Former Foster Youth Pushes to Unite Vulnerable Children With Loving Families

Reform is possible if we all work for changes that help families Unite.

(Photo: Getty Images)

May 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Rodriguez is the Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, a public interest law firm.

I started my advocacy as a child in foster care, attempting to resist the terrible conditions and desperation in the congregate care facilities, juvenile halls, psychiatric hospitals, and special education classrooms I was cycled through. I fought against the push of psychotropic medications, physical restraints, and weekly visits from police officers—all standard in the facilities I lived in.

When I left foster care at 18, I lacked everything that mattered: confidence, a high school diploma, a job, a place to live, and a relationship with any adult who was not paid to care for me. It was not until years later, when I became a member of the foster youth–run advocacy organization California Youth Connection, that I learned my experience was not unique but a direct result of state and federal policies that can change if those who have power can be convinced to change them.

Now, as a lawyer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, and a former foster youth, I believe in the possibility of transformation, both individual and in the child welfare system.

Seventeen years ago, I began my formal advocacy career organizing amazing youths in foster care around legislative and policy change and working to develop policy reforms that have become models for the country: a foster youth bill of rights, a foster care ombudsman program, educational rights, efforts to find forever families for teenagers, and transitional housing and higher education support.

However, one of the most critical foundational issues that youths have organized to fix has proved the most challenging to address: the importance of ensuring that youths live with families where they are loved, nurtured, and supported.

Although youths across our nation have shared experiences for decades about the difficulty and hopelessness of being raised without parenting in institutional care, our response has been shameful. In California, like many other states, rates of children living in congregate care have not improved in a decade, leaving nearly 1 in 3 teenagers currently living in congregate care.

Nowadays, state and national decision makers are finally responding to our collective common sense about raising children, the voices of the youths impacted, and the rapidly emerging research on what children need to thrive. Policy reforms are under consideration to limit the use of congregate care or group homes.

Across the country, legislators like California assembly member Mark Stone, Florida state senator Nancy Detert, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are developing and promoting legislation that pushes to keep children living in institutions only as a short-term treatment intervention before they return to the people who love them. Those who oppose these policy efforts do not do so based on the benefits to children but rather on fears that worse alternatives to congregate care exist: abusive families, homelessness, death, and exploitation.

However, I have faith that our communities will refuse to give up on abused and neglected children who most need us to fight for them by designing policy around such a low bar. Our most vulnerable children deserve policy that reflects our belief that families will want and love them, that they can and will heal, and that we are willing and able to take necessary actions necessary to give them the normal childhood experiences that will help them become healthy adults.