J. Cortez III was just 16 years old when he proved to the court he was independent and could be legally emancipated from his mother, though he’d been on his own since he was 12.
He’d spent years avoiding the foster care system, driven by the horror stories he grew up hearing about it, and working multiple jobs and forging documents at school to avoid it. Nonetheless, throughout his youth he was a passionate learner, and managed to remain deeply committed to school and extracurricular activities. Today, the 23-year-old from Southern California interns as a peer advocate for transition-age youth at Children’s Law Center of California in Sacramento, and is just a “hop, skip away” from graduating with his degree from the University of California, Davis.
Through his role with California Youth Connection, a grass-roots, youth-led advocacy group, Cortez gets to be both a learner and a teacher, working to help other young people feel comfortable with policy and legislation, and empowering them to use their voice and make a lasting impact on the foster care system he worked so hard to avoid.
“A policy is something that’s already in place, that we’re going to amend to help ensure that we’re supporting youth to the fullest extent, versus legislative is an entirely new piece of legislation or bill that is being proposed to Congress,” said Cortez, getting down to brass tacks on a call from the car on his drive to Oakland. His ability to discuss the language of bills, and the impact they have on foster youths’ lives in real time, is a skill cultivated during his time spent as a member and leader of California Youth Connection (CYC), which has local chapters throughout the state. CYC is among dozens of organizations across the country giving young people space to share their stories as mechanisms for change — all while being supported by peers who have experienced foster care and who are also passionate about breaking down barriers they face in the system.
These youth-run, adult-supported organizations — typically geared toward 14- to 24-year-olds — train young people connected to the foster care system in leadership and advocacy, and how to draft and pass legislation that addresses systemic challenges identified by young people.
The independent programs vary from one state or chapter to another. However, across all the organizations youth find the opportunity to connect through meetings, trainings, phone calls and multi-day conferences geared toward creating legislative goals that are meaningful to them. And, perhaps even more importantly, they find a community.
“One thing I would say that is kind of amazing is [that when] the young people come in even for a short amount of time, many of them feel almost immediately connected to OFYC as part of their family structure now,” said Lisa McMahon, program director for Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC). “And they identify this peer group of people that they connect to really fast, which is unique specifically for youth who have experienced foster care to be able to bond with people that quickly.”
McMahon also notes that this community can often help create a sense of stability for a young person, with ripple effects that reach a foster home. A great relationship with their own foster parents may inspire a young person to direct their advocacy efforts toward connecting with those considering becoming foster parents. The leadership and communication skills honed through advocacy training may also help a youth find their voice.
“A foster family introducing [a youth] to a group like OFYC could help that youth kind of have a safe outlet and a group of people that they will most likely feel safer and more connected to quicker,” McMahon explained. “And that could help open up safe conversation and safe dialogue that could happen within the home.”
Feeling at home in a youth-led advocacy group is not limited to youth who are comfortable with policy or in leadership roles.
“You don’t have to have any type of experience to put your foot in the door and peek in and see what it’s about,” Cortez said. Even he was hesitant about getting involved with the group at first, and it took about a year before he felt ready to really step up his involvement, after receiving encouragement from an older youth in the program. He has since served as treasurer of his chapter, chapter chair and now sits on the advisory board of CYC.
“We have young people who are very, very quiet about their story and they don’t want to share a lot of their personal experiences, but they want to be there while we’re advocating for young people,” McMahon said. It doesn’t matter if they are shy or quiet, “the key is that the young person has to want to do something to impact the system.”
Beyond invaluable relationships and personal networks, the lasting impact these groups can have on the foster care systems in which youth live can be significant. Youth-led advocacy groups have been instrumental in passing legislation across the country that establishes support for young people, such as Assembly Bill 12 in California, spearheaded by CYC and best known for extending foster care until age 21 for youth who opt into the program.
Nebraska’s Project Everlast helped pass similar legislation in 2013 with the Young Adult Voluntary Services and Support Act (LB216). Iowa’s Achieving Maximum Potential (AMP), a partnership of 16 foster youth councils across the state, has a 2017 legislative agenda that includes a request that the state access federal funds to implement the Guardianship Assistance Program, which provides financial support to relative caregivers to become legal guardians.
And just last month, Oregon Foster Youth Connection received unanimous support from the state senate for Oregon’s House Bill 2216, which establishes a sibling bill of rights for youth in foster care.
Several leaders from youth advocacy groups have explained that sharing their stories in a forum like a legislative committee meeting can offer youth a different sense of agency than they might receive anywhere else. For OFYC’s latest victory, four youth testimonies were officially on record and part of the supporting materials for the passage of HB 2216.
“We want to reach the youth to empower them to want to pursue their education, to want to pursue advocacy work,” Cortez explained, talking about the work that he and other CYC members on his college campus do as part of their outreach to a subchapter at a local high school in Sacramento. “You have to speak about your struggles and your barriers and your obstacles, or else no one’s really going to know what you’re going through and how to support you.”
OFYC and CYC are just a few among many groups throughout the nation that offer young people with foster care experience the chance to participate in an organization driven by youth. Foster Youth In Action is a grassroots network that supports and brings together youth-led advocacy groups in 16 states across the country, and counts both CYC and OFYC among its partners, from Iowa to Texas to Florida to Maine.
How do young people and their foster families connect with opportunities these organizations provide? For some, it may be a presentation at school — like the ones Cortez gives at the high school subchapter — or a phone call from a peer. Others may hear about it from an independent living program or another supportive network they’re already involved with.
Matt Rosen, Foster Youth In Action’s executive director, explains that it is more challenging to connect directly with foster parents because frequently county and foster care administrators are limited in the information they will share with organizations attempting to do outreach, for confidentiality purposes. But said agencies will likely have information for families interested in helping their teens connect. And supporting youth as they connect with these youth-led advocacy groups and communities can open up a new world of possibilities for young people in the foster care system.
“The kinds of skills and opportunities that young people get who are involved in these kinds of things are so profoundly transformative for them,” Rosen said. “The opportunity to lift up their voice, get a sense of their own power, to see how the things that they do can make a change, help [young people] learn that they do have some control over their lives.”
Elizabeth Green is the community outreach and education manager for Fostering Media Connections, and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change, Fostering Families Today and Adoption Today magazines.