Yesterday, I attended a youth forum in Stark County. Approximately 60 foster care youth were in attendence. Topics covered included: housing, college vs. working full-time, mentors and advocates, and independent living.
The video above is of a young man named Jeremy, performing a gospel rap song that he has created about his experiences in foster care. All this young man wants is a mentor -- and he hasn't found one yet.
Here are some of Jeremy's insightful comments during the forum:
-"One of our suggestions (about independent living classes) was 'timeliness of service, because it's way too late to ask us these questions after we've been in foster care for so long."
-"We're gonna go from foster care to just being flat broke."
-"Adults need to come and see us when we're doing something good, like sports or this forum, not just if we are bad or need counseling. Because everybody doesn't need counseling."
-"If I ever get a mentor, he shouldn't be lazy. I mean, I don't want to sit in an office and just talk, I want to do active things, like sports, and get to know someone that way."
Many of the older male teenagers at the forum seemed disillusioned. One young said that he had been in foster care since he was a baby and that his foster parents had flat-out told him that the odds were against his ever being adopted "because I was black, a boy and came from a bad family." They basically crushed his hopes early.
Another young man named Richard said, "We're just here to make it better for the next generation. I've been in foster care since I was three years old, and I'm 16 now. It ain't gonna happen for me."
I spent time after that session talking with Richard. He is sixteen years old, and thinks that his life is already over. I told him that I myself as a foster care alumna had lived several lifetimes since I was 16 years old. His life is not over. His cards are not all played out. Maybe he hasn't really had a chance to be a kid, but Richard is still very young and has many chances ahead of him.
Interestingly enough, there was an iPod raffle at the end of the forum, and Richard won the iPod! As he came up to collect his prize, I said to him, "The man without hope wins an iPod. There is plenty of hope for you, Richard."
Lottery of caseworkers: Two sisters with two different caseworkers attended the forum. The first caseworker was willing to take the older sister to visit five different colleges. The younger sister's caseworker refused to take her at all.
Suggestions made by the youth during the forum:
1.) Hands-on learning of independent living skills:
-Youth want the opportunity to live in an apartment for one week by themselves
-Would like to shadow a college student for a day, and see how they juggle school/work
2.) Early planning:
-Youth want to start visiting colleges during their sophomore year
-Upward Bound/Gear Up programs should serve more foster youth, not limit to high achievers
-Project Rebuild: Alternates one week of construction work, one week of education
3.) Don’t expect us to know your hidden rules:
-"In each placement, there are different rules/expectations, and we’re expected to know them"
-"In preparing for independent living, we should be making some of our own rules"
4.) Allow us more freedom:
-Foster youth go from total restriction to complete freedom, with no support
-Need opportunities to work, volunteer, participate in extra-curricular activities and spend the night at a friend’s house without having to go through so many channels
5.) Consider our need for transportation: The state should provide car insurance and allow foster care youth to get a driver’s license.
6.) If you want to connect with us, invest time:
-Would-be mentors should take teens out just to talk, or do a sports activity
-If the teen doesn’t open up right away, just be patient and consistent: invest the time
7.) One-stop shopping for our resources vs. misinformation/lack of information
8.) Let us evaluate foster parents/group home staff/caseworkers: They evaluate us.