will either be permitted to continue living at home or be sent to a detention facility while you await trial or are on trial. If you’re found delinquent, you’ll have a separate sentencing hearing and the court will decide whether you require placement away from home, like a group home or juvenile detention center.

If you’re 16 or older, you will be taken to criminal court and, if convicted, serve time in an adult prison.

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Q: My friend told me that since I live in foster care there is a special way to get me a green card. Is she right?

A: Yes, if you meet certain criteria.

In general, the United States government makes it really hard for non-citizens to get legal status. But in certain cases there is a way for some undocumented youth in foster care to get a green card. It's called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).

If you answer "yes" to ALL of the following questions, you may qualify for SIJS:

  1. Do you have an open juvenile delinquency, abandonment or child abuse/neglect case?
  2. Is the plan for you not to get back together with your family, but instead is to stay in foster care long-term and/or be adopted?
  3. Will the court find that it is not in your best interest to be returned to your home country?
  4. Are you under age 21?
  5. Are you single (not married)?

If your SIJS application is granted, you will get a green card, which allows you to live and work in the United States permanently and to travel in and out of the country as a permanent resident. After 5 years of being a permanent resident, you can apply for U.S. citizenship.

It costs money to apply for your green card, but your agency should pay for it.

If you want to learn more about SIJS or apply, you should tell your caseworker or law guardian as soon as possible. If your case has already been closed but you are still under 21, you should contact a lawyer to determine if you are eligible for SIJS, and if so, whether it is possible to re-open your case.

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Q: I used to live in Queens and now I am in a group home in Brooklyn. I want to go to my old high school, but my caseworker says I have to go to the school closest to my group home. Is that true?

A: If you were already attending a high school and you are able to travel alone, you should be given a choice to attend your old school or your current zoned school.

Some foster care agencies automatically transfer young people to the zoned school. Your zoned school is assigned based on where you presently live, the place where you get food, clothing and shelter. This includes a group home or foster home. However, the decision about where you go to school should be based on your specific needs. Let your caseworker know your wishes and tell her why it's important to you to return to your school.

There are a number of important reasons why many young people want to stay in the same school. You may want to keep a specific educational program, counseling service, sports team, or other school-based activity. Changing schools mid-year may interrupt your education and may cause you to fall behind, requiring you to repeat classes. In addition, your old school might provide a sense of stability during a time in your life when you are dealing with a lot of changes. You may want to keep the same friends, teachers, and school activities. Even if you move to different places within the foster care system, for many young people school can be the one place that is familiar and comfortable.

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Q: I was adopted when I was 3 and now I am in foster care. How can I find my birth mother?

A: It is important to realize that every adopted person has two sets of parents, both of whom have given them love and life in different ways. Sometimes children believe they were placed for adoption because they weren't good enough or because their parents didn't want them. However, this is not the case. Some birth parents choose long before their children are born to place them for adoption, while other birth parents are unable to care for their children because of various problems of their own, like terminal illness, drug issues, age, and financial instability. Some birth parents may feel that their children would be better off in a family that has more stability, support, or the financial means to raise children than they themselves have.

If you are struggling with feelings or questions you may have about your birth parents, talk to someone who you trust such as a close friend, social worker, therapist, or teacher. Writing in a journal can be another way of expressing your feelings, which might help you feel better.  Additionally, if you have access to the Internet, just type in the word "adoption" and you will find a world of information, resources, and discussion groups that may be helpful.

If you are interested in locating your birth parents, you can try the adoption information registry. The registry allows adoptees and birth parents to send contact information about themselves. If you send your information, and your birth parent also files with the registry, the information will be shared with both of you so you can contact each other.

If you want to register in New York, you must be over 18 or have your adoptive parent sign the application. There are some exceptions to this age requirement. For example, if you need information about your birth parents because of a medical emergency, contact your law guardian. You may be able to get a court order requiring the registry to share information about your birth parents immediately.

In addition, New York has a biological sibling registry so that brothers and sisters can find each other.

For more information on New York State’s Adoption Information Registry, visit http://www.health.state.ny.us/vital_records/adoption.htm.

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Q: What are my rights regarding therapy?

