Amplifying Youth Voices To Advance Child Welfare System Reform


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This collaborative paper describes the power of youth advocacy and engagement to advance an effective child welfare policy agenda.

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Amplifying Youth Voices To Advance Child Welfare System Reform

  1. 1. Amplifying Youth Voices to AdvanceChild Welfare System Reform The Annie E. Casey Foundation /Casey Family Services September 2010
  2. 2. Table of ContentsExecutive Summary ............................................................................................... 1Introduction .......................................................................................................... 4Connecticut’s Young Advocates .............................................................................. 6 The First Steps ........................................................................................... 6 Youth Advocacy Day Events ...................................................................... 7 The Second Youth Advocacy Day ............................................................ 10 The Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy ............................................... 12 Legislative Initiatives .............................................................................. 16 Presentations to National Audiences ...................................................... 19Lessons Learned that Can Inform Other Youth Advocacy Efforts ......................... 21Tips for Other Communities .............................................................................. 23Conclusion ........................................................................................................... 24
  3. 3. Executive SummaryAs part of its mission to advance sound public policy, Casey Family Servicesactively engages young people in foster care as advocates in system reform. InNovember 2004, the Casey Family Services Policy Department convened staffin the agency’s Connecticut offices to discuss how to effectively engage statelegislative and executive leadership on child welfare policy issues. From theseconversations emerged a commitment to engage young people served by theagency in policy advocacy. To support this effort, policy and communicationsstaff held focus groups with young people to determine and develop shared policypriorities for the agency and the youth’s Connecticut work. Through the youngpeople, a policy agenda to promote sibling and other family connections forchildren and youth in foster care emerged.Fully engaged by the topic, the youth prepared for, and held on May 2, 2005,their first Youth Advocacy Day, entitled “Someone to Care, A Place to Belong –Lifelong Connections for Connecticut Youth in Foster Care.” Six young advocatesdiscussed the importance of lifelong relationships and actively engaged in dialoguewith legislative leaders. As a follow up to the event, the participants later met withthe Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families andwith the state’s Chief Child Protection Attorney.On May 15, 2007, the second Youth Advocacy Day, entitled “Family, School, andLegal Supports for Adolescents in Care: Keeping Youth Connected and Protected,”was held. The young people took full responsibility for planning, moderating, andpresenting on sibling and family connections, adequate legal representation forchildren and youth in foster care, and stability in school placements. Followingthis event, State Representative Tony Walker invited the young advocates to workwith her to develop a bill for then upcoming legislative session.To prepare themselves for these meetings with Walker, the youth workedwith Casey staff to create a Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy (YALA), anopportunity for participants to develop leadership and advocacy skills to improvetheir own lives and the foster care system at large. Held in October 2007, thefirst annual YALA provided young advocates with the skills they needed to workeffectively to support policy development. That work resulted in the drafting of 1
  4. 4. Senate Bill 159: An Act Concerning Foster Placement and Education, introduced in 2008. Though the bill was not enacted, the young advocates learned invaluable lessons in legislative advocacy, including the reality that change takes time and patience. Parallel to these actions, the Casey Family Services Policy Department undertook an effort to deepen its knowledge about the issues identified as great concern by the youth. Specifically, educational stability emerged as an issue in Connecticut. While public policy advocates such as Connecticut Voices for Children and the Center for Children’s Advocacy had begun to formulate legislative proposals, the consumers most impacted by a lack of educational stability – children and youth placed in foster care – were unaware of reform efforts. A two-pronged approach was then designed to further educate Connecticut’s young advocates about educational stability, and to have these advocates educate other youth placed in foster care, as well as adult stakeholders across the country. In 2008, the reach of the young advocates expanded to national audiences. They gave presentations at a range of national conferences where they inspired other young people to become advocates for child welfare reform. The youth further strengthened their policy and legislative advocacy skills at the second annual YALA and a December 2008 Education Forum at which they educated state leadership on the importance of educational stability for children and youth in foster care. As a result of the forum, in 2009, an education bill was introduced: HB 6497: An Act Concerning Education Stability for Children in Foster Care. The young advocates played key roles in supporting the bill, which passed into law in 2010. In October 2009, a third YALA was held, focusing on the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. The session sought to emphasize the significance of the Act for young people in Connecticut foster care. The young advocates significantly benefited from the YALA in terms of knowledge, skills, and peer support, according to evaluations. Their work continued as the young people engaged other young people in foster care as advocates. Much has been learned from the work of the Connecticut young advocates that can be translated into other youth advocacy efforts. The power of youth advocacy to impact policy, the power of advocacy for youth themselves, and the power of youth advocacy to build new bridges emerged as key lessons. Through this experience, Casey Family Services identified several essential elements for supporting young advocates: committed resources, supportive leadership within2
