When she entered the foster care system at age 13, Brianne Lyn Nagamine remembers feeling isolated and depressed.
Back then, she dealt with the painful experiences of being abandoned by her mother and being separated from her siblings by drinking, even at school. But things changed when Nagamine found a place with the Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition, a youth led organization that helps many current and former foster youth find support.
“It allowed me to feel a part of something,” said Nagamine, now 20. “I created a family within the coalition. I didn’t feel alone anymore.”
Later, Nagamine decided to help other youth handle their own experiences with grief and trauma by leading a peer support group with Kids Hurt Too Hawaii. She thinks peers can be an important factor in helping youth heal from painful experiences before and after entering the foster care system.
“After you go see a therapist and your problems are resolved, they let you go and they don’t give you anything after that,” Nagamine said. “With peers, we’re always going to be there, and we’re going to grow up together. We’re going to be able help each other out because we’re going through the same things they are.”
Later this week, Nagamine and more than 80 other youth leaders from across the country will bring this message to legislators and policymakers in Washington, D.C. as part of a youth led conference aimed at creating a national dialogue about how foster youth can heal from trauma.
From October 16-19, Foster Youth in Action’s 4th annual Leaders for Change conference will gather youth and young adult leaders from 18 states. Youth will share successful trauma-informed training for professionals who work with youth involved with the foster care system and propose recommendations for lawmakers. On Sunday, foster youth leaders will host a policy briefing for policymakers, their staff, and professional foster youth advocates before making the rounds to the offices of elected officials from their states.
Their solutions include the following ideas, part of a rare opportunity to add youth-driven solutions to the burgeoning world of child trauma:
- Increase peer-to-peer support, mentoring and other foster youth led programming.
- Provide more opportunities for peer led social action and community leadership.
Leaders for Change is the nation’s only foster youth conference that brings together state-based groups to advocate for policy change at the national level. The four day conference is being planned by Foster Youth in Action’s Youth Leaders Council, a group of young leaders drawn from youth led organizations across the country.
Matt Rosen, executive director of Foster Youth in Action, says that the conference is different from most thanks to the active role youth leaders played in selecting and researching this year’s topic.
“There won’t be a single adult at the table at the front of the room at the conference,” Rosen said. “They designed the agenda, they picked the issue, they’re the ones developing the recommendations and they’re the ones who are going to tell the stories.”
Nagamine is one of the youth leaders who is ready to tell policymakers about the continuing issues caused by unaddressed trauma for current and former foster youth. Foster youth have a difficult time finishing school, finding a job and transitioning to successful adulthood, Nagamine said. Without finding a way to deal with childhood trauma, they are likely to struggle with mental health issues and engage in risky behaviors, such as increased use of drugs and alcohol—even long after leaving the system.
“In order to even address any kind of education, career, housing goals, you really need to address the healing of trauma,” Nagamine said. “That’s the root of the problem of why [foster youth] aren’t able to do these type of things. Because they don’t always have that emotional stability.”
Healing from trauma is a complex process that varies for each person but one avenue that deserves more attention is engaging foster youth with leadership opportunities, according to Rosen.
“We know from our own short term research at Foster Youth in Action that learning about leadership and advocacy can have real impact for mental health and well being and a sense of identity for foster youth,” Rosen said. “There’s emerging research that says their involvement in making change is a powerful part of the healing process.”
Nagamine has firsthand knowledge of the ways that peers can help foster youth who are in need of support. She hopes that more professionals can understand the benefits of creating positive spaces where foster youth can connect with peers, adults and the community.
“That’s what we want to do—build healthy relationships,” she said. “When youth are going through some struggles, they need to have someone to go to and a safe place where they can let their feelings out.
“We want to give them these tools, these coping and self-care strategies, in order for them to continue to heal.”