A: You have the right to get help and ask to talk to a professional such as a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist about your feelings, experiences and concerns. You also have the right to say that you don't want therapy or that you would like to see a different therapist. No one can force you to go to therapy, and you should not be punished for not attending therapy. If you are suffering consequences for refusing to go to therapy, call your lawyer.

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Q: My therapist said our talks are confidential. What does that mean?

A: Confidentiality means that what you say to the therapist should stay between you and the therapist. A therapist can break confidentiality only if a client shares that she is going to harm herself or others. However, there may be times that doctors, foster parents and some caseworkers may need to know parts about your situation in case you require medical help. In that case, you have to say, in writing, that it is OK for your therapist to tell them about your condition.

If you feel people have information about you that comes from your therapy sessions and which you have not approved to be released, you should speak directly with your therapist about it. If that doesn't work, ask to speak with a supervisor or director.

Most agencies request that the therapist or social worker document in a file the contact and treatment of their clients for accountability and funding purposes. These files are also confidential, but you should find out what your agency's policies are regarding the files' confidentiality as it can differ from agency to agency.

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Q: What if I don't want to take my medication?

A: If you are experiencing serious side effects or believe your medication is not helpful, talk with your caseworker, your family and the prescribing doctor. The problem may be with your dosage, the type of medication you are on, or an interaction with other medication. Also, ask whether there are other options--such as more therapy or a change in diet.

It is ACS policy to try to get permission from your parent or legal guardian before you are given medication or before your meds are changed. If your parent or legal guardian disagrees with the recommendations, she can ask for a medication review. This means another doctor will review your case to determine if you should be on medication, and if so, whether your current medication is appropriate.

If your parents' rights are terminated, or if your parents are not in contact with the agency, call your law guardian. Your law guardian may get another doctor to review your case to see if the medication prescribed and dosage recommended is appropriate for you. Where appropriate, the law guardian can get a court order to stop or change your medication schedule.

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Q: Can my foster parents punish me by hitting me or not giving me food?

A: Absolutely not. Your foster parents may not punish you by hitting or beating you, or other physical punishment, or by depriving you of meals, snacks, mail or family visits.

Foster parents also have to:

  • Provide a family atmosphere of acceptance, kindness and understanding and treat you like a member of the household
  • Make sure you go to school
  • Give you enough food, properly prepared and of good quality. You are supposed to eat your meals with the family
  • Provide necessities like towels, washcloths and a toothbrush

If your foster parent is breaking any of these rules, or doing other things that you feel are harmful to you or other kids in the house, you should talk to your caseworker. If your caseworker is not taking your complaints seriously, talk to his or her supervisor or someone else at the agency, and call your lawyer.

You can also call the ACS Office of Advocacy Helpline at 212-676-9421.

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Q: One of the staff people in my group home is always putting us down. Don't we have any right to stop this?

A: Yes. Agency policy forbids any abuse or maltreatment of a child by a staff person, consultant, or volunteer. Abuse means physical abuse but also includes "demeaning or degrading a child." This means that a staff person cannot hit you and also cannot curse you out, call you names, or put you down.

It’s the agency’s responsibility to make sure that any employee, volunteer or consultant who works in its facilities uses "appropriate custodial conduct" when caring for children.

This means that staff, volunteers and consultants cannot:

Use or carry illegal drugs on the job, or come to work under the influence of illegal drugs

Use or have alcohol in their possession on the job, or come to work under the influence of alcohol

Use language or gestures that can cause emotional harm to children

Behave in a discriminatory manner toward children receiving care

Have sexual relations with residents

Possess firearms or other dangerous weapons while on the grounds of residential child care facilities

Act in any other manner that would be detrimental to residents.

If you feel that any of these rules are being broken, you should first try talking to your caseworker about what the problem is and how it can be fixed. If things do not get resolved, you should plan on meeting with others at the agency who are responsible for the group home, such as supervisors and maybe even the director of the group home or agency. You can also call your lawyer or call the Office of Advocacy Helpline at 212-676-9421.

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Q: My agency is always having meetings about me. Don't I have a right to be there?

 A: If you are over 10 years old, you should be invited to participate in meetings at your agency called "Family Team Conferences." The purpose of these meetings is to plan what will happen to you while you're in care and when you leave care. This includes where you will be placed, where you will go to school, when and how often you can visit your family, what kinds of services you should be receiving, and where you will go when you leave care (go home to your family, become adopted, or live on your own).

