Youth Advocate: I've Been There So I Can Help
Soon after I aged out of foster care, I became a Youth Advocate for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). One of the main things I do in this job is support youth before, during, and after their Family Team Conferences (FTC). I would have liked this kind of help myself a few years ago.
FTCs happen every six months. Everyone involved in a your case is supposed to attend–you, the case planner, social worker, law guardians, foster parents, birth parents if they’re still involved, and anyone else involved in the case (behavioral specialists, siblings, mentors, coaches). Together, those people try to ensure that the best possible decisions are made regarding your safety, permanency, and well-being. It’s also where everyone talks about how to keep you connected to your family and community while you’re in care.
I was always on the defensive when I was in care because I didn’t feel like any adults supported me. Only my peers praised me for the positive things I did. I used to break my foster mother's rules and return home after my curfew because I would rather hang out with the friends who respected my ideas and opinions and made me feel wanted. I did not trust any adults. All this added up to some pretty unpleasant FTCs, since it was basically a chance for all the adults in my life to talk about how I was doing. Sometimes my FTCs felt more like a roast than a meeting.
In my last FTC, none of my biological family members showed up. My foster mother (whose curfew I always broke) attended, but she was not going to be there for me after I aged out. I felt like I had nobody to trust, so I had to be ready for whatever life was going to throw at me.
My first six months after I aged out, I struggled a lot with money, love, education, family values, future goals, health, and self-help. I needed someone to help me find resources and motivate me to take advantage of those resources. My social worker did not offer me much support, and I felt cold and alone. I would have appreciated a Youth Advocate back then. I think I would have listened more to someone who had recently been in the foster care system, someone who felt more like a peer.
ACS started the Youth Advocates program (funded by New Yorkers for Children) in 2008 to help young people prepare to age out. “Part of what we want this program to do is to get youth to maximize the resources they do have and not settle for the status quo,” says Ronni Fuchs, the Director of Youth Advocacy and Support Services at ACS. “We want kids to age out with emotional and financial resources, job training, things that kids with families have.”
Sometimes, that just means having a peer around to point out that the social workers and other adults really are trying to help: “If the youth advocate sees that there’s an active support system there at the FTC, the advocate could say, ‘Hey, you’ve got three people in this room who want to help you,’” Fuchs says.
Advocates at ACS
Now there are eight paid Youth Advocates who work 30 hours a week. Some advocates, including me, work within Children’s Services, and others work within a private foster care agency, like Children’s Village, Graham Windham, or St. Vincent’s Family and Children’s Services. ACS advocates work with dozens of youth and don’t spend much time with any one person. The private agency advocates have smaller caseloads of youth and work more with each one.
As a Youth Advocate at ACS, I help prepare five to ten young people (ages 14-20) a month for their FTCs. By being there, I support the person. Instead of feeling alone in a room full of adults who are deciding their future, they now have a peer making sure that their voices are heard in the meeting. I welcome the young person 15 minutes before the meeting and see where they are health-wise. I ask them if they’re receiving any services and, if so, what they are. I ask if they need anything they’re not getting and we strategize how to ask for those things in the meeting.
I encourage the youth I work withtobe honest and patient during the FTC. The advice I give to them is good advice for all young people in foster care:Listen well, and take notes so you won’t lose important thoughts. If you do not understand what people are saying in the conference, ask if they can explain it in a way that you can understand it. Don’t feel scared to ask people to repeat what was said.
Though we’re called advocates, we’re really more of a support. We don’t tell a case planner, “No, that placement is unacceptable.” Instead, we encourage the youth to self-advocate and say what she really thinks and needs. And since we’ve been through the same experiences in care, we can connect to the youth better and also help the adults at ACS understand why a youth might be doing what he’s doing.
Advocates in Private Agencies
The youth advocates who work in private foster care agencies do different work than those of us who work inside ACS. ACS advocates spend most of their time dealing with FTCs, while private agency advocates help more with independent living skills.
Josephine Rivera, 23 years old, is one of the Youth Advocates who works at a provider agency, Children’s Village. She helps 20-25 youth with independent living skills and housing. She helps them get their working papers, birth certificates, social security cards, state IDs, SSI paperwork, and any other documents they need. During the school year, she helps them find mentoring or tutoring services, and in the summer she helps them get into camps or summer youth employment jobs. Josephine also helps them with their family issues.“If their goal is reunification,” she says, “I help them figure out how to build that relationship with their parents.”
Even though “advocacy” traditionally involves fighting a system, ACS advocates are more helpers than fighters. Sometimes, however, the advocates, especially those in the private agencies, give a little push. Josephine gives the example of a girl in her caseload who fights a lot. Children’s Village was threatening to put the girl into a hospital or RTC (residential treatment center). Josephine knew the girl well and understood where her bad behavior was coming from. She pointed out that the girl was not in danger of hurting herself or anyone else. An assistant director at the meeting backed her up and the girl got to stay in her current placement.
The private agency advocates also help out in the Family Team Conference, though it’s not as big a part of their job as it is for the ACS advocates like me. Josephine says she’s helped kids set all kinds of goals during their FTCs, such as getting their allowance, enrolling in college, applying for scholarships, opening a bank account, and getting a therapist. “We’re supposed to leave the FTCs with goals and a plan to accomplish them.” She follows up with the youth to meet their goals.
Perhaps one of the most important goals of the Youth Advocate program is to help the kids feel less alone. Josephine says, “When you’re in care, especially as a teenager, you’re trying to define yourself as you’re going through all these traumatic situations.” Josephine shares her own experiences with abuse and with navigating the system to make her young clients feel empowered and hopeful. Josephine’s about to graduate from college, and that helps the youth she works with believe that they can, too.
Get an Advocate: Using a youth advocate and advocating for yourself can help ensure you get the support you need in care. If you are interested in receiving the services of a Youth Advocate, e-mail Titilayo Morgan at Titilayo.email@example.com or call her at 212-341-3354.Be an Advocate: There are unpaid advocacy opportunities for youth who are still in care. I got my job as a Youth Advocate after I’d volunteered as part of the Youth AWAKE program (AWAKE stands for Advocating While Acquiring Knowledge to Empower) within ACS. Youth AWAKE is open to anybody in New York City who’s in care now or just aged out and wants to help other youth leaving care. To get hooked up 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.