She was the first former foster youth to lead the office in its 22-year history.
She survived abuse in her family home and an alienating stint in foster care that left her with untreated trauma and too many misdiagnoses and debilitating meds. But she emerged as the first former foster youth to serve as ombudsperson for California’s child welfare system.
Now, Rochelle Trochtenberg is stepping down from her role with the Department of Social Services overseeing the care of 60,000 children to pursue a license in clinical social work and start her career as a therapist.
On Tuesday, the 38-year-old will be feted by dozens of well-wishers, from young people she has helped navigate through hardships in group and foster homes, to advocates and top-ranking state officials.
“Working within a system that often entirely forgets the needs of children while responding to the demands of the adults, Rochelle has been an extraordinary leader focused on children,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, “especially those who most need protection and who are often mischaracterized, overlooked and dismissed.”
After 25 years living and working in and around foster care, Trochtenberg’s last day in her public office is Friday. She has served as ombudsperson for foster care — a job focused on enforcing the rights of children in the state system — since 2016.
“I have contributed my entire professional career to child welfare and foster care,” she told The Imprint. “Part of my own journey and healing is to also explore other identities and other ways of thinking about my professional career.”
As the first former foster youth to lead the ombudsperson’s office in its 22-year history, Trochtenberg is widely praised for her work. She has doubled the number of staff who youth can call to learn about their rights or lodge complaints about their treatment, and leaves the office having submitted budget requests for even more hires.
Trochtenberg also helped enact a 2016 law to reevaluate the state’s foster youth bill of rights and map out plans to update it. Having worked as an advocate to develop the bill before becoming ombudsperson, she had a strong investment in getting the project right. Her team took an additional year to conduct further research, and in 2019 the state passed perhaps the most comprehensive foster youth bill of rights in the country.
Enshrined in that law are particular protections around young people’s racial, cultural, sexual and gender identities, preventing for example, foster parents forcing transgender teens to wear clothes that don’t match their identity or using pronouns they’re not comfortable with.
Trochtenberg’s office then spread the word, making sure foster youth, as well as their caregivers, social workers and others involved in their cases knew about the children’s rights and how to protect them.
During her tenure, Trochtenberg had a new, user-friendly website designed to replace the outdated, nonfunctional one she inherited — one longtime advocate called the former website relic “comical, but tragic,” with information only offered in English.
To make sure even the youngest foster children could advocate for themselves, Trochtenberg also developed a downloadable coloring book that teaches kids they have the right to see their brothers and sisters, participate in afterschool activities, and have privacy at home. All of the new materials are now offered in multiple languages, better reflecting the diverse population of families in the child welfare system.
“Whoever takes over next is going to be in such a better position to serve youth because of what she’s done,” said Anna Johnson, a policy advocate with the nonprofit John Burton Advocates for Youth.
Johnson met Trochtenberg nearly a decade ago at meetings of the state’s Child Welfare Council and quickly recognized her as a “visionary.” Back then, the young advocate — who left foster care, earned a master’s degree and worked with transition-age youth in Humboldt County — was the lone voice in the room describing teens not as “troubled,” but in need of “trauma-informed care,” a phrase that is now commonplace.
“She could see how people should be treated, and she could hold people to account for the patterns of wrongdoing,” Johnson said. “She had a clear understanding of what could be and what should be, and can vocalize it and make it happen.”
Trochtenberg’s advocacy was particularly effective because of her willingness to share her personal story, helping lawmakers and the public understand how broken the foster care system is, even when it meant exposing and revisiting her darkest traumas.
“It’s been my nature — and it’s probably one of the reasons they hired me,” she said. “I’m not quiet.”
In 2014, Trochtenberg’s story was featured in an investigative series in the San Jose Mercury News focusing on the excessive use of psychotropic drugs on foster youth, and how pharmaceutical companies lured doctors to prescribe them. In the series and an accompanying documentary video, Trochtenberg described in a soft and powerful voice the years of sexual and physical abuse she suffered, childhood experiences that led her to such a dark depression that she attempted suicide in seventh grade.
