A big step toward the new system starts Monday. Two former foster youth talk about the change.

Foster care. Redesign. Big words that imply big change.

In many ways, Foster Care Redesign really is a big change: it represents a fundamental shift in the way we do business with child placing agencies and foster parents. But our priorities remain the same - to keep children safe while working steadfastly towards happy endings to stories that had unhappy beginnings.

Fundamentally, this means two things. First, we will do everything we can to keep children close to their homes, families, and communities, ultimately disrupting their lives as little as possible. In the current system, children are too often placed hundreds of miles away from their homes, uprooting them from everything familiar in their lives - family, friends, school, and even belongings. Put yourself in their shoes - how would you feel?

Second, we will provide incentives to help children improve. Today we pay foster care providers based on the level services they provide our children. So, the greater a child's problems, the higher the level of services and the more the providers get paid. The new system will take the opposite approach. It's designed to create financial incentives for better outcomes, including less time in temporary, substitute care and quickly moving children and youths into permanent placements (including reunification, kinship care, and adoption). In other words, we reward success.

Foster Care Redesign is based on two basic pillars. The first is real world evidence. DFPS studied the data with clear eyes and sound statistical analysis. Second, we asked the people who know the system best: the children who live in it and those who care for them every day - our foster care providers.

Through a series of forums and a workgroup called Public Private Partnership (PPP), many stakeholders - including child placing agencies and other service providers - were involved in laying the groundwork for the new system. But no voice was louder or more effective in setting the direction for the new system than the voice of youth currently or formerly in foster care.

On Monday, August 1, DFPS issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for Foster Care Redesign. In response, service providers will design nuts-and-bolts proposals for implementing the new system. On the eve of this milestone, DFPS talked about Foster Care Redesign with two young women who experienced CPS foster care from several perspectives. Both of them lived in foster care for a number of years, and both of them later worked for DFPS.

Caroline Bogues spent her high school years in foster care, separated from her siblings and experienced both positive and not-so-positive relationships with foster parents and CPS workers. Courtney Jones spent 10 years in foster care and experienced the grief and loss of being separated from her friends and community.

Q. What was your role in the redesign process?

Caroline: I was the "youth voice" on the Public Private Partnership group, which was the guiding body for Foster Care Redesign. As someone who lived in the system, it was my job to ensure that the interests of children and youth in care were well represented. I participated in the monthly meetings, reviewed all stakeholder input, expressed issues and concerns, and worked with the PPP to reach consensus on changes that would benefit children and youth in care.

I think we did a good job of keeping the focus on children, youth, and families. That's how consensus on recommendations was finally reached.

Courtney: As the liaison to the Statewide Youth Leadership Council, a group of children currently involved with CPS. I facilitated direct input from youth by keeping them informed about Foster Care Redesign and making sure they had a variety of ways to provide their opinions. For instance, those who weren't comfortable expressing themselves at meetings could provide written comments and recommendations. The Council endorsed the Quality Indicators (see above) proposed by the PPP, and they recommended two additional indicators which were later adopted by the PPP.

Over the past several years, we've made numerous efforts to solicit input from youth in care. That input was also considered, and it is evident in the final redesign.

Q: How do you think Foster Care Redesign will impact youth in care? How would it have changed your experience?

Caroline: Two things in the redesigned system will make a big difference to children and youth. First, the service level system is eliminated. This will mean fewer moves for the children while they are in care, and it will place less emphasis on documenting "bad" behavior and more emphasis on documenting the positives. Second, the emphasis on achieving permanency faster will mean that both DFPS and our service providers will be focused on getting children and youth back to families - whether that means their parents, relatives, or someone else who wants to make a permanent family for them. Stays in foster care should be shorter with everyone working toward the same goal.

Also, in the redesigned system the emphasis is on placing siblings together - which is really important. It is hard to reestablish a relationship with your siblings after you are placed apart. If you were placed together, you could advocate for your siblings, help them understand being in care, and help them learn about their family and culture. You worry about your siblings whether you are placed together or not. Additionally, being separated from your siblings sometimes leads to placement disruptions, because brothers and sisters are always trying to get back together. Your relationship with your siblings should be the longest relationship you'll ever have.

Courtney: I think my experience would've been different because I would have been placed in my home community. Also, one of the things the Youth Leadership Council wanted to make sure got included was providing youth in care a more "normal" experience - letting them do things that their friends who aren't in care are doing, like dating, spending the night at friends, getting a job, or earning a driver's license.

My educational experience also would've been different if I hadn't moved so much and had been able to stay in the same school. College would've been much easier. In fact, I think my whole attitude regarding foster care would've been different if I could've stayed in my home community.

I agree with Caroline that getting rid of the service level system will make a big difference. Behavior that can be a normal part of development won't be used as a reason to raise a service level, and the kids won't be moved just because they want to do something that would be considered "normal" for kids not in foster care. The incentives in the redesigned system will be on children and youth getting better, not worse.

Caroline: Foster youth should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. Sometimes foster parents are afraid to let youth make mistakes. That takes away "teachable moments" that youth not in foster care experience all the time. Sometimes, foster parents want to let the youth do certain things, but they think they can't because of licensing standards or CPS policy. Better communication between DFPS and the providers should help everyone.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add regarding Foster Care Redesign?

Caroline: You can't overestimate the importance of finding that one strong person who can make a difference in a child's life. Whether it is a caseworker, a foster parent, or someone else, every child and youth deserves at least one person who really cares about them and believes in them. We have to make better efforts to find those people.

The other important thing as the new system rolls out is to communicate well with children in the system about the positive benefits for them. Emphasize the importance and value of making permanent connections - even if it means giving up some of the financial benefits of being in foster care.

Courtney: I'd say, "Be patient with the system and all the changes." Sometimes CPS staffers get discouraged because change takes so long or, conversely, happens so often. If you look back at how much progress we've made over the past several years, you realize change can happen - and change is good.