Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Foster care youth need a seat at the table to create positive change

My View: Foster care system can be changed for the better
Chantel Johnson, Chantel. Sacramento Bee, Oct. 19, 2008.

Few people here in Sacramento have as close a connection to the policies they propose as I do. When I work on legislation with foster youths and advocates, it's personal.

Between the ages of 7 and 17, I lived in 10 different foster-care homes. I was the youngest of five children, and my journey through the system began when my mother became addicted to drugs. My father was in Ohio and unable to care for us, so we relied on relatives and foster families throughout California.

The chaos of home life soon translated into trouble at school. I was kicked out of junior high three times for acting out – getting into a fight, giving counselors a hard time and skipping classes. In high school, I joked that I showed up for two periods: breakfast and lunch.

Toward the end of high school, I moved to a group home. There I met housemates who had experienced much worse things in the homes they were shuffled in and out of – and in the foster-care system in general.

Many of their personal struggles matched or foreshadowed disturbing statistics that are all too common for foster youths: Fewer than half graduate from high school. Among those who do, less than 2 percent earn a college degree. And within two years of turning 18, half of all foster youth will find themselves homeless, in prison or on welfare.

That's why I'm now dedicated to working with and on behalf of the 77,000 foster children in California to fix the system. I say "with" because the young people themselves must have a seat at the table if we, as a state, are to truly understand – and improve – their situations.

Today, I work for California Youth Connection, a nonprofit that took the unprecedented step 20 years ago of involving foster youths in every step of its legislative work. That includes drafting recommendations, educating lawmakers at hearings and in district offices, and working to build a statewide grassroots movement to keep foster care on the front burner.

It's working. In 2006-07, our recommendations contributed to the enactment of an unprecedented 14 new laws and an additional $82 million for foster care in the state budget – the largest increase in more than a decade.

Others have noticed the results. CYC's leaders – Executive Director Janet Knipe, Associate Director Tiffany Johnson and Board Chair Tonia High- tower – recently were awarded the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for successfully tackling some of California's critical challenges with practical solutions.

And the work continues. At our annual legislative summit last month in San Diego, 115 foster youths from 28 chapters around the state developed our latest round of policy recommendations for legislators.

These ideas that come from personal experience are worth pursuing:

• Collaboration between county programs and the state university system to develop a college preparation program for foster youths in grades nine to 12.

• Providing a school district liaison to offer college information to foster youths at the start of high school.

• Representation of foster youths on county advisory boards that deal with transitional housing and other basic needs for the first years of adulthood.

• Creation of a network of career and educational specialists who focus on assisting current and former foster youths with career and educational endeavors.

• Extending Medi-Cal services from age 21 to 24 for foster youths.

These are all steps in the right direction. Failing to enact them is a missed opportunity, and scaling back funding for existing foster-care services is a dangerous step backward.

We know that this is a year of deficits and painful cuts in services, but cutting services to children should never be an option. If you think that the state coffers are hurting, think about how such a downturn affects people at the very bottom.

I've been there, and I'm working with bright, courageous foster youths every day to remind elected officials that progress comes from changing, not shortchanging, the system.

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