In the summer of 1988, a handful of foster youth who gathered for Saturday-afternoon meetings at a daycare center in Los Angeles started with an ambitious but improbable goal: to give a voice to the tens of thousands of children in foster care across California.
At that time, many legislators failed to understand how the state’s child welfare system worked, according to one of those who participated in the initial organizing efforts.
“When we first started, we were educating people about not just who foster youth were but also what foster care was like, and these were the people in the state that were responsible for caring for us and creating the policies for us,” said Haydée Cuza.
Calling themselves the Foster Youth Connection, the group established chapters in Sacramento and Los Angeles and sent a letter to California Gov. George Deukmejian to raise awareness around the issues faced by foster youth in the state: difficulty graduating high school, frequent moves to different placements and struggles to connect with family members.
Years later, that group—now called the California Youth Connection (CYC)—has become a powerhouse in the state’s child-welfare community, providing the direct perspective of youth currently in care to policymakers and helping to draft and pass legislation that impacts foster youth across the state.
In 2010, the organization achieved a landmark triumph with the passage of Assembly Bill 12, which extended foster care in the state to age 21, and now regularly provides feedback to counties across the state about child-welfare policies and practices.
Now CYC has announced that Cuza, 44, will return to the organization as its new executive director, creating an inspiring arc for the founding member, former foster youth and longtime mental health advocate.
At age 16, Cuza entered foster care in Los Angeles County after several tumultuous stints living on the streets and then at a shelter. Soon after being placed into a foster home, her social worker signed her up for a life-skills class where she found an opportunity to share her own experiences with other foster youth.
That fall, with the support of a few adult supporters, the youth spent their Saturdays authoring bylaws and reaching out to government officials. The group engaged with youth in 10 other counties in order to expose more decision-makers to the experiences of youth in foster care.
Though she would later struggle with homelessness after aging out of the system, Cuza credits CYC with providing a critical foundation during a turbulent time.
“Without that experience of CYC at age 16, my life could have gone a completely different way,” Cuza said. “I really feel like it saved my life in many ways, giving me a purpose in my life. I was really close to not even finishing high school at that point.”
Cuza not only graduated from high school, but also pursued a doctorate in education from the University of California, Los Angeles. In recent years, she has headed Oakland-based Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services, a mental-health provider that uses a peer-based approach to mental health, as well as the mental-health nonprofit Youth In Mind.
During her time with CYC, Cuza credits Jennifer Rodriguez—another former CYC member who has risen to a prominent place in the state’s child-welfare field—with giving her the tools to imagine a role as a powerful advocate.
“She taught me how to use my emotions and experience as a staff person representing a whole organization as opposed to just an individual telling my own story,” Cuza said. “It’s because I was given those skills to think in that big picture way that I’m here today.”
Rodriguez, who now heads the Youth Law Center, says that CYC’s selection of Cuza is the start of a new era for the organization.
“It’s meaningful for members because they will see themselves reflected in her,” Rodriguez said. “It’s one thing to tell young people that they can be whatever kind of leader and assume whatever position they want to be, and it’s another thing for them to see the proof of that in front of them and to see that the organization is being led by someone who, when they were 16 years old, also had that first scary meeting with a legislator.”
Guided by current and former foster youth ages 14 to 24 in 33 county-based chapters throughout the state, CYC has about 450 youth members. Over the past few years, the organization has strung together a series of legislative triumphs, including extending foster care until age 21, sibling visitation rights and support to young women in foster care who become pregnant.
CYC has been searching for an executive director since July 2015, when Joseph Tietz stepped down. During that time, Robin Allen served as interim executive director.
CYC Board President Jason Bryant said many on the hiring committee were impressed with Cuza’s background and programmatic experience, but it was her understanding of the organization’s focus on empowering youth leadership that proved most compelling.
“She’s very sharp, academically accomplished and a strong child welfare advocate,” Bryant said. “Haydée clearly embodies what we’re looking for in an ED but maybe most important is that she understands the importance of being a guardian of the youth-led mission.”
Preserving the role of youth in CYC’s leadership remains a priority for Cuza.
“In my leadership role, I’m really need to listen to the reality of today and not to the reality of 28 years ago,” she said. “There is a pressure, a level of responsibility that I hold, that people are looking to me in a very unique way, because I do have this founding member title. I really want to live up to that and I want to make sure that I’m always standing in the foundation of being youth led.”
Cuza says she hopes to incorporate her mental health expertise into the organization’s work, as well as ensuring that CYC stays engaged with child-welfare leadership in the state during a time of policy change.
“We’re going to have to be at the table constantly,” Cuza said. “We can’t relax and say because we have this great reputation, people are still going to hear and honor our perspective.
“Before you could go to one state meeting and influence a lot of people with one meeting. Now you have to be present at all the county meetings when new funding is coming forward, when different decisions are being made about caseloads for social workers, the group home conversations, congregate care conversations, and holding counties accountable to who they’re contracting with in terms of psychotropic medications.”
Cuza will formally start her position in mid-September, the last stop on a long road back to an organization that has helped shape a generation of foster youth into leaders and experts.
She now has the chance to write a unique ending to a story that started so many years ago amongst foster youth in Los Angeles striving to be heard.
“Being the young, smart-mouthed 16-year-old girl who was trying to deal with a lot of things to be able to come back as a more mature person and a grandma at 44 with a lot more experience, I feel really grateful,” Cuza said. “I’m coming in on the shoulders of all the young people who carried the mission of CYC.”