What is Advocacy?
Advocacy can mean many things and take many forms: speaking up in court, learning how to stand up for your rights in the system, even figuring out the most effective ways to solve a problem without losing your cool. It can be as simple as asking questions, seeking out helpful people, and being persistent, things I’ve learned to do by trial and error.
When I first came into foster care, one thing I noticed was that people didn’t automatically tell me what was going on with my case. I struggled to find out even basic information—like what my caseworker’s and law guardian’s jobs were and how to contact them, my court dates, and all the rules. No one really explained these things to me until I started asking. I started to be more than a quiet girl. I began to ask questions when I didn’t understand or know something.
But when you’re new to foster care, it’s hard to know even what you should be asking about. One thing that really made a difference was paying close attention to what my law guardian and caseworker did. I watched how they advocated for me and then began using some of those same techniques myself—asking questions, taking notes, making calls. I learned that I have a role to play in my case and that I need to stay on top of things by speaking up. I began keeping a book with all the names and numbers of people involved in my case.
For a lot of us who have experienced abuse or neglect, learning to speak up is not easy. Many of us have been conditioned to stay quiet. We’ve been told that our feelings and ideas don’t matter (or we learned that when we tried to speak up and no one listened). It’s hard to overcome those negative messages. But advocating for yourself is caring for yourself, and also sends the message to others to care about you. It has to start with us.
Now I think of the people who work on my case as a team whose job it is to support me: my law guardian and social worker, my caseworker, crisis intervention worker, and therapist. They all agree with me that my success is important, and I make sure to speak up if I’m not getting what I need.
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How to Ask for What
When you’re advocating for yourself, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by emotion and doubt. You may even question whether you have the right to ask for things that the law says you’re entitled to. We asked Dr. John DiLallo, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, for some simple tips on asserting your wants and needs. Here’s what he had to say:
The process of getting what you need (or even what you really want) has three important parts:
1. Figure out your goals. Don’t just vent your frustration! Also think about what you want. Ask yourself: What is the most important change that would make this situation better for me?
2. Get prepared to stand up for yourself. Be confident that your needs matter. Remember that others do want to hear what you have to say.
3. Talk to authority in the way that is most likely to be effective:*
• Stay calm and respectful in your speech.
• Say things like “I feel that...” or “I would like...” rather than “You should...”
• Be sure to say clearly what thing it is that you want or don’t want—so that there is no mistake.
• “Keep your eye on the prize.” Stay focused on the main thing that you want. Ignore attacks and keep making your point.
• “What’s in it for them?” Explain the positive results of getting what you want.
• Be willing to negotiate: You may need to give up something in order to get what you want.
*Summarized from Miller, Rathus, and Linehan (2007) Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
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Places to Get Help
Need help? Don’t know where to go? These centers offer a range of teen services in one place.
555 Broome St.
New York, NY
(Between Varick St. and Ave. of the Americas)
212-941-9090 (You will get a big and possibly confusing menu of options when you call; see our "How to Get Information Over the Phone" section, below, for help with this.)
Hours: Program hours vary, but to access any services at the Door you must first become a member. Member Services is open Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m.-5 p.m., and Wed. 2 p.m.-7 p.m. Membership is free.
The Next Generation Center
1522 Southern Blvd.
Bronx, NY 10460
Hours: M-F, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
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Hotlines & Other
ACS Children’s Rights Hotline
212-676-9421 (From the main menu, press 7)
For young people experiencing difficulties in the child welfare system (e.g. placement, SPRs, discharge planning, visiting family, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) that they are unable to resolve with agency staff.
The Door Legal Services
212-941-9090 ext. 3280
For legal questions about foster care, as well as legal questions on issues like immigration, child custody, domestic violence, receiving public benefits, and obtaining proof of identity.
Lawyers for Children
110 Lafayette Street
New York City 10013
Legal Aid Society, Juvenile Rights Division
For legal questions about foster care or to track down your lawyer in Family Court.
LIFT Family Law Information Hotline
Mon.-Fri., 9am—5pm. Or click here for their email hotline.
For questions about family court, child welfare and child support.
National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline
Offers support, information, and advocacy to those involved in dating and relationship abuse. Call the hotline or chat online with trained peer advocates.
Comprehensive online resource for domestic and dating violence prevention.
LifeNet Hotline Network
1-877-AYUDESE (298-3373) (Spanish)
1-877-990-8585 (Asian languages)
For people in crisis who need help with emotional, drug, or alcohol problems.
For victims of violence and abuse and their families. Counselors provide crisis counseling, safety planning, assistance with finding shelter, referrals to Safe Horizon programs or other organizations, advocacy with the police, and other crucial services.
Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-621-HOPE (4673)
Crime Victims Hotline: 866-689-HELP (4357)
Rape, Sexual Assault & Incest Hotline: 212-227-3000
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
For those who are feeling suicidal.
800-246-4646 (Outside New York City dial 212-227-4005)
Offers peer-run workshops and forums on topics including alcohol abuse; anger management; child abuse; conflict mediation; grief, loss, and bereavement; eating disorders; peer pressure; sexuality; suicide; teen violence; and youth empowerment. Also offers free, confidential information, referrals, and crisis prevention relating to these issues.