  5. 5. the agency, the creation of a safe space for young people, consistent training,support from the youths’ social workers and foster parents, communications staffto help youth craft cohesive and compelling messages and learn the art of strategicsharing, and, perhaps most importantly, the need for young people themselves todrive the process.AcknowledgmentsCasey Family Services, the direct service agency of the Annie E. Casey Foundation,wishes to thank the young advocates of Connecticut who tirelessly seek a betterday for all children and youth in foster care. They have inspired and energized usin our commitment to fully incorporate the voices of young people to advancesound public policy. The agency also thanks Lamond Daniels and Karina JimenezLewis for their leadership in significantly increasing the number of child welfare-related youth advocacy opportunities sponsored by the organization. 3
  6. 6. Introduction Over the past decade, an increasing emphasis on involving young people in foster care reform has developed. In addition to improving the system, the benefits to the individual also are significant. Young people develop new skills and attitudes, refine values, and gain insights through their participation in causes bigger than themselves. Their engagement in foster care system reform provides them with opportunities for positive development, which prepares them to be successful adults. Studies have shown that engaging youth in decision making has positive effects on both adults and organizations. Youth involvement helps organizations to clarify their mission and make their programming more responsive to young people. Youth involvement has been found to enhance adults’ perception of young people’s competence, to heighten adults’ commitment and energy, and to make them more aware of the needs and concerns of youth (citation needed). Casey Family Services’ mission includes a commitment to “advance sound public policy.” This commitment deepened in 2002 with the establishment of a Policy Department. Sania Metzger, the department’s first and current director of policy, reflects that she brought to Casey “her commitment and understanding of the essential role parent and youth perspectives bring to the shaping of policy to reform child welfare systems.” She formed this view while working as legislative counsel for more than a decade to Roger Green, former chair of the New York State Assembly standing committee on Children and Families. “As a young advocate, my goal is to show youth that we don’t have to be a statistic in the world’s eyes. We are just like ‘normal’ kids but without normal situations. We can excel and we can speak out to change things we do not agree with.” - Young Advocate4
  7. 7. This paper describes the agency’s support of young people in the Connecticut fostercare system to effectively advocate for change. It then shares the lessons learnedthrough this engagement process in order to inform other agencies’ efforts to engageyouth in systems reform.As the direct service agency of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey FamilyServices works to build better futures for children and families. Since the workhighlighted in this report was implemented, the Casey Foundation has integratedits own policy staff with the policy, research, and communications teams at CaseyFamily Services, forming the Policy, Research, and Communications Group(PRCG). Now part of the Foundation’s Center for Effective Family Services andSystems, PRCG works to advance significant, measureable, and enduring policyreforms to improve the lives of children, youth, and their families. Raising the voicesof youth and families is central to the Center’s reform strategies. 5
  8. 8. Connecticut’s Young Advocates The First Steps In November 2004, the Casey Family Services Policy Department convened staff from the Bridgeport and Hartford divisions and agency administration to identify policy issues on which to engage the Connecticut legislature and senior executive staff, including the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner. The Connecticut Policy and Advocacy Strategy Group, as this group was named, included the directors, deputy directors, life-skills specialists, and community liaisons from each of the two divisions, as well as the policy and communications staff from administration. Staff collectively agreed that issues impacting youth in foster care should be the priority. Given that focus, they convened focus groups of youth to identify the most appropriate issues to engage both policymakers and DCF senior staff. In December 2004, two focus groups were held: one in Bridgeport, facilitated by the community liaison and a communications staff member, and one in Hartford, facilitated by the life skills specialist in that division, the then senior program associate for life skills from administration, and a communications staff member. Young people were invited to join together for dinner and share their stories. Each focus group was comprised of 15 youth who were currently in or had been in foster care. These young people represented a range of ages, races, and ethnicities. The facilitators began by asking: “If you were talking with state legislators, the DCF Commissioner, or the Governor, what would you say to them about your experience in the system?” They also were asked to share what was helpful to them, what was missing, and what changes they would recommend to improve the child welfare system. “I am really proud of myself. I am most proud that I am an advocate.” - Young Advocate6
