“Stand tall” was the mantra for 85 foster youth leaders from 25 states, who arrived in Washington, D.C. last weekend for Foster Youth in Action’s annual Leaders for Change conference.
The Leaders for Change (L4C) conference gathered a network of foster youth-led advocacy groups from around the country. This year, representatives from 23 groups discussed local advocacy efforts and met with legislators on Capitol Hill. In the past, young people’s efforts through these channels have helped implement changes like extending the age of foster care in California and getting New Mexico’s foster youth access to free college tuition at publicly funded schools through a waiver law.
These foster youth leaders — most are between 14 and 24 years old — also built relationships with each other, as embodied by the spontaneous and fiery chants of “L4C! Family!” by the youth, adult supporters and staff.
Those enthusiastic calls echoed during breaks from presentations by individual Foster Youth in Action (FYA) chapters to the whole group and at a rally at the United States Supreme Court.
At a gathering held on the steps of the highest court in the land, youth held up signs that represented the most important national policy issues facing foster youth. Identified by the youth themselves as common challenges for young people in foster care, they include maintaining sibling connections, better training for foster parents and more support transitioning into independent adulthood, among others.
Following are summaries of key policy issues, according to Leaders for Change participants.
“My sign says ‘Needed: Housing and Employment. We can’t do this without you.’ So this is really directed toward those that can help and support us because — I’m from California — and we have a lack of housing especially for non-minor dependents — that means people who age out of foster care … end up homeless. And I’ve been there. And that’s why I think it’s really important for us. [Steps people can take are] being aware, spreading the word, being there with us, supporting us. That’s really what’s the most important. Because we can’t ask for much, but support.”
Corinna Gallo, 22, California
“My sign is ‘Forgive and Take Action.’ It’s not my direct story of what I’m trying to raise awareness for, but at the same time we try to forgive these foster parents for the things that they’ve done to us that weren’t necessarily the best — whether that’s psychological abuse, physical abuse, not caring for us in the right way — and then we take action to better it. That’s what all of us are here for, we’re taking action to better the system. My thing that I really want to get ahold of is these foster parents, these DCF workers, are trained on a college textbook education, but I feel that that’s not right. Textbook educations are great, but they need to be trained in a more realistic setting and in the real world, because that is the best training and that is how they’re going to be able to really work with these kids and really get them on the right track in life.”
Nate Farnham, 18, Vermont.
“My sign says ‘Unprepared After Foster Care’ and essentially it means that when youth are transitioning out of foster care, they just kind of get absorbed into the crowd, and there’s not as many resources available for them … It’s an important message because we need as much help as we can to provide resources for youth transitioning.”
Cora Oden, 16, Georgia
“[My sign] represents me and my siblings.
There’s five of us all together but we all got split up when we got in the system. And back then, that was kind of a common practice. But it’s small things like that that kind of have lasting repercussions into life and into adulthood. Sibling connections is one of the issues that was raised up in a national poll by FYA and it’s profound, honestly. It’s like, your siblings are where you learn everything … it’s such a key part of your social-emotional development, and to not have that is to almost set people up to fail. So it’s incredibly basic on a kind of bureaucratic but also holistic level. But the repercussions are deep, very deep … That’s one of the biggest things I’m trying to piece back together is my family … Siblings is where it starts, so I think that by doing something as simple as prioritizing the natural connections that a foster youth already has — this isn’t even talking about bringing in extra resources, this is just like what we literally had. To take that away it’s inhumane, honestly.”
Noah Nash, 26, California