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Advocating at Shadow Day
Foster youth tell the New York City Council how to improve care
Alesha Mohamed
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Foster Youth Shadow Day is an opportunity for foster youth to follow members of the New York City Council as they do their jobs at City Hall. The young people also get to talk to Council members about their experiences in New York City’s foster care system. On this year’s Shadow Day, held on May 10, I was one of about 20 young people who gave the Council a perspective on our lives and encouraged them to improve the system.

Last summer, Youth Communication’s writing workshop taught me a lot about activism, and that inspired me to become a voice for youth like me. The opportunity to participate in Shadow Day excited my heart.

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For me the hardest thing about being a teen in care has been keeping my emotions bottled up while trying to push myself into a better future. I feel like I have to build that future for myself by myself. I dread telling my problems to a worker or therapist because they all are temporary. Workers are always leaving and coming in. I believe we foster youth need more steady support in our lives so we don’t feel so alone.

Many times I’ve had hardships in my life and absolutely no one to talk to. In October of 2016 my foster mother, with whom I was close, died. All I wanted at that moment was someone to talk to and tell me everything would be OK. At the time I had a therapist, Mr. D., who I was comfortable with. He knew everything about me. Within two weeks of my foster mom’s death, just by coincidence, I was told that Mr. D. would no longer handle Brooklyn cases, so I’d have to be reassigned.

I didn’t wish to speak with anyone else about my problems. I wasn’t ready to build a new bond when I was still heartbroken over my foster mom’s death.

I refused to talk to the new therapist (whose office was also very far away from my home). My workers told me I wouldn’t have to attend therapy anymore, and that was that. I would have gone to a bereavement group, but the agency didn’t have one. I also would have talked to a mentor who’d been in care, but they didn’t have that either.

I asked myself, again, “Why aren’t there more mental health support resources?” I am even in therapeutic foster care, which is specifically for kids who have mental health issues, but I often find myself alone.

I want to be a mentor for children in care and maybe a foster parent when I’m ready for it. I am considering becoming a therapist. In the meantime, I asked my worker to open up a mentoring program where older youth can be mentors for younger foster youth, to listen and help them cope. (He said he liked the idea, but nothing has come of it.) I wanted to use Shadow Day to tell people in charge how important this is.

Advocacy Preparation

In the weeks before May 10, we met for two trainings organized by Jessica Maxwell, the director of the Fostering Youth Success Alliance and the creator of Shadow Day. (Jessica grew up in care.) The first training showed the 14 of us how to summarize our complex foster care experience in a couple of sentences.

I wrote, “At 14 and 15, I was always told how much potential I had to be more. But having to provide for myself while dealing with my disoriented emotions drained me. In foster care, I seemed to always get the short end of the stick. Now, at 17, I feel like I’m being pushed out into the world alone. At Shadow Day, I want to point out the lack of emotional or other support that foster care agencies give foster children.” My statement was crafted to prompt questions from the Council members.

At the second training, the topic was Government 101. We learned that the City Council is the lawmaking body of New York City. It has 51 members—one for each district: 48 are Democrats and 3 are Republicans. They run for office every four years and meet in City Hall.

The City Council makes laws and policies for city agencies, including the Administration for Children’s Services, which runs foster care. The Council also monitors the performance of city agencies and figures out how they can be improved.

image by YC-Art Dept

Inside City Hall

On May 10, I woke up excited and nervous for the long day ahead. From 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. we attended the welcome breakfast and opening remarks, then got a tour of City Hall. About 20 foster youth were there. We were shown “the red room,” where press conferences are sometimes held, the members’ lounge, and the City Council’s chambers, where members come together to discuss legislation.

From 10:15 to noon was the shadow session and everyone finally got paired with their Council member. That’s when I found out, to my disappointment, that the Councilwoman I was supposed to shadow, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of the 21st District in Queens, was sick and didn’t come in to work. Instead I was paired with Ivan Acosta, her deputy chief of staff.

First Ivan and I attended a finance committee meeting in which the members discussed funding for a Section 8 building, for people with low incomes. After that we attended a women’s caucus meeting. I was drawn in when I heard how supportive the women’s caucus committee was toward the LGBTQ community, especially trans people.

From noon to 1 p.m., we all attended a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Council members and a few foster teens and organizers of Shadow Day spoke while people took pictures and notes. After that, Ivan gave me a more in-depth tour of City Hall. He showed me the surprisingly small and crowded media center and journalism room.

I liked seeing all the journalists from different newspapers and websites. They received information first-hand, and they talked about it with each other, even though they were writing for different publications. Telling society through writing what’s going on in the world seems like an honor. I realized during Shadow Day that I’d rather advocate through my writing, even if it’s just on the side, than as a politician or legislator.

We ended our day with a two-hour roundtable discussion. The foster youth gave input on topics related to foster care, such as education, housing, and aging out. Everyone just shouted out what they thought, and I didn’t get a chance to speak about providing more support for mental health, because the conversation moved on.

Out of the Shadow

I did get to speak about education. I told my story of being a good student, but having a guidance counselor tell me I should get an Individualized Education Plan (special education). But I knew I could succeed without those extra
supports.

The counselor recommended the IEP because I had entered a psychiatric hospital in 2015. But, as I explained to the Council, I was emotionally drained, not educationally drained. I enjoyed this part of the day the most because we were all gathered together sharing similar problems. The Council members asked questions.

There are many other issues I would’ve liked to address. Caseworkers turn over so often that just when you get comfortable with someone, they’re no longer handling your case. I had a caseworker I really liked and trusted; we even had the same birthday. Over a year and a half, we got very close. Then one day, I woke up and was told she’d been replaced, and I never saw her again. I never let another caseworker close after that.

From my experiences as a runaway, I don’t approve of how AWOL cases are handled. Why do we have to get warrants and missing persons reports? When a runaway is caught, all they want to know is, “Where were you?” when they should be asking, “Why did you run away?” For me, running away was a reaction to foster homes that felt more like a legal system than a family. I would have liked a reason to stay—and in my last foster home, before my foster mom died, I did find a feeling of home. I wish I could have communicated some of this at Shadow Day.

I liked seeing how the City Council works, but I came away knowing I’d rather be a writer and a mentor than a legislator. I will definitely continue writing and being a voice for youth.

(FCYU-2017-07-21)