  9. 9. The two focus groups generated more than 30 issues to be addressed. The facilitatorssummarized this list and shared them with the focus group participants whenthey reconvened one month later. Through a process of prioritizing issues, theparticipants identified these as the top issues:• Facilitating pre-placement with prospective foster parents in order to promote compatible relationships,• Providing adequate information on the rights of youth in foster care, and• Promoting sibling and other family connections.The discussion then focused on identifying the issue on which young people weremost likely to have the greatest impact and where there were opportunities forchange within the child welfare field. Thinking strategically, participants identifiedpromoting sibling and other family connections as an area where DCF would beable to make immediate change. DCF already had a policy on sibling connections,but it was not being implemented uniformly, the group felt.Youth Advocacy Day EventsThe First Youth Advocacy DayPreparation. From January through April 2005, Casey staff, coordinated by LamondDaniels, then a community liaison in the Bridgeport Division, identified a group of20 youth in foster care and alumni interested in sharing their stories and advocatingfor change. Some of the youth had participated in the focus groups; others werenewly identified. Plans for a Youth Advocacy Day were set in motion.In preparation for the event on May 2, 2005, in the main hearing room at theState Legislative Building, young people made two trips to the State Capitol tohand deliver invitations and flyers to legislators. Representative Lydia Martinez, alegislative leader for youth in foster care, welcomed the young people to her office,gave a tour of the Capitol, shepherded them through the hearing room where theywould testify, and educated them about the legislative process. Casey staff and theyoung people worked together to select six young people to make two-minutepresentations. Twelve other youth made up a “support team” for the speakers. Thesupport team also was encouraged to ask and answer questions from legislators, stateofficials, and other audience members. 7
  10. 10. All the young people were involved in preparing for the hearing, receiving hands- on training from Roye Anastasio-Bourke, communications manager at Casey. The youth who were presenting were provided with additional assistance in honing their presentation skills and developing their stories about being removed from their families, being placed in family foster care or group care, facing an uncertain future, and losing contact with their siblings. All the young people participated in role-plays and practiced responses to possible questions by legislators, such as, “Why is this important?” and “What difference will this make?” They learned how to handle the realities of testifying in the legislative environment, including legislators coming and going and using cell phones and other devices during presentations. The young people took advantage of tips on presentations, dress, behavior, and overcoming “stage fright.” They learned the concept of “strategic sharing,” placing a filter on what they chose to tell others about their personal lives. They learned that it was vital to balance managing the realities of their lives with sharing a compelling story to move legislators to positive action. Underlying this work was a firm commitment to eliminating any element of exploitation, voyeurism, or self-aggrandizement. As part of the preparation process, Casey Family Services Policy Director Sania Metzger developed a brief entitled Policy Viewpoint: Youth in Foster Care Need Connections to Family: Call for Visits with Siblings. This document reinforced the key messages that the young people were primed to deliver: • DCF should adhere rigorously to existing sibling visitation regulations and policies; • DCF should provide training to its caseworkers on the importance of sibling and other family connections for youth in foster care, and invite foster care alumni to participate in those trainings; and • Incentives should be offered by DCF to the local or regional offices that demonstrate the greatest improvement in facilitating frequent sibling visits. Each Connecticut legislator received a copy of the brief, including those who were not present at Youth Advocacy Day. The planning for Youth Advocacy Day brought together natural allies – Casey Family Services, the State of Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, and the Connecticut Commission on Children – as sponsors. The Event. The inaugural Youth Advocacy Day took place on May 2, 2005, at the State Capitol. Representative Lydia Martinez was the legislative host and Representatives Lile Gibbons and Kenneth Green were the legislative co-hosts. Six current and former foster youth from across the state discussed the importance of8
  11. 11. establishing lifelong connections and engaged in an inspiring dialogue about theirlives in foster care and their hopes for a brighter future for all children and youth infoster care. Several legislators promised to put youth concerns “front and center” inthe next legislative session. Then DCF Commissioner Darlene Dunbar immediatelyexpressed interest in following up with the young people about their concerns.Follow Up. Immediately following the second Youth Advocacy Day, the youngadvocates wrote a letter to DCF Commissioner Dunbar, formally inviting her tomeet with them. She promptly accepted. She and DCF senior staff met with sevenCasey youth advocates (from both the Hartford and Bridgeport divisions) andstaff from the Hartford Division, as well as from the administration’s policy andcommunications departments. The Commissioner spoke with the young advocatesabout sibling relationships, childcare for teen mothers in foster care, and supportfor transitioning teens. A direct result of hearing the youth voices, she announced asibling activities plan, for which DCF had allocated $200,000, which involved hiringa sibling specialist to oversee the Department’s efforts to sustain sibling connections.As a follow up to the meeting, annual meetings were scheduled between DCF andCasey Family Services.In 2006, Casey youth advocates and staff met with the newly appointed Chief ChildProtection Attorney Carolyn Signorelli. This meeting focused on the quality of legalrepresentation for children and youth in Connecticut foster care. Signorelli found aroom full of young people prepared to describe their experiences with their attorneysin foster care, including young people who were learning for the first time that theyeven had an attorney available to them. The young people were able to speak directlyto the person in charge, and Signorelli was able to share her recommendations forstrengthening the legal representation for children and youth in the child welfaresystem and their parents.“A lot of people in foster care struggle with education. Education is important. Ireally want this legislation to pass. We have a lot of money for other things in theworld. It’s really important to help people in foster care to stay in school.” - Young Advocate 9
