This is the second of two stories written by FosterClub All-Star interns recounting their experiences discussing federal legislation with policymakers. Read the first story here.
Earlier this month, FosterClub All-Stars, a group of foster youth advocates, were joined by Fritz Graham and Jenny Wood, the field representative for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and chief deputy of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, respectively, to discuss various fallbacks, successes, improvements and goals of the child welfare system.
Youth in foster care are arguably the most at-risk group of young people in America, and one topic that dominated much of the storytelling and discussion of advocacy by the FosterClub All-Stars on behalf of the over 400,000 youth in care was that of preventative services in relation to the Family First Act.
The new bill, currently awaiting Senate approval, has been dubbed by some as the biggest piece of child welfare legislation since the 1970s. The reason the bill is getting so much attention, according to advocates, is that it would provide the opportunity to utilize more federal dollars to prevent youth who do not need to be in care from going, adding to an already overloaded caseload. It would mean that federal dollars could be used for “non-essential” services like substance abuse prevention, in-home parent skills-based programs (like counseling and wraparound services) and even mental health services.
A few former foster youth who are interning with FosterClub shared their perspectives on how something like Family First could have changed their lives.
As a youth advocate, I believe mental health services and wraparound services would have completely changed my story. I do not understand why the first thing to go is always family support because it’s deemed ‘non-essential.’ Foster care is supposed to be temporary. We know that the majority of our foster youth reunify and that those who don’t reunify still talk to their parents. We also know that a lot of those who run away run to their parents.
Not supporting mental health and wraparound services is contradictory to the mission of our child welfare system, from a monetary standpoint.
I reflected to the group, “What do you know? After not getting what we needed, I went right back into care after being arrested twice and almost dropping out of high school.”
Brittney Barros shared her story of homelessness, and how she was told by a caseworker about a housing voucher that never materialized. “I no longer have to worry about my being homeless. I no longer have to worry about my siblings … Then we got a call that they could not provide what we needed,” Barros said. Her story demonstrated for the group how, although the current bill might not have it now, later adding housing subsidies back into the bill can provide hope for some youth in situations like what Barros experienced.
After hearing various stories from these foster care survivors, Wood talked about states preparing to phase in preventative services via building contacts, ensuring proper implementation, and overseeing that agencies are as efficient as possible when supporting their constituents. In response to specific ideas for services, Graham mentioned “relief nurseries” that Sen. Wyden is hoping to use as a model.
The goal of these facilities is to provide parents a break, when needed, to prevent situations in which parents might not be in the right mindset to take care of their child, but the situation does not warrant an investigation or case. One idea thrown around was making these types of institutions available for single parents who go into county jail for just a few days for a small offense like excessive traffic violations. Such an arrangement would prevent yet another court hearing and wasted public dollars.
Overall, the discussion had its own twists and turns that led some in the group to be even more frustrated with “the system,” and a few gained insight into specific stories with names rather than statistics, but most of the people in the room were filled with hope about what could be the future of the child welfare system. Wood and Graham may have come to the discussion with a desire to talk amongst professionals from various backgrounds, but they left with extra motivation to be held accountable in their positions as public servants of the ones society has labeled “troubled,” “damaged” and “broken.”
I personally am anxious to see what could be the turning point for so many families. I know that I have been hurt by the system that was supposed to care for me. I deserved the right to be “normal,” but we have had to legislate a foster youth bill of rights.
Statistics and research on traumatized youth in foster care like myself often predict a destiny of becoming a convict, just another dropout, a failure. With Family First, “the system” – not me – is getting a second chance to avoid having yet another body to sweep into its closet of foster youth skeletons.
David Samuel Hall is president of both a student organization and statewide leadership-council focused on foster youth advocacy, as well as a FosterClub All-Star. He is currently a second-year sophomore at Oklahoma City University double majoring in Sociology and Instrumental Music Education.