By Kayla Van Dyke, NACAC’s youth engagement coordinator (this article originally appeared in Fostering Families Today)
“Nothing about us without us!” This slogan has been used by many groups over the years to highlight the important role that stakeholder populations should have in informing the policies, procedures, and resources that affect them.
Recently, these words can be heard as the battle cry of youth in foster care and adoption who, equipped with their own perspectives and experiences, have stepped up to the plate to directly advocate for systems changes in child welfare. Innovative and comprehensive laws such as the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (2008) and the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (2014), as well as the recently proposed Families First Act are just a few examples of how policymakers have benefited from the direct input of youth who have experienced the child welfare system.
Young people with personal experiences in foster care and adoption are an invaluable resource for evaluating the effectiveness of the policies and resources established to aid in their long-term success and the success of the young people who follow behind them in the system.
Young people with personal experiences in foster care and adoption are an invaluable resource for evaluating the effectiveness of the policies and resources established to aid in their long-term success and the success of the young people who follow behind them in the system. For this reason, court systems, child welfare agencies, and policy makers have made huge advancements in learning how to effectively engage these youth in the decision making process.
Despite this progress, youth engagement in child welfare still has a long way to go. There is much to learn about the ever-changing and diverse challenges faced by young people who have experienced foster care and adoption. A single youth’s testimony can be a powerful asset for prompting change on a specific issue, but it represents only a facet of the full spectrum of experiences encompassing what it means to be an adopted youth or youth in foster care today. No individual voice could ever represent everything that needs to be learned about child welfare—this is where youth networks come in.
Youth networks are a dynamic platform for youth engagement that can serve to unite individuals of varied backgrounds toward a common goal. These networks can function in a number of different ways and typically address a variety of needs for their members:
- Some youth networks are created for the sole purpose of sharing resources and life skills training with a closed cohort of youth served by a specific program.
- Others offer a broader enrollment and rely upon the voluntary participation of members to advocate for policy and practice changes based on shared goals.
Whether a network is designed to achieve advocacy goals or support other young people, members of youth networks also report numerous personal gains as a result of their involvement.
One such benefit is certainly connection with others who have faced similar circumstances. As a former youth in foster care, I can attest to the loneliness and feelings of social isolation that often accompanies extended involvement in child welfare. For many youth in care, their upbringing may have looked drastically different from what they observed as normal for friends and peers. For me, this meant having many birthdays and Christmases left uncelebrated or watching with jealousy as friends left for vacation with their families. Many of the milestones I saw others take for granted, such as having a graduation party or learning how to drive a car, seemed like inaccessible luxuries to me. Not having a traditional family became an invisible handicap that prevented me from enjoying the privileges I observed others having.
Like many other youth in foster care and adoption, I had the added challenge of being expected to adapt seamlessly to new schools and family cultures while simultaneously dealing with the impact of grief and loss created by my home disruptions. These experiences can translate for some into a sense of not belonging anywhere, which can easily lend itself to the short-term comforts of drugs and other high-risk behaviors. Youth networks provide a sense of normalcy and emotional support for their members far beyond what they might initially identify as their goals for organizing.
My journey into youth networks began almost accidentally. I had no intention or interest in becoming an advocate. But when an opportunity arose for me to apply for an internship in Washington, D.C., I took it. I would have to testify before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, but I really wanted and needed a paid internship. It was during that internship—with FosterClub—that I first connected with other youth from across the country who had experienced foster care. Despite our many differences, I found more commonality and connectedness within the FosterClub network than I had in all of my time in care. What began as a way for me to make money over the summer quickly became an important support system that I would rely on for many years.
Thanks to my almost accidental opportunity, I finally had an outlet for processing what had happened to me in a way I found meaningful and healing. This network also afforded me the chance to directly affect the lives of other youth in foster care. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the challenges and personal conclusions I gained from my involvement with advocacy would prove to forever change my life’s trajectory for the better.
Currently, I am privileged enough to continue my work through my position with the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) as its youth engagement coordinator. NACAC provides training, support, and guidance a network of young leaders and advocates from across the United States and Canada. Through NACAC, these young leaders partner with parents, professionals, and others to use their experiences and expertise to advocate for child welfare reform. This system of interconnectedness and visibility created by our network helps us make informed decisions when involving youth in events and projects to support the work of the foster care and adoption community.
With NACAC’s and any other youth network, however, comes the ethical obligation to prepare young people to share their stories safely and effectively. Young people from foster care and adoption are often asked to make themselves vulnerable by sharing with strangers aspects of their story as well as the nature of the adversities they have faced. Depending on the context, these types of advocacy opportunities can present serious and unforeseen consequences for the young people involved, if they are inadequately prepared and supported. For this reason, it is critically important for adult supporters to understand the risk that young people take in possibly becoming re-traumatized or unnecessarily exposing sensitive details about themselves and others by sharing their stories. Providing support and preparation to alleviate the risks and challenges of personal disclosure is worth it because the vulnerability and sharing of stories by young people themselves undoubtedly helps inspire personal connection and empathy in the minds of those with the power to create change.
When I was asked to deliver my testimony in front of the Senate HELP Committee, I was most struck by the level of impact the emotional details of my story had on committee members’ understanding of the issues. Thankfully, I was well-prepared for my testimony, which allowed me to thoughtfully ascertain which details of my story were most relevant to the topic at hand. I also had the benefit of being emotionally supported during and after my testimony, which helped me build confidence in my ability to continue my advocacy work. Unlike other types of youth networks, which might require less structure, networks born from trauma-based systems like child welfare have an added responsibility to instill in their members the tools necessary to safely and consciously engage with opportunities in which young people are called upon to share their experiences.
Even without direct engagement, a natural byproduct of NACAC’s youth network, and many others, is that they can plant the seeds of inspiration for members to pursue leadership positions and advocacy initiatives in their own communities. Through this model, youth are able to organically continue their involvement, grow the field of opportunities for others, and build on the momentum and visibility needed to inspire change. Networks for youth in foster care and adoption have created a ripple effect across child welfare that has provided countless organizations and direct service providers with emerging leaders and advocates who bring personal experience and passion to their work. For those of us involved in youth networks, our hope is ultimately that our efforts will create a movement in child welfare that will cement active, supported youth leadership and engagement as the standard and not just the admired exception.