At the end of March, Rochelle Trochtenberg began her new job as California’s new foster care ombudsperson, the first time a former foster youth has held the post.
The Office of the Foster Care Ombudsman investigates and resolves complaints on behalf of foster youth. Operating under the auspices of the California Department of Social Services, the office is also charged with educating the state’s foster youth about their rights and how to report violations.
The position marks an inspiring arc for Trochtenberg. From painful days in care in Los Angeles County, Trochtenberg, 33, has made an impact as an advocate working on foster care, juvenile justice, homelessness, LGBT rights and mental health issues.
Many will remember her story as part of Karen de Sá’s award-winning “Drugging Our Kids” series, which shined a light on the overprescription of psychotropic drugs to foster youth. Trochtenberg spent her teenage years in a group home, where she was labelled “severely emotionally disturbed” and prescribed several powerful drugs that led to persistent health issues.
After leaving care, Trochtenberg went on to earn a masters degree in social work and gained advocacy experience on the ground and in the halls of government in Sacramento. Trochtenberg worked on transition-age youth issues as an organizer in Humboldt County, but she also served on state workgroups on mental health for foster youth as well as on the California Child Welfare Council with some of the state’s most powerful child-welfare leaders.
In recognition of her mental-health advocacy work, Trochtenberg will be honored on Saturday with an award from Young Minds Advocacy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that strives to improve children’s mental health.
The Chronicle of Social Change: You’ll be receiving the “Community Catalyst” award from Young Minds Advocacy next week. What does it mean to you?
Rochelle Trochtenberg: I was really surprised and humbled that they chose me for the award. The thing that’s been most important for me and my work is to build strong relationships with people and work together to solve the issues in child welfare and foster care. It’s really cool that they recognized that I have that value and are doing something to honor that. Young Minds is such a great organization, so to be recognized with the “Community Catalyst” award is a really great reminder to keep bringing people into the process to try to make things better for foster youth and create a better mental-health system.
CSC: What does it mean that a former foster youth has been appointed as the new California Foster Care Ombudsperson?
RT: When I first started doing advocacy work, I had never met another foster youth who had made it out of the system and been successful until I met Jennifer Rodriguez. She really inspired me to have a voice and to keep trying to change the system. Being appointed as the foster care ombudsman as a former foster youth, I bring two perspectives. One is that I have the personal experience of being in foster care and also of sort of being deeply involved in foster care, in terms of experiences within locked facilities and group homes. And then also my professional and academic background in social work and social justice. So I think the two of those together are positioning me to be uniquely present to bring youth and caregivers and systems folk to the table to make sure that foster youth are being cared for and that their rights are being upheld. As a former foster youth, it feels like a big responsibility to represent all foster youth, but it’s also important that to have a former foster youth in that role.
CSC: What do you envision for the future of that office?
RT: Our website and a lot of materials are pretty outdated. I hope to bring some things into the 21st century technologically—have way more marketing and use of social media to reach foster youth and caregivers so that they understand how we can be helpful.
The other part is that foster parents and caregivers have at times felt like our office has been an adversary. I really hope to change that dynamic and to help foster parents understand how they can be the most supportive of foster youth and to understand what their rights are as caregivers, what the youth’s rights are and how we can work together to solve challenges both at the individual level in foster homes, but also at a systemic level.
Last, I would just say, I think that I hope there’s a way to increase the opportunities that my office has to ensure accountability in making sure that all of the players at the table are doing what’s best for the youth, honoring their rights and how we can have some mechanisms to ensure that happens.
CSC: You’ve made a transition from a youth in care to a respected advocate at many different levels. During your time working as an advocate in Humboldt County, what was the most important thing you learned, either about yourself or about creating change?
RT: Something that I learned about myself is to always keep the big picture in mind. It can sometimes can feel defeating when you’re trying really hard to fight for systems change. It takes a long time.
And I truly believe—and also something that I want to bring to the work of the ombudsman office—the system won’t change without youth voice being involved at the policy and programmatic levels. When we ask youth, especially foster youth, what is going to best help them to be successful in their life, I think we make more informed decisions when we consider that. From a personal and professional standpoint, that’s been one of the most valuable learning lessons and something that continues to drives my work.
CSC: What can the state do to think differently about mental health for current and former foster youth in California?
RT: One of the things we have to do is be able to make sure that we’re providing services that are relevant to the youth or the child. The old way of thinking about how we provide mental services and what type of services we provide isn’t meeting the needs of youth. We have actually discounted things that actually helped people’s well-being, things like quality education, quality healthcare and people who care and love you. Also extracurricular, spiritual and cultural activities and ties to the community. They’re all part of how we’re able to be well as humans.
If mental health services are limited to medication and counseling in the office, we’re always going to miss the mark. We need to find better ways to integrate child welfare and mental health. And also make sure that mental health services are more holistic. There are tons of research out there to support that, but somehow we missed that in government.
On the bigger picture level, how do we get these different state and county departments to actually talk with each other and share data and work together to support a child or a family? We’re a long away from that. I hope that at the office in my work I can keep beating that drum of collaboration and integration and thinking about how we can make data-informed decisions, just like in the private sector. What do your customers say about what you’re doing, and what are do your customers want? We don’t do that in government. Building that in and being responsive is one of the ways we’ll be able to support the mental health needs of children and youth and families.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.