Foster Youth Advocate to Change the System that Raised Them

Over 10 years starting in 2000, Jasmine, now 23, moved through three foster homes, two group homes, five high schools, and eventually aged out of the foster care system.

Jasmine is an alumni of Youth Fostering Change, an engagement program at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. The program builds youth-adult partnerships, wherein young people in and recently aged-out of the foster care system work with adults to plan their own futures and change the child welfare system.

Throughout the program, Jasmine learned how to become a legislative advocate. Jasmine says that foster care, often, “gets placed on the back burner” with decision makers.

These programs are successful because of the youth-adult partnerships, according to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. While the program is run by adult professionals they treat youth as partners in the programs.

“Moving just from school to school was kinda hard for me, cause I didn’t feel like I was gonna finish,” Jasmine said. “I didn’t even think I was gonna go back to school at one point.”

Despite her concerns, Jasmine graduated from high school on time. She falls within the fifty percent of youth in foster care who complete high school, according to a 2010 study from the Children and Youth Services Review. Of those, about twenty percent go on to a higher education institution, according to the same study.

Jasmine’s goal is to go to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and to become a fashion blogger.

“My experience with my caseworker – it wasn’t really a lot of communication with my caseworker,” Jasmine said.

Jasmine continued to clarify that there was confusion for her around who her caseworkers and child advocates were. While her experience with these professionals was less than adequate, the Juvenile Law Center stepped in to give her a voice in changing her life trajectory.

Youth Fostering Change

Youth Fostering Change (YFC) is one of three engagement programs at Juvenile Law Center. YFC members range from ages 15 to 22. They are recruited, some through applications on the agency’s website, over the summer for yearlong paid positions, meeting once a week starting in October.

“We consider them paid employees, which allows us to put responsibility on the youth that this is their job and we value their opinion and consider them advocates,” said Cathy Moffa, a youth engagement associate with the center. “We are providing a professional environment for them, as well as therapeutic, and even though we work as a group, we bring them in for individual check-ins and refer them to services as needed.”

Each year the YFC youth advocates select a campaign issue based on research and their own experiences; this year it is access to higher education.

“Youth Fostering Change’s strategy for this project has been to go directly to institutions of higher education and let them know what foster youth need to be successful,” Moffa said. “The youth have also come up with pledges for colleges to make changes in order for foster youth to be able to navigate college life more successfully.”

When the program ends in May, the organization hopes that “youth are provided with the skills to advocate within their own lives,” said Moffa. Recommendations, toolkits, and collaborations of the program on different issues related to foster care can be found here. Jasmine can be found in the video entitled, “A Place Called Home”.

Youth may participate in the program for up to two years.

Every year youth participating in YFC who were previously shy or quiet become more confident and adept at standing and speaking in front of an audience, according to Moffa. Often, YFC offers youth the opportunity to sit down with a professional who is able to change the system.

“We hope that each year we can expand with more partners so that our youth can spend less time here in the office and more time bringing awareness to people who can really make a difference,” Moffa said.

Juvenile Law Center’s other youth-engagement programs are Juveniles for Justice, which involves youth who have been in the juvenile justice system, and the Youth Speakers Bureau, in which youth from Youth Fostering Change and Juveniles for Justice can expand their advocacy and speaking skills by participating in a broad range of speaking events.

Youth Fostering Change is just one youth engagement program in the nation. Other organizations implementing these programs are FosterClub, California Youth Connection and Florida Youth Shine.

FosterClub created multiple youth-engagement programs including the All-Star Internship Program. It was created with the belief that youth who have a successful transition out of foster care are most appropriate to influence the transition of youth still in foster care.

California Youth Connection empowers and provides youth with opportunities to utilize leadership skills when speaking with decision makers and stakeholders within their community. Youth help to educate the community on issues that are important to foster youth.

Florida Youth Shine is a youth-run organization that empowers current and former foster youth to become leaders and advocates in their community. Their mission is to empower, improve, educate and support growth of tomorrow’s leaders through today’s youth and supporters.

When we commented on how well spoken and professional Jasmine is, she attributed it to Youth Fostering Change. Youth-engagement programs teach legislative advocacy, but the skills they learn cross over into youth’s own lives. Through Jasmine’s experiences and YFC, she is able to advocate in her own life and continue to be independent.

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Abigail Wilson is an Advanced Standing MSW candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She is interested in child welfare policy change, specifically around issues of child abuse and neglect, poverty, and the foster care system. Her current field placement is at the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at Penn Law. Abigail hopes to continue to work within the child welfare field.

This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”

Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.  

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Journalism for Social Change (J4SC), a program of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), is a graduate-level training program for students of journalism, public policy and social work, which teaches them how to use journalism as an implement of social change.