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

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Having Their Say
Across the ocean, youth make waves in the system
Imani Brammer

Maybe because we tend only to be concerned with what happens in our own backyard, we forget that foster care is not only prevalent in America. And teens in foster care, no matter where they’re from, struggle to be heard.

I recently learned about a program in Northern Ireland that works with teens who face problems very similar to ours here in the United States. Little by little, they are changing their foster care system.

Teens in foster care often don’t have a way to communicate with the decision makers; there are all these layers of people—agency staff, administrators—between them and the political leaders who have the power to change the system. So most of the time, policies and laws about the child welfare system are made without input from the people most affected by them: the youth.

Back in 1993, a group of youth and concerned adults in Belfast (the capital of Northern Ireland) started an organization called the Voice of Young People in Care, or VOYPIC. Its purpose was to address common problems raised by kids in care, like not having enough contact with family, or problems in a foster home.

Chances to Be Heard

“Young people didn’t have opportunity to come together in care and talk about their experiences. They wanted to do some activities together, they wanted to change the system, and more than anything they wanted to have a voice and be heard,” said Vivian McConvey, VOYPIC’s executive director, in a phone interview.

VOYPIC revolves around the idea of “facilitating change,” meaning that it gets young people themselves involved in decision-making. It does this by giving teens a place to report problems and talk openly about their concerns and goals, and by meeting face to face with political leaders to discuss what important changes should be made in the system.

One VOYPIC program I found interesting and different from anything I’ve heard about in the U.S. is something called the peer inspection. A peer inspection is basically a home visit except that it’s not only adults who have a role to play.

Instead of relying only on social workers to find out what’s going on in foster homes and group homes, VOYPIC has a staff of young people with experience in foster care who are trained to go into homes and talk privately with the kids. The program is helping to identify and solve more problems, because youth often feel more comfortable talking to a peer about their struggles, according to McConvey.

“One of our concerns was that sometimes young people aren’t giving full information [to a social worker] about how they’re feeling,” McConvey said. “We found that young people open up more [to peer inspectors] with better quality of information, so the inspection is much more effective.”

Not Just a Job

I think the peer inspection is a unique and creative concept. It can be difficult telling adults the truth about our personal circumstances. Most of us fear agency staff and foster parents won’t understand us, or they’ll judge us negatively. Speaking to our peers is reassuring, especially peers who may have experiences similar to ours.

Jo Irvine spent two years in foster care herself before being hired as a VOYPIC peer inspector when she was 21. During the peer inspections, Irvine heard from many teens that they were unhappy with the quality of food served in group homes.

Before the peer inspections, the young people hadn’t felt the issue was important enough to speak up to the adult inspector. But once one teen told Irvine about the problem, others felt comfortable speaking up. VOYPIC then raised the teens’ concern with the team leader of the home, who “almost immediately” met with the youth, said Irvine.

Within a few weeks, the food had improved and young people reported that their needs were being met. Irvine felt good that the teens had opened up to her.

“The teens said they didn’t feel that we were just doing a job,” she said. “They said we made them feel as if we truly wanted to be there and that what they were saying was very important.”

Lots of Options

VOYPIC gives teens lots of different ways to speak up. If you’re having a problem in your foster home or not getting enough visits with your siblings, you can call their advocacy hotline. Someone will listen to your problem and help you figure out how to go about solving it. Through the hotline, VOYPIC can also report situations where a teen has complained that caseworkers and other staff aren’t doing what they’re supposed to so that the social service agencies can make things right.

Teens aren’t the only ones who call the hotline. Social workers, teachers, and foster parents call in, too. “We give them information and they become advocates and fight for young people in care,” said McConvey.

When adults call on behalf of teenagers, it shows teens that there are adults who really care for them and are willing to go the extra mile to help them. In that way, the line benefits everyone. VOYPIC also provides mentors to teens in care who are looking for more support and guidance.

In VOYPIC’s policy project, youth share with politicians and other government officials their concerns about aging out of foster care. It started out as an ambitious goal, considering that youth had few chances to be heard in the foster care system—much less in government—before VOYPIC got started.

McConvey said putting together the policy project took a lot of organization to reach powerful people who weren’t used to hearing from teenagers, and helping the teens put their thoughts together in a way that would make a strong message.

The adults had to take complicated, hard-to-understand government documents and explain them to teens. It was as if the adults in VOYPIC worked as translators between government officials and youth, to make sure each side understood the other.

Beyond Our Boundaries

There are more and more programs in the U.S. that give youth the chance to speak up and be a bigger part of the decision-making process about foster care. Many states and agencies have youth advisory boards and youth advocates. Here in New York City, we also have an advocacy hotline.

But I think we could learn something from VOYPIC about how to reach out to teens in many different ways, so that they have lots of chances to share their concerns and see that adults value their ideas.

Some teens in care have problems that no one knows about because their stories don’t get to the people who can make the most change. If teens see that their voices are heard throughout the entire system, I think we’ll have a lot more power to improve life in care, both for ourselves and others.

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