When she was taken into foster care at age 13, rather than getting appropriate treatment for the trauma she’d endured throughout childhood, she was labelled with a slew of inaccurate diagnoses and handed piles of prescriptions for psychiatric drugs that are not approved for children. She recalled feeling so drugged that basic tasks like putting on make-up or combing her hair “felt like climbing a mountain,” she told reporters. When Trochtenberg aged out of foster care, she was on 10 psychotropic drugs.
The exposé, which found one in four adolescents in California’s foster care system were prescribed psychotropics, spurred swift policy reform, resulting in a series of new laws and greater oversight that has drastically reduced the use of the often-harmful drugs on children under the state’s care.
Trochtenberg, who co-founded the Humboldt County Transition Age Youth Collaborative, worked with other leaders in the field to shape the reforms, and repeatedly testified in legislative hearings.
Youth Law Center director Rodriguez — a former foster youth and now attorney who served as the first student assistant for the ombudsperson’s office 20 years ago — called Trochtenberg “a strong and relentless voice” within the California Department of Social Services. She was “the person that we as advocates have relied on to make sure the voice of young people, rather than politics, administrative convenience or risk avoidance, guides the care of California children in foster care,” Rodriguez said.
During the past five years, Trochtenberg navigated the terrible twists of recent history from her statewide post, including the separation of migrant families that funneled hundreds of children into California foster homes. More recently, she shepherded the emergency return of more than a hundred California foster youth who had been placed in dangerous out-of-state treatment facilities.
Then, a year ago when the pandemic hit, the lives of the children in foster care abruptly shifted online — another massive monitoring task for the ombudsperson’s office — with critical school attendance, court appearances and family visits all taking place on often-shaky digital platforms. Throughout, Trochtenberg’s office connected youth and families with the technology they needed to facilitate these critical services — an “all-consuming” task for at least six months, she said.
State officials joined advocates and former foster youth praising Trochtenberg’s tenure, including her former boss, Will Lightbourne, who now heads the state’s Department of Health Services.
“What I said when I appointed her as the Foster Care Ombudsman was, ‘It is a rare pleasure to be able to appoint the perfect person to the right position at the right time,’” Lightbourne wrote in an email to The Imprint. “In every way that I had the opportunity to work with her in that role, she fulfilled that prediction.”
Lightbourne’s successor Kim Johnson, now director of the Department of Social Services, called Trochtenberg a “tremendous” advocate for youth in foster care.
“She’s not afraid of asking difficult questions in her pursuit of justice,” Johnson said. “We have all benefited from Rochelle’s perspective, values and tireless pursuit of what is right.”
While Johnson has not yet appointed the next ombudsperson, Rodriguez said she hopes whoever succeeds Trochtenberg will work as closely as she did with young people who have lived through foster care — and focus as she has on dismantling failed policies and developing forward-thinking strategies.
“Rochelle brought to her role a different way that foster care can operate, in which every child, no matter the labels they have been slapped with by the system, receives the parenting and support they need to thrive,” Rodriguez said.
In her career’s next chapter as a clinician, Trochtenberg said she will explore non-Western therapy modalities that draw on the healing potential of nature. In a recent session she benefited from, Trochtenberg said her therapist incorporated kayaking into her care and treatment. She plans to use a similarly creative approach in her future practice, making mental health care more accessible and effective for people who are less comfortable in traditional therapy settings.
While she’s working on completing her licensure requirements, Trochtenberg is also gardening and will soon adopt and train a service dog who can share company with her future clients. At home in Sacramento, she has a habit of taking in neglected things, and nursing them back to vibrancy.
“I like to find the plants that have been thrown away in dumpsters or left on the sidewalk and try to give them a home,” she said.
As for the office of the ombudsperson, her greatest hope is that her successor works to push the rights of foster youth to the forefront of every conversation about child welfare.
“We have a system that is harming people and harming children, and no ombudsperson is going to fix that,” she said. “But what they can do is try to keep making incremental change to ensure those who are the most marginalized and have the least access and agency, making sure that those voices are ultimately heard and considered.”