  12. 12. The Second Youth Advocacy Day The Event. The second Youth Advocacy Day, called “Family, School, and Legal Supports for Adolescents in Our Care: Keeping Youth Connected and Protected,” was held on May 15, 2007. The co-hosts were Deputy House Speaker Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, Senator Eric Coleman, and Representatives Lile Gibbons and Anne Ruwet. The Annie E. Casey Foundation/Casey Family Services, Connecticut Commission on Child Protection, Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, and Connecticut Voices for Children jointly sponsored the event. Young people in foster care and recent system alumni directed all planning for the second Youth Advocacy Day. They set the agenda, moderated, presented, and coordinated the activities. Their focus, as the title of the Youth Advocacy Day indicates, was on sibling and family connections, adequate legal representation, and stability in school placements. The young planners asked their peers about their willingness to speak on each of these issues and about the stories they had to share that could provide compelling reasons for legislative action. As before, presenters and the “support team” were selected and prepared as they had been for the first Youth Advocacy Day. Connecticut Voices for Children arranged for law students to meet with the young advocates to document their stories. The second Youth Advocacy Day featured the young advocate’s presentations of their stories, which deeply moved the assembled audience. The Youth Advocacy Day produced important results. Acting DCF Commissioner Brian Mattiello promised to keep lines of communication open with the youth. Senator Ed Gomes validated the importance of ties to siblings and family, sharing his personal story of living with his godmother for a year and his yearning to return to his 10 siblings, despite the wonderful care that his godmother provided. Representative Toni Walker issued a challenge to the young advocates. She had heard a “laundry list of issues” and wanted them to tell her what needed to happen next. She stated that she would meet with them before the next legislative session to identify key issues, so her staff could draft legislation to be introduced in the next legislative session. Follow Up. Following the second Youth Advocacy Day, the young advocates and Casey staff clarified next steps: (1) to continue to groom and support youth to build personal capacity, (2) to cultivate relationships already established with legislative co-10
  13. 13. hosts and cosponsors, and (3) to continue to raise awareness among decision-makersabout issues that impact adolescents in foster care.Within a matter of weeks, the young advocates met with newly named DCFCommissioner Susan Hamilton, who was to be confirmed in her position thefollowing week. This introductory meeting familiarized her with Casey FamilyServices and the work of the young advocates. There was instant agreement thatDCF and the young advocates needed to continue their dialogue.With the invitation from Representative Walker to meet and discuss issues for the2008 Legislative Session in mind, the young advocates held a debriefing sessionimmediately following the event. They agreed that they needed training to be fullyprepared to meet with her. From that round table debriefing in August 2007, thevision of a Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy was born. 11
  14. 14. The Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy The young advocates worked with Daniels to translate their vision into a proposal for a Casey Family Services Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy (YALA). Together, they designed the Academy as a two-day training to offer older youth an opportunity to develop leadership and advocacy skills to improve their lives and advocate for reform of the foster care system. With the approval of Casey Family Services, YALA was developed with seven goals for participating young people: • To discover their own voices; • To learn and explore their rights within the foster care system; • To enhance their presentation skills to address various audiences; • To learn how to examine public policy issues, basic formulations of bills, and enactment of laws and how to analyze policy solutions; • To enhance their leadership abilities by identifying how to take action and responsibility; • To increase knowledge and understanding of civic and citizenship responsibility; and • To serve as peer educators and an advisory group to youth and professionals. The young people developed the phrase, “Youth advocates get PAID,” to capture what YALA was designed to accomplish. PAID means: • Prepare youth to articulate and present their public policy ideas. • Assist them by examining how public policy is formulated and enacted. • Introduce youth to the child welfare arena from a system’s perspective. • Develop and gain assistance in building solid foundational skills in order to achieve their goals and future dreams in life. As developed, YALA provides young advocates with opportunities to develop tangible and intangible skills – enhanced self-esteem along with improved conflict resolution, decision making, negotiating and problem-solving skills – that are beneficial for youth as they progress into adulthood. YALA prepares them to share their experiences to educate the public and policymakers, present at resource parent training sessions, and speak at regional and national conferences. It also provides young advocates with skills to serve as peer leaders and educators to engage other foster youth or professionals and serve on national advisory boards.12