The agency must make sure that you are a part of these conferences. They must tell you in writing when and where the meeting will be held. If your agency feels it is inappropriate for you to be there, they should explain why. If you do not attend the meeting, they must tell you exactly what was decided.

You have the right to bring someone with you to the meeting, like a friend, family member or your lawyer. It is important to have someone with you so you'll feel like you have someone on your side. They can take notes for you or ask questions that you might have forgotten about.

Your first case conference should take place when you first enter foster care. The purpose of this first meeting is:

  • For the agency to get as much information as it can about your family and the problems that led you to enter foster care, so it can decide what types of services you and/or your family may need.
  • To decide what your "permanency planning goal" is (whether you will return to your parents, be discharged to a family member, be adopted, or transition out of foster care on your own).

At this meeting they should also discuss what visits you will have with your family; services they have provided to you and your family; and what the agency did to prevent or eliminate the need for foster care placement, or the reason why such efforts were not made.

During this first meeting, you have the right to say what you agree with or disagree with. You should ask for explanations of things that you do not understand.

After the first meeting, Family Team Conferences will be held about every six months. Again, you have the right to attend these meetings and should be informed when they will take place. You should bring up problems at these meetings.

Unfortunately, some decisions that are made about you, such as the decision to move you from one foster home to another, can be made without first asking you if you agree. These decisions should be discussed with you before you're moved, but the law does not give you the right to fully participate in the decision to be moved.

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Q: I'm getting ready to leave foster care soon. Does my agency have to help me find a place to live?

A: If your goal is "APPLA" (if you're not planning on going back to live with your family or on being adopted), your agency should help you find housing. While you are still in care, they should teach you how to find an apartment, both through classes and by giving you hands-on help in actually looking for one. For example, they should take you to meet landlords and real estate agents, and continue to support you once you move out on your own.

Your agency also must help you get in touch with community organizations, previous foster parents, and/or relatives who can help you live on your own after you are discharged.

For more information, visit our Housing Resources section.

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Q: Can my agency help me pay the rent when I move out on my own?

A: Yes. The "rent subsidy" is a grant of money (up to $300 a month) from ACS that can be used to pay a part of your rent when you move into your own apartment. If you are discharged from foster care before your 21st birthday, you may be entitled to the rent subsidy, which can last for three years or until you turn 21. If you have a child, you are entitled to the rent subsidy for three years even after you turn 21.

The rent subsidy can be a good way to help you move out on your own, but it is not so easy to get. First you have to find an apartment or room to rent and a landlord who is willing to accept that part of the rent will be paid by ACS. Under the law, you can sign a lease once you are 18, but many landlords will not rent to young people. Second, landlords require money up front for a security deposit and usually the first month's rent. The rent subsidy may provide you with this money, but the application process usually takes a long time, and you may risk losing the apartment if you do not have the money up front.

The best thing to do is apply for the subsidy before you actually find an apartment, but you need to work closely with your social worker or caseworker to make sure that the application process is moving along.

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Q:  I live in a foster home. How much allowance should I get?

A:  There is no set amount of allowance that a young person living in a foster home (or group home) should receive. The law says that a foster child is supposed to receive a "regular allowance appropriate to age, which shall not be used to meet basic needs."

This means that a 16-year-old should get more than an 11-year-old, and the allowance you get is not supposed to be used to buy basic clothes, food, etc. (Your agency is supposed to provide you with those things.)

Agencies have different policies about what amount of allowance is appropriate. Some agencies have no written policies. The foster children must talk with the foster parent(s) to decide on the amount of the allowance. Your caseworker should make sure that the amount you decide on is fair to both sides.

Other agencies let the foster parent(s) decide the amount.

But some agencies do have written policies that say how much foster parents are supposed to give, with the amount depending on the child's age. Ask to see your agency's policy.

If you are not getting allowance from your foster parent(s) or if you feel you are not getting a fair amount, talk to your foster parent(s). You can also call your caseworker and tell her the problem. You have the right to receive an allowance.

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Q: I'm pregnant and I'm in foster care. What rights do I have?

