Improving Foster Care Through Lawmaking
Amy is a 22-year-old student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and a foster care alumna. In the system since the age of 13, Amy’s experiences have inspired her to advocate for changes to the foster care system and to help other youth like her succeed. Amy has served as a volunteer for the Nebraska Foster Youth Council, now called Project Everlast, and is now employed by the organization, working to help other youth become advocates. Through this position, Amy is also working on the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD), a federal initiative to survey youth transitioning out of foster care in order to identify gaps and needs in the system. In the summer of 2011, Amy had the opportunity to serve as a congressional intern with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
Where do you currently attend school and where do you work?
I am a student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. I am studying criminal justice with a minor in psychology, and an emphasis on pre-law. I work at the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation as a youth advisor and also part-time at Applebee's as a server.
How long were you in the foster care system? How would you characterize your experience in foster care and what do you wish you could change about your experience?
I was in the system for six years until I aged out.
At the time, I did not enjoy foster care as it was definitely not where I wanted to be. When I look back, though, I think my experience in foster care was probably better than my situation at home would have been. I think it worked out the best it could for me, even though there were things I wish were different about the experience.
I wish I could have changed moving around so much. In the six years I was in foster care, I lived in eight different homes and had to switch schools twice. Having to switch schools the second time was really detrimental to me, as I loved that school, had a 4.0, and was involved and in every possible afterschool activity. Starting all over again is very difficult, even as a successful student.
Why do you think you were so successful in school?
I was raised with the value that school and education are very important. Also, when times were difficult, school was my escape and I enjoyed it more than anything else in life.
I think a reason I excelled so much was the amazing, supportive teachers I had. I was in a very small town in rural Nebraska and all my teachers knew that I was in foster care, and worked that much harder to make me feel supported and welcomed in the school. Getting support, praise, and recognition from them made me want to work hard.
What supports have you found to be most helpful in preparing to transition out of the foster care system?
I had an amazing Independent Living Specialist, provided by the state, whose job was to help me with the transition process. She started working with me when I was 16 years old and I’d say she’s still working with me to this day, as she’s still a part of my life. She helped me with many of the things I needed to apply for college, like filling out my FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], and other things that I needed to be able to be successful outside of foster care, like obtaining a birth certificate and a social security card.
Unfortunately, my state is unable to provide Independent Living Specialists to all foster youth, but supporting programs like those is something I’m a huge advocate for. Caseworkers have so much on their plates and they don’t have time to help youth with these things. Having someone whose job is specifically to work on that transitioning process is very important and should be a part of all systems.
If youth in foster care aren't able to seek help from someone like an Independent Living Specialist, what could they do to seek help with transitioning?
It’s very important to use your resources. If you’re in school, talk to your guidance counselor or people in your school that are there for those reasons. Your Department of Health and Human Services in your state might have a list of resources on their website. The resources that I couldn’t get from my Independent Living Specialist, I really had to seek out and find on my own.
Please discuss the internship you participated in during the summer of 2011 with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute in Washington, DC. What were some of your major recommendations to Congress in your report and the briefing?
Yes, my internship was a life-changing experience. I was placed in a congressional office, working on Capitol Hill as an intern. There were 15 interns, all of whom were former foster youth from across the nation. We developed a huge report that contained recommendations on how to improve foster care. At the end of the summer, we invited members of Congress to come and listen to what we had to say and hear our recommendations for how to improve foster care through lawmaking. It was a great experience and I learned a lot.
We decided that all 15 of us should write our own report about something we were passionate about and would like to see changed, so there were 15 smaller reports within this larger report. One of my co-interns wrote about the over-medication of foster youth. Another colleague focused on education and how it could be better and more accessible for foster youth, [both] while in foster care and as they transition to higher education.
My report was specifically about youth involvement in their court hearings. Going back to the positive youth development idea that I always stress, I think it’s very important that youth have a role in their court hearings. Doing research, I found out that only 17 states actually give youth their own attorney and consider them a party to their case. Therefore, youth not in those states sometimes aren’t even given notice about their court hearings. That is one of the biggest things that I would like to see changed.
What advice do you have for youth who may be looking for these kinds of opportunities?
Talking to your peers that have participated in internships or programs is a great idea. A general web search can be helpful, too. There are a ton of resources out there, like Foster Club and AmeriCorps, where foster youth can look to figure out where to start. Also, having a mentor in the areas you are interested in can be very important and helpful, as they can guide you on where to get started and how to get involved.
I think internships in general are important for young people to learn what they want to pursue. I’ve done tons of internships and I tell everyone I know that it is the best way to learn what you want to do. People will see the great experience I had at my internship when they look at my resume and it will hopefully make me look like a good candidate as I apply for jobs.
What are some challenges you have faced as an advocate, volunteer, or professional?
I’ve always been straightforward that I’m a former foster youth. But many times when I’m playing both the role of an advocate as well as a professional, I feel judged right away. As I take on professional roles with other organizations that may have seen me speaking and telling my story about being a foster youth, I often feel judged.
If youth have never felt empowered, and they are suddenly being asked to share what they have to say, it can sometimes be difficult at first. It can be hard to get through to them and to make them realize that it’s okay for them to have a voice and say what it is they are going through and what they are feeling. Embracing the idea of positive youth development and being genuine when you ask them how they feel about something, and then genuinely listening to them, makes all the difference in the world.
Drawing from your own experience, as well as the experiences of your peers and the advocacy work you have done, what is the biggest thing that would make life better for children growing up in foster care, as you did?
I’d say the biggest thing is giving these youth a sense of normalcy. This is very difficult to achieve in foster care, but that is all that any youth really wants: to feel normal and to feel like they are not completely different from all of their friends. When you’re planning for youth, reflect on how you will do things so they can feel as normal as possible. For example, don’t pull them out of school or their other regular activities for therapy and team meetings. Instead, think about how you can work it around all of the normal things they need to be a part of.