The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Fixing Foster Care
Five ways to improve the system
V.N.
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I went into foster care when I was 13. I suddenly had to live a different life, without parents. I didn’t go to a regular school; I’d get dropped off at a stranger’s house to live; I had meetings with caseworkers, social workers, lawyers, therapists, and more. My years in care were more disorienting and scary than they had to be. Here are five bad experiences I and other youth had, and my suggestions for a foster care system that’s more responsive to what kids need.

1. Explain What Is Happening

When I entered care, I felt alone and scared. I didn’t know what foster care was. I wish someone had told me that my life was going to change and what to expect. I was asked many questions all at once: I felt like I was forced to talk.

The first people to explain care to me in a way that was clear and helpful were my attorney Betsy and the social worker who worked with her, Lisa. But I didn’t meet them until I’d already been in care over a year.

The Lawyers for Children office where Betsy and Lisa worked was colorful, with an airplane and clouds painted on the wall. Once I met Betsy, I wasn’t nervous anymore; I was calm and excited. She answered all the questions I had. I realized that she was a tough lawyer and that she really did care about me. My first time in court I stood beside her. When she spoke about my concerns or asked the judge for something on my behalf she was very clear and made everyone in the courtroom understand the importance of it. She didn’t back down when she spoke up for me. For the first time since entering care I felt I was going to be alright.

Throughout the years, my attorney and attorney’s social worker kept in touch. When Betsy wasn’t available, Lisa would call me back. There were many incidents and problems with my agency, and having Betsy and Lisa represent me and give me support made things
better. Someone who knows the law is very important to prevent crime or bad treatment. Most important, these two women stayed with me from age 13 until I aged out.

Although the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) assigned me a social worker, it was hard at times to reach them. Several times they switched my worker and didn’t tell me.

Suggestions for System Change
• Within one week of entering foster care, a youth should meet her law guardian and ACS workers. And as soon as a child enters care, everything should be explained: what the intake center is, what foster parents are, your rights as a foster child, and as much as possible, what is going to happen in the next few days.

• If a child’s social worker changes, the child should be informed immediately. The new worker should introduce herself to the foster youth as soon as she takes over.

Suggestions for Youth
• Keep a notebook and write down everything to do with your case from Day One. Write down your workers’ first and last names, job title, and phone numbers. Find out who your worker’s supervisor is and write that down.

Write down everything important anyone says, so if you have to refer back to it, you can say, for example, “You told me on May 17 that you would send in my housing application that week.” Write down questions whenever they come up, so you don’t forget them and can ask your worker when you see him.

• If no one is answering your questions, reach out to your worker’s supervisor. If that doesn’t work, go up to their supervisor. Keep reaching out.

• Attend your court hearings and all meetings about you.

2. Small Caseloads/More Individual Attention

My foster care workers often seemed to have too many clients. I had workers visit me and tell me they were “tired,” or “hungry,” or “I have to leave early because I have another case.’’ A lot of times I felt like I couldn’t rely on a worker. I didn’t trust them to make the best decision for me at a meeting.

Several times, I told a worker that a placement wasn’t safe and was told, “I can’t do anything about that; my supervisor says so.” That made me feel alone, sad, and scared.

Suggestions for System Change
• Foster care agencies should keep a list of the complaints that youth make or incidents that occur in a foster home. That will let child welfare know the good foster homes from the bad homes. This would help kids and might also get foster parents the help they need, like more training or support. I understand that a lot of kids need a home, but bad foster homes just mean that kids move around more. And that means more trouble finishing school, and greater possibilities of depression, PTSD, and anger issues.

• Workers should have small caseloads.

Suggestions for Youth
• If you feel that you are not getting the services that you are supposed to, tell everyone on your support team: caseworkers, therapists, lawyers, foster parents, and anyone else. You can request a meeting and express your concerns.

3. Fewer Placements; Keep Kids in the Same School

In eight years of foster care, I was in 17 different placements: a diagnostic reception center (DRC), group homes, residential treatment facilities (RTFs), and multiple foster homes. The worst placements were in therapeutic foster homes.

When I was 17 I was living in kinship care with a cousin in the Bronx and I chose a college close by. But things didn’t work out with my cousin, and I was moved to a group home on Staten Island. Girls were constantly fighting in the group home; it was a terrible place to live. And it took me three hours to get to school. No one helped me figure out what I should do about school, so I commuted until late at night. It was too late for me to drop my classes, plus, who knew how long I’d be in Staten Island?