A: You have the right to a placement where you can get all your maternity needs met (pre-natal medical care, education, counseling, etc.). That placement could either be a foster home or a "maternity residence," which is a group home for pregnant young women.

You have the right to continue your education while you are pregnant, in a school setting that is right for you. That may be your old school or one closer to your placement. You should not be put in a special education class just because you are pregnant. If you go to school at a maternity residence, you have the right to books and materials that are at your grade level, and to have a teacher or tutor who can teach you at that level.

You have the right to know what the plan is for you after you give birth. You should ask your ACS caseworker and your social workers where you will be going after the baby arrives. You should be able to visit these placements before you go to live there with your child. These may be mother-child group homes or mother-child foster homes. You have the right to be placed with your child.

You also have the same rights you had before you got pregnant: the right to an allowance, medical care, food, counseling or therapy (if you need or want it), visits with your family, etc.

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Q: Who has legal custody of my child when we're in mother-child foster home or group home?

A:  You have custody of your baby, unless ACS has been granted custody by the court. Custody of a child means the responsibility and right to take care of the child and make decisions about him or her.

A mother automatically has custody of her child when the baby is born. The fact that the mother is a minor (under 18 years old) does not take away her right to custody. The fact that the mother herself is in foster care does not take away her right to custody. You do not have to sign custody of your child over to ACS for your child to be placed with you. If you sign a "voluntary placement agreement," that means you give custody of your child to ACS. If you have done this, you should ask your social worker and lawyer why it was necessary. You may be able to take it back.

Having custody of your child is a big responsibility. You must make sure your child is safe and healthy, and not placed in situations that might be considered dangerous. Your foster parents, staff, agency, and ACS are going to watch you very carefully to see how you take care of your child and yourself. They want to make sure that you are mature and responsible enough to handle raising your child.

Even though your baby is in your custody, and you are technically the only one in foster care, your foster parent or group home should receive money to take care of both of you.

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Q: Can ACS separate me from my child?

A:  ACS can separate you from your child only if ACS believes that your child is at risk of abuse or neglect if left with you. (Abuse generally means inflicting injury on the child; neglect generally means failing to give the child enough food, clothing, or medical care.)

ACS has to file a case in Family Court to ask for your child to be placed separately from you. In this case, you will have to go to court also, and it is very important that you speak to a lawyer. To contact your lawyer or find a new one, call the numbers on this page.

ACS cannot take your child just because of your age or previous history. In other words, they cannot separate you from your child just because you are 17 and went AWOL from your group home last year.

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Q: What kinds of help can my child and I get in care?

A:  You have the right to counseling, education, training in parenting skills, day care, medical care, and services to help you get out of the system to live on your own or with your family.

ACS also must provide services to prevent your child from going into foster care and being separated from you, or to reunite you and your child if your child has been placed in foster care.

These are called preventive services and include things like case management and planning (having a caseworker help you while you are in the system and help you make plans to eventually leave the system); day care services (either a foster parent who will babysit or other arrangements); and clinical services (therapy or counseling, as well as medical care).

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Q: I’ve heard of teen moms in foster care getting their kids taken away because of neglect or abuse. What exactly constitutes neglect or abuse?

A: Although there are federal laws defining abuse and neglect, each state also has its own laws. The following are broad definitions to give you a general idea:

  • Child neglect is a parent or caretaker’s failure to provide a child’s basic needs. Some examples are: failure to provide food, adequate shelter or supervision, medical care, education, or psychological care. Leaving a small child home alone, not bringing a very sick child to a doctor, not sending a child to school regularly—anything that places a child’s health or safety at risk—can all be considered neglect.
  • Physical abuse is when a parent physically injures a child. Some examples are: beating, kicking, burning, choking, hitting (with a belt, telephone cord, hand, bat, etc.) or in another way harming a child. Parents are sometimes unsure of the line between punishments, like spanking, and abuse. It’s abuse if hitting is random or out of control, or results in bruises, welts, lacerations, or broken bones.
  • Sexual abuse includes touching a child’s genitals, rape, and indecent exposure.

There are many reasons why parents and caregivers abuse their children. Sometimes parents have serious troubles, like drug or alcohol abuse. Other times parents are under severe financial or emotional stress, and they take out their stress by yelling at, mocking, ignoring or hitting their children. Some parents just don’t know how to care for children. This may be because they were abused themselves as children and lacked a positive model of mothering or fathering.

