Most people will tell you that there’s nothing quite like the bond between siblings. But for youth who have been through the foster care system, siblings are especially important.
“I was with my brother and sister, but we were the youngest and they separated us from the oldest [siblings],” Ruth Yanez-Arnold told me when recounting her experience in Los Angeles County’s foster care system. “I felt like that really affected us — we looked to our oldest siblings for guidance, but [with] them being stripped from [us], we were just vulnerable.”
After being removed from their homes and communities — and losing connection to everything that’s familiar — sometimes a sibling is all a foster youth has left to give them a sense of home.
But for foster youth in L.A. County, maintaining a bond with their siblings is often a struggle.
“I had to fight for [our bond]. I feel like it’s the system’s responsibility to make sure that these youth — they’re blood related — they should know each other,” said Ernesto Yanez-Arnold, Ruth’s older brother, who was also in foster care. “That’s their roots. This system becomes our parents and we are their kids, why not keep their kids together?”
This is an important time to talk about the rights of foster children in L.A. County. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is currently looking for a new director since former director Philip Browning retired in January.
Home of the nation’s largest foster care system, DCFS oversees the cases of nearly 35,000 children, 18,000 of whom are placed in out-of-home care. Although there are already both federal and state laws in place articulating the importance of sibling relationships and the efforts necessary to maintain them, it has been in the personal experience of those in care in Los Angeles that the system could do better. The search for a new director means the chance to prioritize the issues that current and former foster youth have been championing for some time now. Youth in L.A. County have repeatedly expressed the importance of strengthening the rights of sibling visitation and the ability to hold a director accountable for ensuring those rights to a relationship with their siblings.
“I had to tell my attorney and judge, ‘I need to see them, I need to have visitation with my siblings,’” Ernesto said. “I had group homes telling me I couldn’t call my siblings, but I knew my rights. I feel like, as a DCFS director upholding that position, no matter what they, the social workers, do, no matter what the attorneys do, it needs to be understood that they are a reflection of that director. Make sure the youth are aware and know their rights and know about the grievance process.”
Described as “perhaps the most critical job in Los Angeles County” in a listing for the job, DCFS’s new director will be in charge of managing and operating an annual budget of $2.2 billion, manage a staff of nearly 9,000 employees and will be expected to guide DCFS through new, and challenging, reforms.
While the new director will no doubt have to keep in mind the hiring of new and efficient social workers and administrative staff, as well as the recruitment and securing of committed foster parents and homes, Los Angeles County must do more by considering the needs of its clients. The new director should pay close attention to how she or he can keep siblings like Ernesto and Ruth together, as well as other needs of foster youth who are directly affected by each decision the DCFS director makes.
That’s why foster youth should undoubtedly be a principal player in the decision-making process for selecting a new director.
Over the last few months, the National Foster Youth Institute (NFYI) has organized current and former foster youth to to be included in the search for and hiring of a new director.
That is why, today, a group from NFYI will be presenting to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors about the need for youth voice in the decision-making process for the next DCFS director. Our voices and experiences are indispensable and should always remain at the center of this conversation, and any and all like it.
As we say, nothing about us, without us.