A Vision for California Policy from Youth in Foster Care

Over 100 members of California Youth Connection (CYC) and their adult supporters gathered last weekend at the University of Southern California to discuss crucial issues facing youth in the foster care system, and create policy recommendations to remove these barriers to success for young people in the future.

The annual Summer Leadership and Policy Conference gave participants a space to delve into topics identified by foster youth as the issues of the highest priority for legislative action. This year, young people from 25 different CYC chapters brainstormed solutions related to social worker accountability, foster parent accountability, mental health, and extended foster care through Assembly Bill (AB) 12.

Panelists and CYC Members after the Youth Policy Forum. From left to right, Will Lightbourne, Carroll Schroeder, CYC member and emcee Cierra Gunderson-Knox, Cathy Senderling-McDonald, Rochelle Trochtenberg and CYC presenter Jasmine Harris. Photo: Elizabeth Green

California Youth Connection is an organization made up of 33 chapters across the state that trains foster youth to be advocates, empowering them to engage directly with policy and legislation affecting young people in the system.
The conference culminated in the Youth Policy Forum on Monday, where members presented their recommendations to peers and professionals from child welfare service organizations. They also solicited feedback from a panel of experts, including the Director of California Department of Social Services, Will Lightbourne; Executive Director of California Alliance of Child and Family Services, Carroll Schroeder; Deputy Director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, Cathy Senderling-McDonald; and California’s foster care ombudsperson, Rochelle Trochtenberg, who is herself a former foster youth.

The conference provided youth space to make their voices heard on specific policy issues, and also facilitated connections with young people facing similar challenges in foster care.

“A lot of youth feel like, ‘I’m the only one with this obstacle, I’m the only one with this barrier,’” said J. Cortez III, a student at UC Davis and president of CYC’s Yolo Chapter, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “When they’re brought here this weekend, when developing recommendations, when talking about these things, youth are able to share their experiences and relate to one another.”

Members spent the weekend brainstorming recommendations for the four policy areas they would present at Monday’s forum, as well as honing their advocacy skills.

Vance Dokes, also of the Yolo Chapter, explained that youth put their advocacy to use not only at this SLPC forum, but also at CYC’s other conference, Day at the Capitol, where members present their final policy recommendations to legislators. Past CYC youth efforts in front of legislators have seen such successes as the original passage of AB 12.

“They pretty much equipped you with the tools that you need to actually feel comfortable talking to these legislators and representatives,” Dokes said, explaining some of the weekend’s workshops about how to share details of their own experiences. “Because these are our personal stories and our lives … you don’t have to reveal what you don’t feel comfortable—it’s all up to you.”

Once guests gathered in the USC conference hall, youth took the stage in groups to share stories about ways in which AB 12, mental health, social worker accountability and foster parent accountability (or lack thereof) had impacted them directly.

Youth members in the audience snapped their fingers wildly as a show of respect and support for their peers on stage, many of whom had never publicly spoken before or advocated in front of such a large audience.

Social Worker Accountability

One presenter from Humboldt County explained that in their recommendations for social worker accountability, CYC members hope to find ways to make sure that youth in foster care were treated as individuals, and not just a number in a caseload. “What we want is a better understanding of who these case files are, off the paper,” she said.

Presenters expressed the need to reduce social worker caseloads, and improve mechanisms for communication between social workers and their youth, so that young people can be more informed about the process of their care. This started with a recommendation that youth be involved in training social workers, and that CYC members should attend National Social Work Association meetings.

They recommended that youth be able to change their own social worker with greater ease, with potential suspension or termination for social workers who are “repeat offenders” of not communicating well with their charges.

Extended Foster Care

Despite the fact that AB 12 legislation has been CYC’s focus before, Cortez stressed that it continues to be on members’ minds because AB 12 funds still remain elusive for some youth, based on how the law is currently written.

“They said, we understand that we just passed AB 12 legislation, but … not all the i’s are dotted and not all the t’s are crossed,” he said.

Members proposed engaging youth in preparation for extended foster care by meeting with their social worker, caregiver, independent living program worker and AB12 worker within three months of every foster youth’s 16th birthday to prepare for the transition into extended foster care.

They also suggested standardizing a statewide curriculum for Independent Living Program (ILP) classes, and evaluating those classes’ efficacy in teaching financial literacy, professional development, home economics, housing stability, health and life skills. Presenters recommended that youth be required to complete 50 hours of prep classes before being eligible for AB 12, a time commitment about which the panelists urged caution.

Mental Health

Mental health was woven throughout all policy topics, and CYC’s presenters on mental health challenges gave faces to an issue at the center the national conversation on foster care in our country.

Each of the three mental health policy recommendations highlighted the need to streamline services. For example, some but not all counties in California operate a short-term mental health crisis facility for youth in need, which one presenter identified as being very personally helpful

They stressed the need to provide more consistent trauma-informed training for foster parents statewide, and how impactful it would be on mental health to reduce the caseload for school liaisons so that youth could get more one-on-one time.

“Without a stable mind, there will never be a stable home,” explained one presenter, making the case for why mental health should be CYC’s policy priority for the coming year.

On the need to tackle issues related to mental health, CDSS Director Lightbourne shared with presenters. “There is no single bigger agenda we have to work on over the next couple of years,” he said.

Foster Parent Accountability

The need for foster parent accountability resonated with many in the room, on the stage and in the audience. One young woman shared how her foster parent had refused to buy diapers for her young son, but had come home with a large, brand new television. Another presenter was placed with a foster family that repeatedly faced eviction.

To increase foster parent accountability, and positive experiences in foster homes, youth proposed creating an online platform for foster youth to learn more about potential foster parents, likened by one panelist to Yelp of foster care, or a site that would match youth with homes based on likes, dislikes and cultural factors like religion. They also advocated for foster care-designated funds to be administered to foster families through a debit card, so that appropriate spending could be tracked.

Narrowing the Scope

Based on these presentations and recommendations, CYC members and staff will decide which one issue area CYC will focus on for Day at the Capitol.

CYC members and workshop leaders Jennifer Tijerina, Courtney Rinker and Jennifer Trujillo. Photo: Elizabeth Green

After panelists provided feedback, both cautionary and encouraging, to help youth evaluate and craft their recommendations further before taking them to the Capitol, the forum shifted into breakout sessions, led by youth to get more feedback about their issue area.

CYC Members Courtney Rinker, Jennifer Trujillo and Jennifer Tijerina skillfully led a group of fellow foster youth, CYC alums, and adult supporters through a focus group on foster parent accountability. In this smaller session, the leaders invited participants to share their own experiences with foster care.

The confidence Rinker, Trujillo and Tijerina displayed at the front of the room suggested that this was not their first rodeo. Rinker later this month she will be recruiting for CYC and representing the organization at two local college orientations.

“One of the recommendations that I really like is the debit card, having a separate payment for the foster parent,” said 19 year-old Rinker, in an interview. Rinker, a member of the Riverside chapter, has been part of CYC for two years and hopes to see foster parent accountability receive attention at Day at the Capitol.

“You know, of course they’ve got to pay their bills, they’ve got to pay their rent,” she said. “But also foster youth need necessities, school supplies, feminine products, clothes … I feel like that should be in a separate account. So that’s a really nice recommendation.”

California Youth Connection’s policy and legislative committee will use recommendations and feedback from the forum to select youths’ policy focus for their time with legislators in Sacramento this winter.

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Elizabeth Green
About Elizabeth Green 39 Articles
Elizabeth Green is the community outreach and education manager for Fostering Media Connections, and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.