A ‘bill of rights’ for Louisiana’s foster children moves closer to passage

Bill would apply to 14- to 18-year-olds in the state’s foster care system

By: - May 18, 2021 2:00 pm

Tiffany Cruz, Jarvis Spearman and Zeren — three former foster children who are all currently social workers — testify in favor of a Foster Youth’s Bill of Rights (Courtesy of Louisiana State Legislature Broadcast Archives)

Alliyah Zeren, now an adult, entered the foster care system in Louisiana at 13 years old “due to abuse and neglect within my own biological family,” she told lawmakers. Though she hoped for a more secure home life in foster care, Zeren said she was treated without dignity or respect by the system.

Zeren is not only a supporter of  “The Louisiana Elite Advocacy Force Act” — which would establish a bill of rights for teenage foster children — she also worked with state Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) in helping craft it.  The House Health and Welfare Committee advanced the bill without objection Tuesday.

If passed, SB 151 would establish the “Foster Youth’s Bill of Rights” — including the rights to receive an education, religious freedom, privacy, freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression — for teens ages 14 through 18 in foster care throughout the state. The bill also allows foster youth the right to attend all court hearings regarding their care and “participate in all case plan meetings,” according to the legislation.

Though Barrow is listed as SB 151’s author, she said May 5 that the bill was crafted by Tiffany Cruz, Jarvis Spearman and Zeren — three former foster children who are all currently social workers.

“Our bill came directly from youth stories,” Zeren said. “A lot of youth were violated physically, sexually, or emotionally while they were in their own biological homes. And unfortunately, a lot of times those experiences are only further compounded.”

When the bill was heard by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee May 5, Zeren said, “When I tried to speak up, many times, I felt like my voice didn’t matter or I was unheard. This caused me to develop a deep sense of self loathing and feel like I didn’t matter and unworthiness that stuck with me well into my adult life.”

Zeren said May 5 throughout her time in foster care, she only attended only one court hearing regarding her care.

“I can’t recall the time when I actually had an in-person meeting with an attorney to represent me or my rights,” Zeren said. “So I suppose that they just spoke as to what they thought that I needed or wanted.”

“We have to ask ourselves, are we providing for (foster youth) a better environment than the one they were removed from? Are we stripping them of the same normalcy, rights and love that they may have lacked in their biological homes?” Zeren asked. “It’s up to us to make a difference and this ‘Foster Youth’s Bill of Rights’ will do exactly that.”

The Senate unanimously approved Barrow’s legislation.  Now that it’s cleared the House committee, the bill moves to the House floor.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.