Foster Youth Deserve a Seat at the Table

Outsiders make most of the decisions about foster youths' lives. It's time for better representation.

by Gabrielle Rodriguez

I have been in foster care since I was 16. In that time, I have served as a “youth voice” on youth advisory boards (YABs) for among others, my agency, Heartshare St. Vincent’s Services; Fair Futures; New Yorkers for Children; and the Dorm Project. I’ve spoken up because I didn’t have anyone to stand up for me.

Youth participation on these boards varies. The YAB of New Yorkers for Children served as an event planning committee. For other agencies, we are the advocates. For example, members of the Fair Futures Coalition’s YAB speak at rallies, testify in front of the City Council, and advocate for state policy change with lawmakers in Albany.

But most YABs do not give foster youth a real say in policy-making decisions. Instead, one or two of us are brought in to report to those in power what other youth say they need, or to tell our own tales of abuse and woe. We are then thanked for our candor, applauded for our advocacy, and called “brave.” Then we’re sent out of the room so that the real decision-making can take place.

Furthermore, those decision-makers are overwhelmingly White, in a city where the vast majority of foster youth are people of color. More important, few or none have been in foster care. This lack of representation means that foster care policy doesn’t reflect the experiences of youth in care. Although there may be well-intended people making decisions, without direct experience in the foster care system, they will have limited understanding of my needs. And that got me thinking about giving youth boards real power.

I think YABs are terribly underused, and that is frustrating. We should be guiding the agencies on what foster youth truly need. We should have a real say in foster care policy.

Dorm Project Fiasco

My worst experience on a YAB was with the Dorm Project, a program that lets New York City foster youth live in college dorms year-round and provides them with educational, financial, and emotional support. My Dorm Project tutor and I discussed the lack of youth voice within the program, and she asked a fellow student and me to start a youth board in 2019.

We put together a list of suggestions to help improve the program. We proposed on-site therapy, to help students learn to recognize triggers and give them coping mechanisms. Because there were so many fights in the dorms, we proposed conflict resolution and restorative justice resources. We had other well-thought-out suggestions too.

We presented our proposal to the leadership team of the Dorm Project in a conference room at The New York Foundling. During our presentation, the director of the Dorm Project laughed inappropriately, and others joined her. At that point, I knew that no one was going to take us seriously and that they had invited us to a meeting with no intention of using our input into the way the program was run.

I sat in silence because I knew that if I spoke, I would appear emotional and aggressive. I felt disrespected and wondered if we would be treated this way if we were White men. All my hard work, shaped by my experience and that of other youth in care, meant nothing.

Then in March, at the start of the pandemic, the lack of awareness of what it feels like to be a youth in care showed up when the Dorm Project abruptly informed students they were being evicted from their college dormitories.

Receiving the news sent me into a panic and brought up many of the traumas I faced when I entered the foster care system. Worries flooded my mind: Would I still be able to finish school? Where would I put all of the stuff from my dorm room? In the midst of classes and assignments, where was I going to find the time to move? Fortunately, most of us were able to relocate, and others got to stay in the dorms after the media drew attention to the evictions. But why put foster youth through distress that echoes some of the worst moments of our lives?

Had someone with lived experience of foster care been in leadership meetings, perhaps the transition would have been handled better. Better-trained staff might have known to refer students for mental health services, or thought to teach students the life skills needed to survive a pandemic, such as food budgeting.

These experiences left me frustrated, angry, and hopeless. But as my recent experience with a new organization shows, it doesn’t have to be this way. If agencies created and supported real Youth Advisory Boards and acted on their recommendations, foster care would be better for everyone.

At the Table

True Representation for a Change

In June, still feeling frustrated about The Dorm Project youth board, I reached out to Mike Zink, who has worked for several organizations that give foster youth educational support. Though he’s White, and did not grow up in care himself, he took the time to listen when I told him how frustrated I was with the lack of accountability, representation, and transparency I have experienced with YABs.

We spoke a lot about representation. He agreed that it made sense to give power to people with lived experience of foster care within organizations that serve foster youth. In fact, I learned he was launching At the Table, a nonprofit that connects high school and college students in New York City who have experienced foster care, with long-term one-on-one “tutors.” The tutors, each of whom has a caseload of 15 students, serve as mentors and skilled allies in navigating New York’s complex educational system.

He wanted At the Table’s board of directors to be at least half people with lived experience in the foster care system. And then he asked if I wanted to join!

At Last, Real Impact

I joined in July; there are now nine of us on the board. One of my first tasks was voting on the organization’s statement of values. This statement would shape the organization’s philosophy and practices of working with students. Mike and two former Dorm Project employees wrote the first draft. The nine board members read the document and provided feedback.

I suggested adding that we are committed to long-term consistent support. I shared my own experiences of having to start over with new workers and tutors time after time, and how hard that makes it to form the kind of relationship needed for effective tutoring.

Now, our statement of values states, “We make long-term commitments to our students. We recognize the importance of consistent, stable relationships in promoting student success and well-being. We do not eject students from our programs because they are struggling, and we work hard to avoid reassigning students to new staff wherever possible.”

For the first time, I did not need to over-explain, justify, or defend my suggestion. Instead, my perspective was respected, and my suggestion was applied. It felt good knowing that my voice held weight and that what I’d learned the hard way could help future students. I finally have my seat at the table; even better, I am not the only “foster kid” representing.

As a board member, I take the influence and power I finally have seriously. I know that my input could change the educational path of foster youth. I want New York City youth in care to know that there are people on their side who have walked in their shoes.

It felt good knowing that what I'd learned the hard way could help future students.
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