All that moving was terrible for my education. I did part of my high school at a DRC, and kids were often screaming and yelling. I couldn’t focus so I didn’t learn much, but I was able to pass and then graduate after I left the DRC.

image by YC-Art Dept

Suggestions for System Change
• If a child has to be moved, workers should try harder to keep her near her school. If that’s not possible, a worker should help the youth enroll in a different school.

Suggestions for Youth
• If you are moved from school to school, save your classwork and report cards. It helps when you can show your last report card to people in a new school and remind them what level you’ve reached.

• Advocate for yourself! When I was traveling from Staten Island to the Bronx for school, I asked to be moved closer to school, and my law guardian pushed for that in court. I was then moved back to the Bronx.

4. One Therapist

Like many youth in care, I’d suffered abuse and have mental health issues because of it. I got tired of meeting a new therapist or counselor, opening up to them and slowly building a relationship—and then having to switch to a new person. I remember them all: Jessica, Amy, Polly, Kimberly, Sara, Emma. When each one ended our treatment, I felt less and less like opening up to the next one.

Suggestions for System Change
• It’s bad enough that we have to deal with moving around from home to home, school to school, worker to worker; we should get to stick with a therapist we like.

Suggestions for Youth
• As with all aspects of your life in care, keep track of everything. Write down any diagnosis you get and any medications you are on, including the dosage. Keep track of your therapists’ information.

5. Aging Out Into a Home, Not Homelessness

When I was getting ready to leave foster care at age 21, I wanted to feel prepared and like I had some help. When I asked what my plan was, my agency supervisor at the time said, “Virgen, we will give you a MetroCard, and you will have to leave.”

I was in shock. “What if my housing doesn’t come through?”

She repeated: “We will give you a MetroCard, and you will have to leave.” I contacted my law guardian and law guardian social worker, and they reassured me that that wouldn’t happen.

My workers, therapist, law guardian, and social worker came to the discharge planning meeting and everyone agreed that supportive housing was the best choice for me. But it was hard to find supportive housing that was at the right level: Some were congregate care, which was too much supervision. In these places, staff is there 24 hours a day, checking on residents’ medication. I would have a curfew and have to attend day treatment. Other places, you have to see a caseworker twice a week, a psychotherapist once a week. In some of these places, staff has a key to your apartment and can go into your home when you’re not there. I felt like I was being treated like a disabled person.

I wanted the supportive housing interviewers to understand that, yes, I was diagnosed with a mental illness after my adopted father sexually abused me, but I wasn’t disabled. People get better from illnesses—I can work and go to college—and I just wanted some help and to be treated like I was normal.

In every interview I took notes. I turned some places down and when anyone asked why, I knew what to show them and tell them. It took a long time, but I wanted to make sure it was the right place for me—what’s the point of moving into a place that I would have to leave?

Suggestions for System Change
• Prepare early. Staff should start looking into housing options at least three years before the youth ages out and start preparing the kid. Sit with the youth while he applies for housing.

• Don’t scare someone by telling her she’s going to be kicked out with just a MetroCard. All the workers should work together as a team to help the youth feel supported as she prepares to age out.

• Inform everyone aging out about their options. Provide youth with contact information for public housing, public assistance, and other help they may need. As much as is possible, let one caseworker handle all these things. It’s nice to know one person knows your whole case and is helping you and can spend some time with you.

• Do not allow the youth to age out to a place that he or she feels isn’t right for them: We don’t want to increase the chances of youth ending up homeless. My agency worker came to my housing interviews and pushed me to say “yes” to each one. But some weren’t right for me, and I’m glad I held out.

Suggestions for Youth
• Sometimes moving around so much means we miss out on getting certain social skills or independent living skills. Sometimes we are not emotionally ready or are scared to live on our own. Don’t be afraid to express that to your workers when they’re coming up with a discharge plan. If you feel your workers aren’t doing what they should, look into programs yourself. Give them a list of supportive housing and ask them to send out a referral for you.

• If you are threatened with being kicked out like I was, contact your attorney. If you feel that the case worker is not doing his or her job, note it down and review your application before signing it. Write down all your questions in a notebook and bring them to the housing interviews. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.

Help Us Advocate

None of the fixes above can replace a family. But they could all make youth in care feel more stable, supported, and loved. We all want to feel understood. Someone who can help with that is a youth advocate, a young adult who was also in care. Besides advocating, youth advocates also help with communication skills, independent living skills, coping skills, and more, so the youth they work with become better able to advocate for themselves.

Virgen is now employed as a youth advocate for the Mental Health Association of New York and is pursuing her degree in human services at LaGuardia College.

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(FCYU-2015-04-21)

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