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How to Get Information Over the Phone
Calling for information is more complicated than calling a friend or calling the MovieFone. Many things can go wrong and you won’t get the information you need. But keep in mind that there is someone at the other end who wants to give you the right information. You just have to find them, and then communicate in a way that gets what you want.
What to anticipate:
- Right number, confusing voice mail: What if the voice mail system is confusing or doesn’t mention the department or person you’re trying to reach? Press “0” or the number they recommend to talk to a person.
If that doesn’t work, try any number that gets you a person. When that person picks up, pretend you got their extension by mistake. Politely say, “Oh, I was trying to reach so-and-so. Do you know their extension? He/she will look it up in the company directory and give it to you. Write it down. Then, either ask him/her to transfer you, or call back.
- Busy receptionist: Remember, the person at the other end of the line might be very busy. (And, in a few months, that person might even be you when you get your first job at an agency, so don’t stress her!)
Before you dial, have as much information as you possibly can so that the busy, distracted person who picks up the phone will switch you to the right place.
- If you know the name of the person or program you’re trying to reach, tell him/her.
- If you know what kind of help you want, tell him/her. “I’m looking for a GED prep program and heard that your agency offers one. Who can I talk to about the program?”
What to keep in mind:
- Dig for useful information: Almost everyone you talk to has information that could be helpful to you, but they’re not going to volunteer it. Why? It’s not because they don’t like you or want you to fail. Rather, they are busy. They are distracted. They sometimes even forget how much they know. And they don’t know you, so they’re not sure which information they have would be best for you.
- Make them want to help you: Your job is to make them care about you. Let them know what you need, and be respectful. Be prepared with a pencil and paper, as well as a list of questions.
- Whenever possible, use referrals: Tell the person that so-and-so suggested you call. Being referred by someone else is the best way to get people’s attention. This is easier than you think. If someone from your agency suggests you call another program, be sure to mention their name when you call!
When you get through—or even if you get voice mail—be sure to start out by saying, “Ms. Jones, my caseworker at such-and-such an agency, suggested I call. She said that I might be a good candidate for your job readiness program. How can I find out more about it?” They are much more likely to be helpful if you mention that Ms. Jones referred you.
- ASSUME that you will get voice mail: Have your message rehearsed in your head. If you leave a clear message you are much more likely to be called back. If you’re not ready to leave a good message, hang up, think about your message, and call back.
- Second—and this is more important than you think: Get rid of the sexy voice message on your phone! Get rid of the selection from your latest favorite song! You’re trying to get a job or get training or get help with your education. The person who is trying to help you is about business and being professional.
A sexy message is highly unprofessional. In the working world you need to separate your personal life from your private life. If you’re asking a business contact to call you back, your message is part of your business life, not your private life.
And, in the business world, time is money. No one wants to sit around waiting for your song to finish before they can leave a message. Get rid of it.
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Making Change: How to Advocate for Others
It’s important to be able to advocate for yourself to get what you need—whether it’s resolving a problem with a foster parent or getting money for college. But you can also use those advocacy skills to fight for change in the system, and make foster care a better experience for all young people.
Joining an advocacy organization can help you build your skills, and it’s a great way to meet other teens who are committed to making a difference. Here are few places to start:
Youth in Progress
This program trains teens from all over New York state to be youth leaders and advocates for change in the system. Participants help train child welfare staff, speak at conferences, and educate other youth about their rights. For more information, contact Melissa Rivera at 212-396-7619, or by email at: email@example.com.
FosterClub is a national network for youth in foster care. On their website, you connect with other teens in care and learn about ways to advocate for change. FosterClub also runs a competitive summer internship program called FosterClub All-Stars. Youth selected as All-Stars receive intensive training in public speaking, advocacy, and professional development. Then they put their skills to use by presenting at foster care events throughout the country.
Youth AWAKE (Advocating While Acquiring Knowledge to Empower) is ACS’s youth advocate program, staffed by youth either in or recently out of care. To find out about being connected with a Youth AWAKE advocate or to become one yourself, e-mail Mayra Rodriguez at Mayra2.Rodriquez@dfa.state.ny.us or call her at 212-341-3352.
Foster Care Alumni of America
FCAA connects foster care alumni with each other to change the system for the better. They host a variety of trainings and networking and advocacy events throughout the country, as well as online discussion. It’s a great way to find support and a sense of community after you leave care.
Youth Power! is a New York State-wide network of 200 young people from the foster care, mental health, disabilities, special ed and juvenile justice systems. YP! members meet with youth leaders in RTFs, hospitals, and other facilities to find out how services there could be improved. They then take that information to policymakers – including people who run facilities and politicians -- to try to convince them to make changes that benefit youth.
Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute—Foster Youth Internship
The Foster Youth Internship Program gives college students the opportunity to intern in a Washington, D.C. congressional office for the summer. Interns research policy issues that affect youth in foster care and report their findings to congressional leaders.
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