After turning 18, foster youth Louis Reed struggled to find stability. Only after spending months without a home did he realize that he might be able to qualify for extended foster care benefits under California’s Assembly Bill 12.
The California Fostering Connections to Success Act, also known as AB 12, was signed into law in 2010 and now extends foster care benefits and other resources to youth up to age 21. But when Reed wanted more information about it from his social worker, he found few answers.
“When I asked my social worker about AB 12, she was clueless,” said Reed, now 20. “I used to be homeless and sleep on couches, why didn’t I know about this? Social workers should already know about this, but they don’t.”
California Youth Connection, a youth-led advocacy group, held its annual Summer Leadership and Policy Conference July 9-13 in Fresno, Calif. Current and former foster youth like Reed took center stage during a forum on Monday to voice their ideas about how to improve experiences and outcomes for youth in foster care. Topics included educational support, extended foster care, social worker accountability, and adoption.
The forum was the culmination of four days of meetings and discussions among youth from across the state about key issues that CYC might focus on in the year ahead. The goal of the conference is to turn the youths’ ideas into legislation. Youth facilitators also trained CYC members in conflict resolution, community organizing, and facilitation skills.
After brainstorming ideas during the conference, youth presented three recommendations for each of the four policy areas to the audience. A guest panel comprised of Director of the California Department of Social Services Will Lightbourne, Director of the Coordinated Student Support and Adult Education Division of the California Department of Education Gordon Jackson, Foster Youth in Action Executive Director Matt Rosen, and CYC Policy Committee member Mariah Corder weighed in on their favorite recommendations in each of the policy areas and offered feedback.
According to CYC Policy Coordinator Vanessa Hernandez, youth-led recommendations have resulted in several key California laws, including bills on sibling visitation, driver’s licenses for foster youth, and a bill of rights for children in foster care. Since its start 27 years ago, CYC has relied on youth leaders to determine the policy priorities for the organization because of their unique perspectives, Hernandez said.
“These youth are experts in the child welfare system because they have lived experience, and they can tell you first-hand what is working and what is not working, the accessibility of different services, and their quality,” she said.
Reed’s group presented a recommendation that spoke to his own experience of extended foster care.
“Social workers should be required to have a mandatory orientation to inform their foster youth about extended foster care six months [before they leave foster care],” Reed said. “And [social workers should] ensure the completion of a transition-age life skills checklist—achievement and goals that youth should know before they are emancipated, such as learning how to cook, learning time management, learning how to be independent.”
Reed now has a new social worker who has helped him find his own place to live for the first time. She also encouraged him to become involved with advocacy efforts through CYC, an experience that he has found inspiring.
“Just being with a bunch of youth who have all walked the same path and been in the same boat is phenomenal,” Reed said. “We had fun [this weekend], but we also took care of business.”
“I definitely don’t want the next generation to end up like I did, wondering where are we going to go tonight, what food are we going to eat. I know that feeling when you have to think about food. It hurts. But now I know what I can do so you don’t have to go down that same path.”