During the summer of 2020, streets across the country rumbled with outcries of “No justice, no peace,” igniting a national reckoning over how structural anti-Blackness and institutional racism are embedded in our policing systems and in society at large. The movement was sparked by the senseless killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black individuals at the hands of police and private citizens.
Before long, this reckoning extended beyond the realm of policing to include other systems and institutions, including child welfare.
That same year, the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work launched upEND, a collaborative movement working to abolish the existing child welfare system, which they argue is built on a model of surveillance and separation and rooted in a history of racism. A public debate ensued, as exemplified by another group of child welfare scholars who contended that research does not support the abolition of the system.
Debates like this one, which draw attention to how the child welfare system negatively and disproportionately impacts Black children, Indigenous children and children of color and their families, are important. However, they are also insufficient without the voices of those who have lived experience within the child welfare system.
We are members of the Rooted Collective, a group of 25 artists, advocates, scholars and/or youth impacted by the child welfare system. We are affiliated with Better Youth Inc., a nonprofit organization that validates young people, particularly foster/former foster, homeless and low-income youth, by developing life skills through mentoring and media arts training.
Through our collective’s work, we bring together young people who have been impacted by the child welfare system to study and advocate for youth wellness. Our approach to research and changemaking prioritizes the lived experiences of our members and their vision for the future. We believe that centering the voices of those directly impacted by the system — beginning with our own — should be central to any conversations related to reimagining child welfare.
We believe that young people should help lead child welfare reimagining efforts. “What is the purpose of the child welfare system? To serve youth,” said Latrice Marie Ventura, an artist and child welfare advocate. “So, it is important to listen to youth going through the system because they are going to tell you how their needs aren’t being met and where the system is failing.”
Despite child welfare’s stated purpose, young people often feel silenced and disempowered by the system. “I think that youth voice, regardless of how youth choose to express themselves, is crucial,” said Evelyn Karina Rodriguez, an artist and activist. “Access to that opportunity in foster care is rare because foster care’s parameters mitigate and drown out youth voice.”
While many organizations and departments implement strategies to incorporate youth voice in their work, youth perspectives often get watered down by people who only want to put youth in a specific frame and for a specific need.
The use of youth perspectives to support the ideas of those in power represents a destructive form of tokenizing and silencing that we should reject. However, pushing back against these forces can be challenging. Daniel Bisuano, a writer and child welfare advocate, has been on the receiving end of pushback when promoting his and other people’s needs. “Often, our voices are unheard or pushed down by society because we are looked at as bad, criminal, or deviant,” said Bisuano. “Once I feel my voice has been silenced and people aren’t listening, then I’m going to make sure they listen, but that’s why I butt heads.”
Breyon Johnson, an animator and storyteller, relies on persistence to push past the suppression of youth voices. “You have to keep yelling your problems and what you’re going through and hope that, eventually, somebody’s going to be good enough to listen,” said Johnson.
While these arguments are not meant to represent the perspectives of all youth impacted by the child welfare system, we believe that the current conversations about reimagining child welfare lack the expert perspectives of those who know the system most intimately. What would it actually look like to include youth as leaders of these changemaking conversations? As a starting point, we propose that every county in the nation establish a foster youth board. The foster youth board should be self-governed, led by current foster youth or alumni, and feature members of various ages and backgrounds. The board would have access to child welfare and human services data and performance metrics. It would also have direct channels to and be included in the decision-making of leadership that serves foster youth. Lastly, the foster youth board would have funding to explore community-based supports for young people and their families.
Youth should not have to fight to be heard when their futures are at stake. If we truly want to reimagine a more just child welfare system, youth must have the power to advocate for themselves and for meaningful systemic change.