As a youth in foster care, I am used to major decisions about me being made in my absence.
Countless times, I was not made aware of my court dates, where my future would be decided.
But not being able to participate in court can have a far-reaching impact on foster youth like me.
Last year, I tried reaching out to my attorney to find out my court date and to discuss some challenges I had with my case workers. However, he never answered, and attended my hearing without me.
I later found out my court hearing took place four days after my 18th birthday. Because I didn’t show up, my lawyer and new caseworker discharged me from foster care, without my permission. I was angry and confused because I already signed a board extension, which allows youth to remain in care until age 21.
Foster youth like me feel like we do not have any control and often feel discouraged to use our voices when we are in dependency court. Sadly, many youth do not realize they have rights in court.
Fortunately, I was able to become eligible for foster care until age 21 with the help of the Juvenile Law Center, the Support Center for Child Advocates and Achieving Independence Center.
But my story is not unusual among youth in foster care, who feel unheard in court or who have had major decisions made about them, without them. For youth in foster care to be self-advocates, it is important that we know we have a voice and the right to speak in court, and have our voices heard.
To raise awareness around this issue we, Youth Fostering Change, a youth advocacy project of Juvenile Law Center, decided to develop a campaign to highlight foster youth attendance in court and to empower youth to communicate in their court hearings.
We created an Empowerment Card with the rights that all Pennsylvania youth have in dependency court, and a Court Prep Form to prepare youth for court by asking youth various questions that we feel advocates miss at times or important questions about our lives they forget to ask us. We also worked with Philly CAM to record a short video of our recommendations for improving foster youth experience in court.
We also created recommendations to improve foster youth attendance and experience in court. For example, we recommend that youth attending dependency hearings should be empowered to be meaningfully engaged in court. This means that foster youth should be given opportunities to communicate their concerns by allowing youth to speak up, having their lawyer to speak on their behalf, or by sharing a written statement.
Speaking up also gives the opportunity for the judge to get a better understanding about you as a person, not just as words on paper. These do not define who we are.
Sometimes foster youth also have barriers to getting to court for various reasons, such as not having transportation, not knowing their court date, or sometimes because court is scheduled at an inconvenient time, like during school, work, or important personal time.
To ensure foster youth are attending court, we recommend agencies provide youth with a way to get to court, ensure youth made aware in advance of their court dates, and that court hearings are scheduled in a way that will work with the youth’s schedule.
It is so important to have foster youth speak up in dependency court. For many of us, while we might be scared to speak in court, saying something when scared is better than not being heard at all.
These are our lives: we should be allowed to take the wheel.
For more information about Youth Fostering Change court project and to check out our court materials and video please visit http://jlc.org/yfc. For more information about Juvenile Law Center, Youth Fostering Change and their court project, please visit www.jlc.org.
Shanice Holmes, 19, is an alumni youth advocate for Youth Fostering Change, a program at Juvenile Law Center. She currently attends Philadelphia Learning Academy North.