When teens and young adults who’ve lived through homelessness and foster care gather this year to tell Washington state policymakers what their peers need most, the youth advocates will have three priorities: they want lawyers for every foster child, a task force to focus on the experience of Native Americans and better support for the newly independent.
The youth advocates, ages 13 to 25, represent seven local chapters of The Mockingbird Society, that gather monthly to identify challenges and issues affecting their peers. Informed by community partners and staff at the Mockingbird nonprofit, they craft possible policy solutions to problems young people face, before gathering at an annual summer summit where members vote on their top priorities.
“The best policy is made when people who are directly impacted are involved in the policymaking,” said Liz Trautman, director of public policy and advocacy at The Mockingbird Society, which aims to transform foster care and end youth homelessness.
In the fall, the young people shift into advocacy mode as they refine their proposals and identify legislators who will champion their bills. The program, in effect, trains young people to be their own best advocates.
Among this year’s advocates are Heaven Calvert, Yakima chapter lead, and Dre Thornock, Everett chapter lead.
Calvert, 23, was in and out of foster care for as long as she can remember. “It was scary,” she said of her first time in court — an experience that lives with her as she crafts ways to improve the lives of other children. “I was shy and nervous. I had to make really important decisions, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing.”
Calvert considers herself lucky. She doesn’t know why, but she was awarded a lawyer to help her navigate those dizzying court proceedings, which included two failed adoptions and a third successful one.
“Just having someone sit there with me was a big help,” Calvert said. “She would explain things — explain what the judge would say — and tell me: ‘This is your right.’ “
Washington has a patchwork system of legal representation for children, with only 12 counties that automatically appoint attorneys for youth after a certain age. Most children don’t have representation in the dependency court process, which determines whether a child’s parent or guardian is abusive or neglectful and can lead to temporary or permanent removal from the parent’s home.
This, despite the fact that their needs, wishes and views are essential to the success of any foster care placement, as well as the child’s need to be an active participant in their lives and decisions about who will care for them.
Preliminary research from Washington’s Office of Civil Legal Aid shows that high quality, well-trained attorneys for children increased the rate of permanency by 22%.
A national “report card” on each state’s laws for effective legal representation for abused and neglected children gave Washington an F. The report, by First Star and the Children’s Advocacy Institute, objected to the discretionary nature of decisions around which children get appointed lawyers in Washington.
Calvert’s life was dictated by the courts, and she longed to meet other foster youth when she attended her first Youth Advocacy meeting. She said she felt intimidated but reluctantly returned nonetheless. Today, seven years later, she’s hoping the Legislature will make legal representation for all young people a law, an issue she’s worked on for several years that she describes as “my baby.”
Mockingbird’s youth advocates would like the state to appoint attorneys to all children in foster care. State Rep. Noel Frame, a former foster parent to younger family members, has been a champion of the bill, which she introduced on Jan. 15 and is scheduled for a committee hearing Wednesday morning.
Legislation proposed by Mockingbird’s youth advocates calling for a Native American task force has not yet been introduced, but Washington state Sen. Derek Stanford (D) expects it to be in the coming weeks.
The bill would create an intergovernmental task force to analyze coordination between tribal governments and state agencies that serve youth experiencing foster care and homelessness.
“I’m really impressed by the persistence and drive that I’ve seen in the youth advocates,” Stanford told The Imprint. And despite this year’s budget pressure due to the pandemic, he’s optimistic about the bill’s passage. “The Legislature has prioritized racial equity, and it’s important to have those voices centered in this conversation.”
Native American children in Washington are 2.9 times more likely to be placed into foster care than white children, according to state data. Similarly, Native American young people are overrepresented in the homeless population in the state, with about 14% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identified as American Indian or Native American. The bill would require coordination from all of those involved to find better solutions to tackle their overrepresentation.
Youth advocate Thornock, 20, is an enrolled member of the Tulalip Tribe who grew up in and out of foster care from a young age. Thornock, who identifies as two-spirit, a traditional Native American term for a third gender, spent 12 years with a foster family in Arlington. But at age 16, the family kicked out the teen — who identifies at times as “they” — when they began identifying as two-spirit.
Thornock hopes the task force will shed light on the connection between tribal youth and murdered and missing indigenous women as well as two-spirit youth. They’ve had family and friends among the ranks of missing and murdered women and as a two-spirit, making daily life fearful.
Thornock became involved with Mockingbird’s youth program three years ago, which has sparked interest in a possible future career.
“I honestly love the outreach and being able to connect with legislators,” they said. “When you have youth who are talking to them directly, it helps get rid of biases about foster youth.”
Mockingbird’s Trautman said in the 20 years since her organization was founded, its youth advocate teams have championed more than 50 successful legislative reforms. Those efforts include the state’s creation of an extended foster care program, assistance for foster youth and tribal members attending college, as well as a law streamlining access to state identification cards for young people without parents to assist.
Mockingbird sponsors a youth advocacy day each year, with hundreds of young people speaking directly to 50 or more legislators about the bills they support. This year they’ll hold the event Friday, Feb. 5 over Zoom.
Both Calvert and Thornock said they eagerly await the opportunity to share their ideas with lawmakers, a way to make life easier for the younger people coming up behind them. Thornock is already taking notes and thinking about next year’s legislative session, noting: “I have a lot more ideas and possibilities.”