Child welfare services nationwide are undergoing a historic transformation spurred by years of advocacy. Critical to this movement are the voices of those who are personally impacted by these services particularly young people like me who have experienced foster care. Collectively, we have called for and guided the development of this transformation.
As the Biden-Harris administration begins to take shape, I urge them to continue the current administration’s integration of youth voices and expertise in setting federal child welfare policy.
Earlier this year, I moved from grassroots advocacy to serving as the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) first youth engagement coordinator within the Administration on Children and Families, a position created by the administration’s leaders on child welfare, Lynn Johnson and Jerry Milner. This position was the result of the work alumni of foster care have been doing since the 1980s to inform decision makers about the urgent need to transform the child welfare system into a family well-being system.
As the youth engagement coordinator, I developed an inaugural team including 11 other alumni who partner with HHS leadership to encourage the transformation. The team hosted three roundtables with Administration of Children and Families leadership where team members provided insights and recommendations on policy related to different aspects of older youth permanency. Individual team members also met with HHS staff to share their perspectives on policy and learn about the federal process. This partnership was made possible with support from FosterClub, Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA) and Casey Family Programs.
It’s absolutely critical that this partnership and meaningful youth engagement continues during the next four years. Federal and state child welfare agencies have a long way to go to be fully transformed into systems that we can all be proud of. The value of engaging young people in this transformation is well established.
The passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 is a great example. Thanks to the work of many, youth and family voices were central to the development of Family First. Similarly, alumni were integral to the development of the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative (FYI) at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Our voices are now needed to make sure these laws are successfully implemented and to continue pushing for an even broader transformation of the system.
My youth engagement experiences on local and national councils, in ACF and Congress have emphasized to me how important it is that alumni have opportunities to influence policymakers at the highest levels of our government. Since beginning my work in Washington, D.C., in 2019, I have met foster youth alumni who are serving in top roles of government: as staffers, in state leadership, even as members of Congress. Each of them appreciates how the voices of younger alumni inform their own expertise and leads to even better improvements to federal and state policy and practice.
We are the ones who can provide perspectives that inform policymaking and implementation. We’re the ones who will demand that justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion be at the center of policy making. We speak with authority about how foster care needs to transition to family-based support – and how we can do that. Many of us still continue to receive services as older youth – or only recently ended those services – and are therefore well positioned to speak on how to best prepare us to succeed. We’re the ones new HHS leadership needs if they truly want to remake how children and families are supported and kept safe and healthy going forward.
As my time at HHS comes to an end, I happily reflect on the impact former foster youth have made and must continue to make. Alongside alumni from across the country, I strongly urge President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris to both continue and strengthen this engagement going forward.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of talent among foster youth alumni, many of whom are ready to step into this role. Highly qualified candidates can be found among the youth leaders currently engaged with the National Foster Youth & Alumni Policy Council, FosterClub, FCAA and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute to name just a few sources.
We have many challenges in front of us. Decision makers need to meet those challenges hand in hand with foster youth alumni. Any plans for realizing our shared goals should be informed by our experience and expertise. We know what works since our outcomes show the success and failures of a system which is tasked to serve our needs.