Foster Youth in Action, a national foster youth-led advocacy organization with partner sites in six states, held its second annual convening of foster youth to discuss what they saw as the preeminent policy issues for the coming year. This year’s subject: the much-discussed and highly politicized Affordable Care Act.
How does one approach a discussion about a subject so complex that veteran policymakers and legislators are still struggling to grasp its intricacies? We conducted a little Q&A with Foster Youth in Action Executive Director Janet Knipe to see how that went.
Chronicle of Social Change: You guys recently had a group of Foster Youth Action participants in for a weekend to train them on the Affordable Care Act. Why did you decide to take that issue up, and who is involved in deciding what subjects to train on?
Janet Knipe: We held our first national convening of foster youth leaders who are engaged in their own youth-led organizations doing statewide child welfare policy change in 2012. “Leaders for Change” brought together foster youth leaders from all of our program partners, and two prospective groups, to exchange information about their advocacy work, develop a peer-to-peer learning and support network, and begin to develop a joint strategy to improve our nation’s foster care system.
The success of that event, and the collaborative thinking about policy change in the foster care system that it encouraged and allowed, made it clear that it should be an annual convening. At the debrief of last year’s event, the youth said that in 2013 they wanted to work on a federal policy issue that had local implications.
The staff thought long and hard about what might fit that criteria and decided on the ACA because of the impending benefits for foster youth, and it was a federal policy that needed to be rolled out locally. We also felt strongly that, as with other powerful legislation around the rights of foster youth, it is only helpful if the option actually reaches the youth themselves.
Chronicle: Right, there are plenty of instances where laws empower youth but there’s no real obligation by anyone to tell them that.
JK: We can all point to other important federal program – the Chafee Independent Living Program for one – where the information about enrollment and services does not always reach all eligible youth. We wanted to be proactive about the ACA and give youth the tools to both understand the new benefits and also design outreach/educational campaigns that would help to educate other youth who had left care and not leave it to large bureaucracies.
Youth needed to be educated about the importance of maintaining health insurance, and be informed about their legal rights to coverage until 26 through the ACA. Next year we hope to have a youth planning committee that will decide the overall focus of the convening.
Chronicle: What were the specific goals you had in mind for the weekend as an FYA leader, and do you feel those were accomplished?
JK: There were five goals:
- Training on the ACA – what is it and why should I care about it?
- Training on what makes up a good and effective public awareness campaign
- Training and coaching on the development of a blueprint of an outreach/educational campaign for each of our groups to use locally in their state to get the word out about the ACA; we plan to support the youth to finish and launch these campaigns after the first of the year.
- Peer-to-peer learning
- Networking and building a stronger foster youth movement for change
Yes, we definitely achieved all of our goals and the youth got to see the sights of San Francisco, too: a Duck Tour around the town and in the Bay!
Chronicle: The intricacies of the ACA is tough for even adults to comprehend, and it is certainly a fluid situation right now with the delays. What was the strategy for training youths and young adults on it?
JK: We have a staff person, Tonya Hightower, who spent hours and hours researching/reading up on the ACA and how it would relate to foster youth. We were only focusing on that one provision. She then developed a youth-friendly training curricula to match the goals above. It included a section on key allies in your state so youth could go home and follow up with them about the current status of the implementation of the ACA in their state.
Chronicle: I’m sure you spent a lot of time on the specific foster youth provision in there, regarding Medicaid eligibility through age 26. Were participants surprised to learn this, and was the consensus that it will make a difference?
JK: No, there wasn’t consensus, which surprised us all as a staff. There actually was a lot of debate, much the same as in the media, as to the merits of the ACA as a whole. This was really surprising to us.
Chronicle: That is interesting. What are the main concerns they have with the law?
JK: They were similar to the concerns others have around the country about whether this should be mandated and could such a big program ever be successful. There has been a lot of misinformation about the ACA. We all rely so much on the media for our informationand, at times, it’s been very confusing for all of us.
Chronicle: Now that you have trained youths in multiple states on the act, what is the plan going forward?
JK: Youths from seven states were present: California, Oregon, Washington, Georgia, Massachusetts, Indiana and Nebraska. We will follow up with each partner organization and provide whatever support and technical assistance we can so that the youth launch their campaigns; we will also be posting their campaigns on our website and creating an online resource or tool kit for the youth to refer to.
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change