If you are afraid that you might hurt your own child, or aren’t sure that you know how to be a caring parent, contact your caseworker right away. Counseling, parenting classes, financial support, or even respite care (a babysitter for a few days) can be provided to help you and your family.

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Q: Can my parents say where they want me to be placed?

A:  Your parents may influence where you are placed. However when in care, you are not in your parents' custody—you are in the custody of the City and State of New York. That means that ACS has ultimate authority in deciding where you are placed.

Unless your parents are dead or their rights were cut off by the courts (terminated), your parents are still your legal guardians. Even though they no longer have custody over you, they still have say over some "big" things in your life: for example, you can't change your name or your religion while in care without their permission, and they may have to give their permission for you to have certain medical procedures or to go on trips.

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Q: Under what conditions can I be put in a mental hospital?

A:  "Mental hospital" means the psychiatric ward of a regular hospital or a hospital only for people with psychiatric problems (Bellevue, Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center, etc.).

You can only be placed in a psychiatric ward if you are a "danger to yourself or others."

That means that a psychiatrist has met with you and believes that you are going to hurt yourself or someone else. This is more than just talk: you have to actually be hurting someone or threatening to do it. So, if you say that you are going to kill someone (or yourself), the next step should be for a psychiatrist to meet with you to see how serious you are about hurting yourself or others. Then the psychiatrist may decide that you should be held and observed in a psychiatric unit or hospital. If you do not want to go, it is considered an "involuntary commitment" and then two psychiatrists have to evaluate you and agree that you need to be in a hospital.

Going to a psychiatric hospital does not mean you are crazy. You may have gone through a lot and need special help in dealing with it. Many young people who are in the system go to psychiatric wards in hospitals at some point. Some go for just a few days, others spend months or longer. Most have schools or classes there, and you have the right to get an education while you are in a psychiatric hospital.

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Q: What about an RTC or RTF?

A: An RTC (residential treatment center) is a campus where kids live in group homes or "cottages.” You can be placed in a residential treatment center if your treatment team (social workers, caseworkers, or psychologists on your case) decide that you need a "higher level of care" This means that they think you need more supervision, more contact with a social worker, more therapy, or that the only way you will go to school is if you are on a campus. They are only supposed to place you in an RTC if you cannot get those services in your own community.

An RTF is a residential treatment facility. It is similar to an RTC in how it is set up, but it is for young people who have more serious mental/emotional needs than those living in RTCs. You can only be placed into an RTF if the State Office of Mental Health approves it. While at an RTF, you should see a psychiatrist regularly, especially if you are taking medication.

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Q: What can I do to get out of a psychiatric hospital, RTF, or RTC?

A: If you feel that you don't need to be in a psychiatric hospital, RTF, or RTC, first ask your social worker why you are there, what your treatment plan is, and what your "permanency planning goal" is. A treatment plan is the services—therapy, medication, education—you are supposed to get. Your permanency planning goal is where you will go after you leave the system: back home, to a relative, to be adopted, or to live on your own (this is called "APPLA," which stands for Another Planned Permanency Living Arrangement.)

You should ask your caseworker what the agency expects from you in order to get out; for example, going to school, not getting into fights, or attending meetings with your social worker.

Once the hospital or agency thinks you are ready to leave, they either must send you home or move you to a foster home or group home. To do that, they have to send out referrals to other agencies, and usually won't discharge you unless you are accepted to another program.

If you disagree with the agency's plan for you, call your law guardian.

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Q: What is a diagnostic center?

A: A diagnostic center is a group home or part of an RTC where you go for up to 90 days. Its purpose is to evaluate you to see whether you should be at home, getting help, or be placed in a foster care placement.

There are many reasons for you to be placed into a diagnostic center, ranging from truancy or learning disabilities, to family related problems or running away from home.

While you are at a diagnostic, they are supposed to do a full "psycho-evaluation" which means that your emotional, behavioral, and family circumstances are evaluated and should be discussed between the staff at the diagnostic center, the child, and the family. The diagnostic center then makes a recommendation for where you should be placed (group home, foster home, campus).