  15. 15. YALA has five key features.• Principles of youth development strategies are used to identify issues that are most important to young advocates.• A focus on empowering young advocates shapes the agenda and identifies the training topics.• The development of training modules is driven by individual youths’ desires to make a difference.• These training modules include elements of self-empowerment and self- determination through the use of role-plays.• Youth advocates are engaged in workshops and their testimony is recorded for critique and fun.First Annual Youth Advocacy Leadership AcademyThe First Annual Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy was held October 26 and28, 2007, with a focus on preparing participants for their upcoming meetingwith Representative Toni Walker. The two-day academy was held at the MarriotCourtyard Hotel in Cromwell, Connecticut. Young people who had participatedin the two Youth Advocacy Days also attended the academy. The young advocatesparticipated in group exercises and interactive workshops – including “Public Policy101,” “Taking My Story to Our Story,” “Advocacy: What Does the Word ReallyMean?” and “Practice Makes Perfect Exercise” – conducted by Casey Family Servicesand Connecticut Voices for Children. The advocates engaged in discussions onbecoming peer leaders and educators. Young advocates immersed themselves in thelegislative process and developed self-advocacy skills to use in their everyday lives.YALA was a highly successful experience for the participating young people andvalidated key elements in successfully bringing together young advocates. The firstYALA reinforced:• the wisdom of communicating to young people what was expected of them;• the benefits of close chaperoning (1:4 staff-to-youth ratio) and adherence to curfews;• the importance of paying stipends to young people who participate in training and advocacy activities;• the significant impact of agency leaders to inspire young people and instill a sense of decorum; 13
  16. 16. • the importance of reviewing the presenters’ materials to ensure the accessibility of the information for young people; and • the necessity of having clinical expertise onsite to meet the emotional needs of young people. It also was valuable to have Casey staff members observing the presentations from experts so they could clarify presenters’ messages, engage youth in discussion, and ensure that youth were connecting with the information provided. The Second Annual Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy In planning for the Second Annual Youth Advocacy Leadership Academy, held October 17 to 19, 2008, Casey staff asked seven youth from the Hartford Division and seven youth from the Bridgeport Division what they wanted to learn next, and how they wanted to deepen their understanding of policy issues and advocacy. Once again, their interests drove the planning. Foster care alumni actively were engaged in the program to mentor and inspire youth in foster care and to share their experiences after foster care with the younger participants. The alumni participated throughout the retreat, connecting with the young advocates and providing them with the benefits of their experiences at college and in the work world, serving as positive role models for life after foster care. As with the first YALA, youth learned about developing policy and the legislative process. They engaged in activities designed to help them focus on what they believed should change in foster care. Young people left YALA with a deeper understanding of policy and greater skills in using their personal stories strategically to influence policy. As part of an exercise, one young participant drafted a “letter” to the Department of Children and Families, explaining how he wanted to live with a relative, a desire that he was only able to express in writing. His letter, though done as an exercise and never sent, led to positive results, reinforcing his confidence in his ability to advocate for himself. Based on observations from facilitators, many young people showed considerable personal growth as a result of the YALA, gaining confidence and knowledge. “It was so exciting to work with Representative Walker. She gets the big picture and she knows when something is not right and fixes it to the best of her ability. She gave me words of inspiration to keep advocating for the youth in the system that aren’t able to publicly speak out.” - Young Advocate14
  17. 17. The Third Annual Youth Advocacy Leadership AcademyBecause not all participants in the third YALA had the opportunity to attendprevious academies, the organizers wanted to ensure to that all youth had a workingknowledge of child welfare policy advocacy ahead of the academy. Therefore, thethird YALA, held October 16 to 18, 2009, was preceded by a two-hour educationalsession to deepen the youth advocates’ knowledge and understanding of the policyissues at hand; specifically the new mandates and provisions for youth in fostercare as spelled out in the federal Fostering Connections to Success and IncreasingAdoptions Act of 2008. Further, the orientation session deepened the youths’knowledge of legislative core concepts, processes, and their own potential impact askey informants.Eleven youth from the Bridgeport and Hartford divisions participated in the thirdYALA. Seven of the young people had formerly participated in YALAs and fourwere newly recruited. Key areas of focus were activity in the Connecticut Legislaturewith respect to educational stability for children and youth in foster care and thenew federal legislation. Youth advocates dissected the Fostering Connections Act:its history, its provisions, how it would impact their lives, and the anticipatedimpact for Connecticut. Representatives from the Jim Casey Youth OpportunitiesInitiative, as part of an ongoing partnership with Casey Family Services, providedthe young advocates with a thorough understanding of the law. The young peoplehad opportunities to deepen their