May 2021Vol. 22, No. 5Engaging Youth as Advocates for Themselves and Others
A message from Children's Bureau's National Foster Care Month lead, Taffy Compain, in partnership with the Capacity Building Center for States
Youth with lived expertise in foster care are critical advocates for themselves, for other youth, and for systems and policy change. In honor of National Foster Care Month (NFCM), we encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the different ways you can engage youth as advocates. Imagine the impact on a young person when her attorney reinforces her voice in court, a former student helps a current one meet college challenges, or youth leadership efforts contribute to changing legislation.
This year's NFCM digital stories highlight youth and the people who have nurtured their advocacy skills at the individual practice level, peer level, and system level. The inherent value of engaging youth and families is easy to understand. After all, who knows youth needs better than youth? Whose voice should be prioritized in case decisions? Who can best help another navigate complicated systems? And whose expertise is most relevant in shaping those systems to improve child welfare outcomes?
Consider the importance of relationships as a foundation for advocacy. Authentic relationships between professionals—including caseworkers, attorneys, and court-appointed special advocates—and the youth they serve may open the door to advocacy at all levels.
The following examples of youth advocacy in action are excerpted from the 2021 NFCM digital stories.
Medina and Andrea describe their attorney-client relationship and Medina's emerging voice as she began to advocate for herself with Andrea's support and trust.
"Andrea was there for me without judging, without hesitation. No matter how angry, sad, or depressed I was, she was always there. Once I saw I could really trust her, I started opening up more. I was able to voice what I wanted, and she would advocate for that in court. We always had a plan, and she had my back every step of the way."—Medina, former youth in foster care
"Before court hearings, we would meet to talk about what was happening and what she should expect. I would remind her of my role to advocate, fighting for what she thought was best for her and representing that position in court. I think that started to show her a different way she could express herself. When she had to testify in court, she was prepared. She had developed her own voice."—Andrea, attorney
The University of Arizona's Fostering Success program supports students who have experienced foster care or housing insecurity by building a community of peers and helping members navigate financial aid, higher education, foster care, mental health services, and much more. Fostering Success community members are paired with peer mentors, each of whom is a former student in the program. Peer mentors work one-on-one with students, helping them overcome barriers and capitalize on their strengths (D. Carrillo, personal communication, January 31, 2021).
Sarah, a Fostering Success peer mentor, describes her experience mentoring Nic and his newfound passion for peer advocacy.
"When I met Nic, he was in high school and didn't seem to have anyone encouraging him to attend a university...I met with him and helped him understand what it would take to attend the university and that I believed he could do it. When he became a student, I provided a lot of support, especially with navigating financial aid and scholarships. I've tried to be a consistent support to him no matter what he was going through and his biggest fan when he's doing awesome. We have a lot in common outside our experiences in foster care, and I'm grateful to have built such an amazing friendship with someone who wants to carry on the mission of being a peer mentor for others."
New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks (NMCAN) engages youth to lead child welfare advocacy efforts in the state. Youth Leaders have successfully advocated for the first U.S. tax credit to businesses for hiring youth currently or formerly in foster care, optional extended foster care to age 21, college tuition waivers for transition-age youth, expanded Medicaid, and more (NMCAN, n.d.).
Micaela, an NMCAN youth leader, describes her first policy advocacy experience, nurtured through her relationship with Arika, the NMCAN director of policy and advocacy.
"Every morning started with a burrito and coffee and a ride extremely early in the morning. Once we got to Santa Fe, we would sit in committees and hear other bills as we waited for our bill. Arika taught me how the process worked and that it would be the same for our bill. I felt like I was getting my foot in the door. If I can understand all of that, I could understand other bills...by being at the capitol, learning about the process, seeing how my advocating could make a difference, I became really interested in it. I started paying attention to the news and national bills, something I never thought I would do."
Visit Reflections: Stories of Foster Care on the NFCM website to hear directly from these and other pairs of professionals and youth about working together toward better outcomes for children, youth, and families engaged with the foster care system.
New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks. (n.d.). Advocate. https://nmcan.org/for-community-partners/advocate/