Imagine you’re 8 years old, being taken from your home in the middle of the night and placed into a stranger’s house. Soon, you’re moved to another home, and another home, and another one. Then, you are placed into multiple facilities, forced into therapy, and overly medicated to the point that your entire personality is warped at a tender, young age. After several years of this, the system says you are old enough to take care of yourself. You are suddenly pushed into society and expected to become a model citizen.
This isn’t a hypothetical story. This is my life experience, and the experience of many young people who experience foster care. Young people like me in the child welfare system are forced to grow up fast and develop life skills with little or no help. Often, building our lives on our own feels like assembling IKEA furniture without instructions.
On a daily basis, young people like me within the child welfare system, and those who have aged out of it, struggle with the trauma of their experiences. Up to 80% of young people who have experienced foster care live with significant mental health needs. This is an urgent problem because, while mental health is always important, mental stability and wellness in the adolescent years is critical to overall development and the eventual ability to navigate the world in adulthood. And, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, the COVID-19 pandemic made a growing mental health crisis even worse for many adolescents and young adults across the U.S., including those who have lived in foster care.
Young people’s mental health can no longer be put on the back burner. We have an opportunity to help young people in meaningful ways right now as the Biden administration begins implementing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. The act includes new federal money for mental health services for youth and families, community-based care, school-based programs, opportunities for remote patient services, and new financial support to aid youth with trauma experiences. These increases mean that those with lived experience within the child welfare system — all who have experienced trauma — will finally have the chance to get the care they need. But doing it right requires the Biden administration to ensure that its demonstrated commitment to working with impacted young people is part of the rule-making process for this law that will shape changes in our communities.
It is within our power to improve the quality of mental health care and spur overdue mental health system reforms, especially for young people who have contact with the child welfare system. But doing so requires President Biden and his federal agencies to issue guidance for the new law with a focus on us — the young people most impacted.
States implementing the new law should be required to seek and incorporate input from youth and young adults who have experienced foster care about what approaches work (and which do not) with regard to their healing and mental health needs. That means collecting feedback from youth directly, including about the services they want and the providers they trust. It also means working with young people like me to review policies and help develop new ways of supporting their well-being. This work must be pursued in partnership with youth and be led by people with lived experience in the child welfare system. The evidence shows that when agencies integrate youth and young adult perspectives into child welfare policy decisions, the resulting programs and services are more effective in building strength, resilience, and trust among the young people they serve.
Young people like me with lived expertise in the child welfare system are ready and willing to lead the charge to ensure the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act lives up to its potential. Those of us who have survived the system are often told to “raise our voices,” but, frequently, we are silenced when we speak too much or too honestly. Sugar leads to cavities so stop coating us with it. This is a moment for young people to share their ideas for the kind of change that this promising new law can achieve, but we won’t have the opportunity to do that if our leaders in D.C. don’t act now to require this kind of partnership. If we want to meaningfully address the youth’s mental health crisis in this country, it’s time to stop asking young people to stay out of the way and start letting them lead.