understanding and skills through workshops thatfocused on crafting an advocacy message and using a range of advocacy strategiesand skills. One workshop, “Putting it All Together: Letting Your Voice be Heard,”provided young advocates with opportunities to learn how to disseminate theiradvocacy messages through new media and social networking sites.The young advocates committed to continuing their work together to learn moreabout the new federal legislation and to develop written material that could be usedas an advocacy tool. This product, to be finalized in content and form by the youngadvocates, will focus on what children and youth in foster care should know aboutthe federal legislation. The goal is to design a product that can be disseminatedthroughout Casey Family Services and more broadly.At the conclusion of the YALA, the young advocates formed a planning committeefor the next Youth Advocacy Day. For the first time, the youth completed anevaluation of their experiences. Ten of the 11 young people rated the YALA as“excellent” or “good” in terms of its benefits for them. Nine rated their ability tounderstand and learn from the YALA weekend as “very good” or “excellent.” All ofthe young people stated that they would attend similar events. 15
  18. 18. Legislative Initiatives State Senate Bill 159: An Act Concerning Foster Placement and Education After the first YALA, young advocates met with State Representative Toni Walker in February 2008. Walker inspired their work by affirming their rights and the importance of making foster care a better system to support children and young people. She asked the group about the challenges faced in changing schools as a result of placement changes. Walker proposed that the young advocates focus on the educational needs of children and youth in foster care, as there already was legislative activity on educational issues. The young advocates enthusiastically collaborated on this proposal. Representative Walker and the young advocates spent three hours discussing how the education of children and youth in foster care should be addressed. The young people shared their educational experiences and suggested specific approaches, including a requirement that children and youth be allowed to remain in their schools of origin if they are placed within 25 miles of their schools. From this work, legislation was drafted for introduction in the 2008 General Session, resulting in Senate Bill 159: An Act Concerning Foster Placement and Education. On February 28, 2008, four youth advocates were invited to testify before the Legislative Select Committee on Children about their experiences changing schools due to foster home moves. Because the Connecticut Legislature schedules hearings only three days ahead of time, the young advocates’ participation as witnesses had to be arranged very quickly. Luckily, the YALA training had prepared four young women16
  19. 19. to testify on short notice. At the hearing, Representative Walker spoke first and thenintroduced the young advocates, noting that they had informed her work on the bill.Addressing a standing-room-only audience of approximately 70 people, the youngadvocates provided compelling testimony on the issue of educational stability.Following the hearing, the Select Committee on Children, as well as the EducationalCommittee, approved SB 159 with enormous support. The AppropriationsCommittee attached a nominal dollar amount ($200,000) to the bill. The HartfordCourant, the state’s newspaper of record, published an editorial in support ofeducational stability and quoted one of the young advocates. However, because ofspending freezes across the state, SB 159 and virtually all other bills with a fiscal impactwere not included in the biennial budget request of the 2008 legislative session.Though disappointed in the ultimate result, the young advocates learned importantadvocacy strategies and tools that proved instrumental as their work continued intofuture legislative sessions. They learned how to track a bill and communicate inperson and in writing with legislators on behalf of important issues. They learnedother valuable lessons: the importance of follow up with legislators and staff, theneed to keep open the lines of communication, and the importance of assessingtactical achievements even when the overall goal is not achieved.The Education Stability ForumFresh from the YALA training, young advocates played active roles in the EducationalStability Forum held December 2, 2008, in Hartford. Cosponsored by the AnnieE. Casey Foundation/Casey Family Services and Connecticut Voices for Children,the forum brought attention to educational stability before the start of a new statelegislative session. In addition, it highlighted the recent passage of the federal FosteringConnections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 and its mandates tostates regarding educational stability for children and youth in foster care. Two youthadvocates, Shakeisha and Dominque, opened the forum with a panel, sharing theireducational experiences in foster care. They set the tone for the entire event anddelivered key messages that were referenced by each subsequent presenter.Following the opening panel, attendees -- including legislators, representativesfrom the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Education,researchers, and advocates – learned what research says about the importance ofeducational stability for children and youth in foster care. They heard the views of a 17