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Q: Can I change my social worker? How?

A: You don't have a legal right to change your social worker. But many agencies will give you a different social worker if you have a big personality conflict with your worker or if there are other reasons why the relationship is not helping you.

Before you ask them to do this, try to improve the relationship between you and your social worker. If that doesn't work out or if you think the disagreements are too big, the agency should then be willing to change your worker.

First, think about why you want to change workers. You may want to put these reasons in writing, so you are clear on what you will say to the agency. For example, if you want to change workers because you feel yours is out to lunch or away from her desk whenever you call, write down each time you call and how many times you actually get through.

Second, have a meeting with your social worker and discuss your reasons for wanting a different social worker. You may want to ask someone you trust (like a therapist) to come to the meeting, too.

Third, if after the meeting you still feel that nothing has changed, then you can set up another meeting with the supervisor of your social worker or with the director of your agency to see if they can give your case to a new social worker.

Fourth, you can ask your lawyer to speak to your social worker and the director of your agency.

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Q: If I go away to college, can I stay with my foster family?

A: It depends on your foster family's situation and the agency's policies. If the family wants you to come back on vacations and breaks, they can agree to hold your bed for you. But this means that while you are away, they do not get paid (you are put on "suspended payment") and they have an empty bed in their house. They only get foster care money for the days that you are back in the house (on "active payment" status).

So some families might want to take in another foster child to take your bed. Depending on the size of their home, they may or may not have room for you when you come back. The agency may be able to find you another place to stay if you cannot return to the foster home. You should talk to your foster parents and social worker to find out what your options are if you go away to college.

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Q: Can my agency withhold my stipend or clothing allowance as punishment?

A: New York City and State policy says that an agency may not withhold your clothing allowance or independent living stipend as punishment.

The agency must give you your independent living stipend as long as you participate in the independent living program (by attending workshops, etc.). The agency must also make sure you have adequate clothing, and cannot hold back your clothing money as punishment.

Your agency is allowed to withhold your regular allowance as punishment, but they must give you a chance to earn it back (for example, by letting you do extra chores).

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Q: What can I do if a group home staff member or social worker gossips about my personal problems to other staff?

A: There is no law that says that staff (counselors, child care workers, caseworkers) and social workers cannot discuss you or things you say with other staff. In fact, they have to share information with other staff to make sure you get the right help, services, and treatment.

But it is extremely unprofessional for a staff person to talk about you if it is not for treatment purposes or some other professional reason. It is considered a "breach of confidentiality."

You cannot assume that everything you tell a staff person or social worker is confidential. For example, if a staff member thinks you may hurt yourself or someone else, or if you tell them about child abuse, they have to report that to a supervisor. But you can ask them to tell you if they think they can or cannot keep something confidential.

What can you do if a staff person violates your trust and confidentiality?

  1. Tell them why you are upset.
  2. Tell your caseworker what happened.
  3. Call or write a letter to someone higher up in the agency, like the clinical director or the group home director. Describe what happened and ask them to tell you what they plan to do about this situation.

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Q: I want to see my sister. I've only seen her twice since I was placed into foster care five months ago. What should I do?

A: First, if your sister is also in foster care, you have the right to be placed together unless there are no placements available to accomodate you both, or unless someone (like a psychologist, psychiatrist, doctor, or certified social worker) says that it is not in your or her best interests. This means that it would not be good for your health or safety (or hers) for you to be in touch with her now.

If you are placed apart from each other you have the right to visit or communicate with her every other week. If you are far from each other, visits may happen less often. However, in that case you should be allowed to talk by phone or write to each other. Your caseworker must arrange visits or phone calls unless it has been determined that contact would not be in your or your sister's best interest. The visits can be at the agency, at the home of a family member or in the foster home depending on what is most appropriate for you and your sister. The agency should provide you with transportation money to get to and from visits. You should be allowed to visit with your sister privately, unless a judge has said that the visits should be supervised.

If you have spoken to your caseworker about visits and phone calls with your sister but still have not had contact with her, call your law guardian. Your law guardian can speak to your agency on your behalf and remind them of your legal right to visits with your siblings and other family members. If necessary, your law guardian can go to court and get a judge to order the agency to arrange regular visits for you and your family members.

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