In honor of May being National Foster Care Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is running a special series designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of foster care and adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
by Barbara Huggins, former youth in care
Megaphones, chants that rhyme, people gathered in front of public buildings, tents, community, and energy. Dogs wearing signs, children in strollers, and people standing up for what they believe to be true and evident. Solidarity is Advocacy.
The theme of my professional work has definitely been advocacy. I like the word advocacy. I like to advocate. It is empowering, life-changing, inspiring and it stirs up the picket fence sign inside of me. There are a lot of ways to advocate, and social media does a great way of promoting all of them.
When I was a youth care, I did not always know that I could advocate for myself. If I had rights I didn’t know about them either. Even the small day-to-day items, like what clothes I wanted to wear, or even what hair style fit me the best, were often dictated by my foster parents. I was definitely in the dark, and that is what made me incapable of advocating for myself. Unfortunately, I feel that many youth are also in the dark. We are in the closet, so to speak, with all of the demands and burdens we carry. It isn’t until we grow too tired of this same old song that we speak up. Even if you aren’t too tired, speak up, and speak often.
Fortunately, there are plenty of personal advocacy strategies youth in care can try right now.
- Whatever it is, do you! You are a beautiful, deep, and whole person. Terrible things have happened to you, yet you are still standing. It wasn’t until my final foster home that I was able to spread my wings, and figure out what I was really into.
- Demand that your voice be heard. It was not until I was 16 years old, that I started getting really tired of being pushed around. I was even more tired of the fact that there seemed to be a lot of decisions being made; decisions that I didn’t even know about! Something snapped, and I made it clear that I would be heard from. If they were going to make decisions, they, judges and caseworkers and foster parents, were not going to make them unless they heard from me first. This did not mean that I wasn’t willing to compromise or hear them out, it just meant that they had to stop and listen to me, as well. They needed to understand that my family and my future meant a lot to me. They needed to understand me, a bright and willing girl. A girl who had been told many negative things but was still full of hope for the future.
- The Chain of Command Any discussion I have been a part of about the “chain of command,” there’s hesitancy. So, instead, I advocate that agencies, courtrooms, and group homes adopt a “no wrong door” policy instead. Meaning that the burden to understand your agency policies should not fall on youth. If you have an issue or something that isn’t right about your case, or if you aren’t receiving the services you need, you should address it. Go up the chain of command as best you can. I would typically start with my foster parent, and then I would address it with my caseworker. If it still wouldn’t get addressed, I talked to everyone! My lawyer, my agency administrator, and definitely my judge. You have a right to speak in court. If your lawyer isn’t advocating for you, then you raise your hand and say, “Your honor, may I please have permission to speak.” They will listen to you.
- Establish your Allies Never underestimate the people who care and who want to support you. Because we are youth in care, our voice is historically small. Allies are like our megaphones. They help us navigate the murky waters and, with their own experience, are able to share our voice in a way that will be listened to.
- Create your Network Take a look at the organizations that are out there. They may help you advocate in your personal case, but they also do a lot of systems and big picture work. They work on creating policies and regulations that affect all youth in a system. Here’s a small list of the ones I love and work with!
- Know your Rights!
Many states publish documents and how-to guides that put all of the necessary items together. Pennsylvania, for instance, has a Know your Rights guide. Find the one that is specific to your state, or you could create one! It doesn’t have to be 20 pages to start making a difference!
Barbara Huggins is a former youth in care. She entered a foster home when she was eight. Four foster homes and 13 years later, she aged-out of care. Lively, coffee-obsessed, and college educated, she spends her professional life promoting the virtues of youth and constituent engagement, so that no decision is made without the impact this voice can have. She also works with the Pennsylvania Youth Advisory Board and they work hard to make positive changes in the system. She has a blog where she writes about these things occasionally.