  20. 20. Connecticut Representative Toni Walker and learned about the federal legislation’s education mandates. They learned from the State of Oregon about its legislation and efforts to ensure educational stability for children and youth in foster care. The Forum also heard directly from DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton and Anne Louise Thompson, chief, Bureau of Special Education of the Connecticut State Department of Education. At the time, the Commissioners pledged to implement educational stability by July 2009. DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton said her department would work with the State Department of Education to draft legislation on educational stability for consideration in the upcoming session. HB 6497: An Act Concerning Educational Stability for Children in Foster Care As promised by participants at the December 2008 forum, an educational stability bill — HB 6497: An Act Concerning Educational Stability for Children in Foster Care — was introduced during the 2009 legislative session. The Education Committee’s Joint Favorable Report listed the young advocates among the sources of support for the bill: Aisha D., a Casey Family Services foster child, supports the bill. By the age of 12, she had been enrolled in several different elementary schools. She feels strongly that moving to different schools has a great deal of effect on the individual’s spirit, emotional well-being, and physical health. Cheneice O., a DCF foster child, supports the bill. She states that it is hard to keep track of all of the places she has lived and different schools she has attended. In seven years, she has attended eight different schools. Educational stability is critical to a young person’s development. It is also important to have good and consistent transportation to and from school. Vanessa G., a former foster child, supports the bill. She states that, as a child she lived in more than 20 placements and changed schools more than 10 times. Because of the continued disruptions, she struggles with the shame of not being able to master basic math principles and study skills. A new school is a daunting challenge. Add to that lost transcripts, lack of transportation, learning gaps, no continuity or support, and you have a recipe for failure. Dominque S., a Casey Family Services foster child, supports the bill. She was placed in three different high schools during her sophomore year. Each school had different books, different learning methods, different learning rates, and different teachers. She was in the foster care system for 14 years.18
  21. 21. The Education Committee overwhelmingly supported the bill. HB 6497 waslater combined with SB 31, the Governor’s bill, which at the closing of the 2010legislative session had passed both the House and Senate and was signed by theGovernor. Appropriations were made at $3 million after enactment; the legislationwent into effect on July 1, 2010.Presentations to National AudiencesTo support the growing importance of the agency’s work around educational stability,Karina Jiménez Lewis, Casey’s senior policy associate, secured presentations atnational conferences with large audiences eager to learn about the important policyimplications of this issue, as well as the work of young advocates as peer educators.In 2007, Lewis and David Johnston, Casey’s senior program associate for permanence,worked with Cheniece, DaHanne, Cameron, and Tiffany on the first presentation atthe Casey Family Programs-sponsored It’s My Life conference in Atlanta, Georgia.For the 2008 conference, which took place in Los Angeles, Lewis and Daniels hadyouth take a more active role in the preparation and delivery of the presentation,effectively positioning youth advocates Vanessa G. and Taki M. as the faces of thispolicy issue.The young advocates’ reach expanded to national audiences in 2008. At the NationalConvening on Youth Permanence, hosted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation/CaseyFamily Services and Casey Family Programs in May 2008, Daniels moderated aTo effectively get our story across, we learned:• To be articulate in expressing ourselves• To be in control of ourselves as we share our stories and messages• To gain confidence in our ability to change policy• To have patience and recognize that policy change takes time• To gain an understanding that we can do something to help others even if it does not help us personally• To understand the legislative process 19
  22. 22. plenary session of young people formerly in foster care. Cheniece, one of the young advocates, shared her experiences in foster care with an audience of more than 600 child welfare leaders from federal, state, and county child welfare agencies and advocacy organizations. Another youth advocate presented a workshop with Daniels in which they shared key ways to support youth advocates. In 2009, Lewis and Daniels spoke to a group of professionals at the Black Administrators in Child Welfare conference in California about educational stability and other permanency issues. By then, momentum had continued to build in Connecticut and elsewhere. At every presentation, it was confirmed what those working in youth advocacy have known for a long time: that when anchored by substantive knowledge of the issues and self-confidence, youth advocates are a formidable voice to achieve needed reforms in child welfare. Current and Upcoming Issues The work of the Connecticut young advocates continues. In Casey’s Bridgeport Division, young advocates meet monthly so that they can remain current on the issues that face young people in foster care and plan future strategies to engage policymakers and legislators. The young advocates are placing particular emphasis on engaging more youth in foster care as potential advocates. The Casey Camp Accord, which the Bridgeport Division hosts each February for young people in foster care from all Casey divisions, continues to be a forum for young people to focus on advocacy to reform the child welfare system.20
