Maria Contreras is a member of the child welfare community. She has experienced the heartaches of the child welfare system first hand, worked with youth impacted by the system, and now works at the National Center for Youth Law, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit law firm dedicated to advocating with and on behalf of vulnerable children and youth by transforming systems impacting their lives, such as the juvenile justice, child welfare, immigration systems and others. Contreras is a Mills College graduate with a master’s in public policy.
This Q&A with Contreras has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
What was a pivotal turning point in your life, or a particular event or challenge that shaped you?
I don’t know that I can choose one particular event that shaped me because there were several. I think some of the major events that pushed me to survive was entering the foster care system and then having to deal with not only the trauma and abuse, including experiencing homelessness while being a young parent, that led to being in the system in the first place. There was very little that the system did to address that trauma.
How did the child welfare system shape your views on youth homelessness?
The child welfare system shaped my views on youth homelessness in a way that helped me understand the trajectory of how youth have to struggle so much just to get the minimum of services. Having been in the system myself, having been homeless myself, and having been a direct service provider just cemented the idea that we are not doing nearly enough to set up youth for success when it comes to making sure youth don’t become homeless.
Does the child welfare system do a good job of mitigating youth homelessness? If so, how? If not, do you have suggestions for improvement?
No! I know youth who experience homelessness while in the system. In fact, so many youth are forced to change placements so many times that it almost feels like couch surfing which is a form of homelessness. What’s more even if a youth has a house to live in there is very little to address the homelessness that happens after a youth emancipates from the system. It is a cycle that the child welfare system has not addressed in a sustainable way. Like now that AB 12 is in place and youth can opt in for services till 21 there still isn’t a way for youth to maintain stable housing after that. There needs to be a system that makes itself accountable to that and responsive to the needs of youth that don’t always have parental figures to fall back to if something goes wrong. The system assumes that once a youth is 18 or 21 or whatever they are able to take care of themselves as “adults” yet even kids not involved in the system are going back home to live with their parents but that’s not an option for a lot of us.
When and if you (first hand) or your organization (clients) were confronted with youth homelessness how did you feel? Were there adequate supports in place?
When I experienced homelessness I was 13-14 years old with a newborn and I just fell through the cracks and, as you can imagine, it felt horrible to not be able to provide stability for my child and I was terrified that if I sought services CPS would remove my child because that’s what you are told that will happen by people who had their children removed because of side effects of homelessness. When I served youth who experienced homelessness it was the same helplessness because the shortage of foster homes and just homes, in general, is so bad that for some youth it’s not worth letting us know they are homeless. It’s devastating for youth to come to you and disclose their situation and then as a provider having to fill out hundreds of pages of paperwork, wait for an interview, and then maybe they will get a place to live that is not a shelter or group home.
Do you find it ironic that youth homelessness exists in the U.S. when we have a child welfare system?
Hahaha yes! I mean usually, the system intervenes when it’s too late. There is a shortage of community services for families experiencing homelessness as a whole and the child welfare system sometimes makes youth vulnerable to homelessness and further abuse.
Feel free to add anything else here regarding youth homelessness!
The last thing I will add is that the child welfare system should be there to intervene and protect the family unit as a whole before it’s too late. Not to take children away and not do anything with the trauma youth and families carry and even add more trauma. A home is such a basic and such a core to the well-being of children, youth, and families that we should be striving to fulfill that need.