  23. 23. Lessons Learned that Can Inform OtherYouth Advocacy EffortsThree key lessons emerged through the work of Connecticut’s young advocates: (1)the power of youth advocacy to impact policy; (2) the power of youth advocacy forthe young people themselves; and (3) the power of youth advocacy to build bridgeswith natural allies.The Power of Youth Advocacy in Impacting PolicyThe work of these youths clearly demonstrates the following.• Effective advocacy by young people whose lives are affected by the child protective system can shape positive policy outcomes for all children and youth placed in foster care. Youth can have considerable influence in policy debates.• Young advocates’ voices powerfully impact legislators. They are able to frame issues from a personal perspective that results in positive policy outcomes. Legislators are transformed by what they hear from young people.• It is essential to seek out and facilitate youth involvement in policy discussions that affect their experiences with the child welfare system.• There is significant value in bringing together youth and adults in a true partnership to create a platform that is supportive for long-term civic engagement and advocacy work.• When space is created for youth to share their voices, professionals can learn a great deal about how to better engage and improve systems.The Power of Advocacy for the Young People ThemselvesThe experiences of the young advocates show the following.• Young people in foster care have inherent potential as change agents.• The trauma that young people have experienced is not a barrier to engaging them as advocates for themselves and others in foster care.• The advocacy process is healing. For the first time in their foster care experience, many of the young people were asked: “What do you think?”• Learning to be an effective advocate provides young people with skills related to speaking out freely, confident in their knowledge and ability.• Young people develop new skills that are transferable to their daily lives. Some young people begin the process believing that they will never be able to speak before a group and then surprise themselves as they develop confidence and skills as a result of the acceptance that they experience. 21
  24. 24. • The authentic involvement of young people as advocates must be intentional, equitable, and respected at all levels of an organization in order to fully afford young people opportunities to learn and participate. In providing young people with the opportunity to take a leadership role, adults must remind themselves not to take over. • The impact of advocacy is profound. Young people develop a foundational knowledge of systems’ capacity and social contract; public speaking, leadership, and advocacy skills; and increased interest in civic engagement. The Power of Youth Advocacy to Build Bridges with Natural Allies This program provides a strong foundation for building new bridges with natural allies. As a result of this program, several partnerships have been formed or strengthened. • The working partnership between the Bridgeport and Hartford divisions significantly was strengthened. • The two divisions have developed strong community partnerships with Connecticut Voices for Children and other natural allies in the community. • The two divisions have strengthened their understanding of multi-disciplinary partnerships and how to work effectively with other professionals, such as lawyers and law students, in forging collaborations that are youth focused. “Be an advocate. There is nothing else like it. All through foster care, I was never allowed to make decisions. Other people made decisions, not me. I learned that I could advocate and could change things. I have gotten my life back.” - Young Advocate22
  25. 25. Tips for Other CommunitiesCasey Family Services’ Bridgeport and Hartford divisions have solid experience indeveloping and supporting a powerful youth advocacy program. They have seventips for other organizations that seek to develop a strong youth advocacy program.1. Supportive leadership across different levels is essential. Key ingredients are: adequate funding to support the participation of young people, the visible presence of leaders at key events where they communicate their full support of the program, regular input of leaders into the program, and nurturing staff who are tasked with implementing the youth advocacy program.2. Resources are needed to cultivate an effective youth advocacy program, including stipends for young people and support for staff that make themselves available after hours. It is essential to be realistic about the demands of advocacy events, given staff and other resources available. With these considerations in mind, the Bridgeport and Hartford divisions opted to make the YALAs occur once a year and Youth Advocacy Days every two years.3. It is essential to create safe spaces for young people where they can test out new skills and new roles.4. Youth advocates need to be trained consistently in order to have opportunities to personally grow and develop.5. Youth advocates are more effective when their social workers and their foster and adoptive parents support their efforts.6. Involving the Casey Family Services Communications Department from the outset was a critical step. Casey’s Communications Department staff supported youth in developing clear messages and public-speaking skills.7. Young people need to drive the process. As the Bridgeport and Hartford divisions have discovered, the program evolved organically as young people identified their needs. For example, it was the youth who determined the need for the YALA. 23
  26. 26. Conclusion The story of the Connecticut young advocates is an exciting and inspirational one. These young people clearly demonstrated how, with the support of Casey Family Services, they could become dynamic and effective advocates for child welfare system reform. Much has been learned from the work of these young advocates that can be translated into youth advocacy efforts in other communities. Their work has demonstrated the power of youth advocacy to impact policy, the power of advocacy for youth themselves, and the power of youth advocacy to build new bridges. From its experience supporting the young advocates in Connecticut, Casey Family Services has identified critical elements other communities will need: supportive leadership within the agency, committed resources so that the youth advocacy program is effective, a safe space for the young people, consistent training for the young advocates, support from their social workers and foster parents, engaging communications specialists to help youth craft their messages and learn the art of strategic sharing, and, perhaps most important, the need for young people themselves to drive the process.24
  27. 27. the annie e. casey foundationcasey family services127 Church StreetNew Haven, Connecticut06510Phone: 203.401.6900Phone: 888.799.kidsFax:“I urge young advocates to stand up and speak out for what they believe in, and thingswill change! Whether it is in one year or 10 years, consistency is the key to success.” - Young Advocate