Emily is an 18-year-old high school senior who is currently in foster care. She has been in the foster care system for two years and is now working as an advocate for other foster youth and alumni. She is a leader and president for her local chapter of Wyoming Advocates for Youth (W.A.Y.), an organization that seeks policy change in foster care while also providing a place for foster youth and alumni to connect with one another. Our interview with Emily explores her time in foster care, her recommendations for changing the system, and the impact foster care has had on her life.
(click “+” to see more details.)
How would you describe your experience in foster care?
I was worried about what would happen when I went in but it worked out really well. Getting into foster care was kind of expedited for me and I was really lucky with my situation. I know a lot of foster youth who have had bad experiences like being dropped off by their caseworker without ever having met their foster parent beforehand. They know nothing about them. The good thing that happened to me, that does not happen to all foster youth, was that I was introduced to Paula and then I moved in afterwards. So now I have been living with Paula for two years and I call her mom. My experience in foster care gave me a lot and became a blessing more than anything else.
What are some other issues that foster youth face?
I've personally come in contact with youth here in town who, while in foster care, dealt with being separated from birth siblings. Then after being placed in different homes they still did not even see their siblings. I feel like there is something that happens when these separations occur. Obviously the siblings grow apart, potentially feeling abandoned, which could stem into potential trust issues later on in their relationship. This doesn't really lead to stable or healthy relationships. Young brains are so easy to form so when these separations happen it’s like training a mind to see family as something that leaves. This is something that should not be an outcome of foster care.
What do you think could be done to help sibling separation?
Rather than separation, keep siblings together because it may be the only family they have left. In worst case scenarios where that can't happen due to space availability, extra efforts to keep close contact [with siblings] wouldn't be unreasonable. Case workers are continuously strained for time but I’m sure there are others out there who are not [too busy] and would be willing to help make these arrangements occur. This could mean training foster parents about working with other foster parents if the situation seems fit for the youth’s best interest.
Who has supported you?
There’s LifeNet, which is an independent living program (ILP), my independent living case worker from LifeNet, my GAL (guardian ad litem) who is my attorney, and my DFS case worker. My church and community has played the biggest role of being the family and support I needed. I know what family is like and what support feels like due to Paula and everyone in my church, school, and community that was kind enough to show me that.
What have you found to be most helpful in preparing to graduate out of the foster care system?
The most helpful would be my independent living program that is run out of LifeNet which works closely with DFS. They helped me to get a car by giving me some money but also by encouraging me to look around before buying a car. They have been very useful in helping me understand life skills like how to take care of bills and taxes, how to get a car, and how to open a bank account. Along with my ILP, my DFS case workers, both past and present, have always been there to answer questions and get me the information I’m seeking.
How did you get involved in foster care advocacy?
This past summer, after I attended the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) Technical Assistance Meeting, I wanted to start my own youth advisory board as I was seeing that so many other states had them but Wyoming did not. I didn’t know how I was going to do this but somebody introduced me to Mike R., the program manager from W.A.Y. in Cheyenne who was given the task of starting W.A.Y. groups in cities in Wyoming. When he came to me the door was open for me to start a foster youth and alumni group where I could also have the ability to train, support, and talk with other foster youth and alumni. So rather than me having to scramble around and try to figure out how to start a group, Mike was able to give me the title of W.A.Y. It worked out for both of us and we were able to get a W.A.Y. group up and working in Casper.
How did you get the opportunity to go the NYTD conference?
Our state needed to find a foster youth to travel with them to the conference to be part of the Wyoming team. So they sent out an email across the state and I was recommended twice. One recommendation came from a worker from DFS in Casper and one from my LifeNet/independent living worker.
*What made attending the NYTD conference a positive experience?
I was able to make connections with other youth but also organizations that want to use me in a great way and help make me feel like my story and voice is valuable. This interview, WAY, and YATTA have been three major things for me that I would have never had the chance to experience without going to the NYTD conference.
*Was there anything about the NYTD conference that you would change or would hope to improve?
I think that if the youth had a better chance to meet each other during the conference time that would help a lot for youth going back to their states so they can hear what other youth have been able to do. For example, at the beginning of the conference there was a break out session all the youth representatives went to but this only happened once. Then every session after that was a mix of state leaders and youth, which is great, but I think having another youth focused session somewhere else in the meeting would be nice to give the youth another chance to share ideas and potentially speak for themselves more.
*What suggestions do you have for how youth can be involved with the NYTD meeting in the future?
I think that they did a great job the first day of the conference letting youth be a panel that presented data with feedback and got to share their stories, and also throughout the conference having an open mic question time where we could raise our hands and speak or ask questions. I think possibly giving more opportunities to hear the youth and their opinions would be good too. Maybe sessions that are led by a panel of youth or a session where youth speak out because it's a great time for head workers of the state to hear directly from youth they don't already know.
What is the Wyoming Advocates for Youth (W.A.Y.) program?
W.A.Y. is a support group for foster care youth but is also an advocacy group to push policies and things like that. Meetings will be monthly at this point. The next meeting will be to get everyone in one place to brainstorm ideas, have myself and other leaders share our vision, and also have a roundtable discussion. So far we are having just group dinners but we want the meetings to become discussions about needed policy change, trainings for youth to learn public speaking, and a support group/family of sorts.
The objectives of W.A.Y. are to push policy change and to also get things changed like the foster parent training. This means starting foster parents off with the right mind set of understanding that foster youth are different. Instead of trying to force foster youth to be something they are not, they can try understanding them over time so everyone can get to know each other. We’re also focusing on the support for foster youth from other foster youth and alumni. Over time, we hope to cover as many topics as possible to help start as much change as needed.
What do you like best about being a leader?
I like being a leader because I am able to share my experiences and let others learn from me. I am able to lead by example so that other people see that this is what foster youth could be and that foster youth are able to make it through the system being resilient. Even though I’ve been through a lot, even compared to regular students (not in foster care), I’m able to make it through anything because I have a strong ability to recover from things. I can show people that foster youth may come from bad backgrounds but we’re able to lead others. We can let them know that this is something that we have experience in and we can give accounts about what is going on in foster care.
What advice would you give to adults who want to help youth in the foster care system?
Adults in general need to know about hearing kids out. For example, teachers might have a kid in class who is unruly so the teacher labels them as a foster kid and thinks, “Oh it’s just because they’re a foster care kid.” Instead they should take the time to get to know the student. Maybe that foster care labeling shuts [kids] down and makes them feel like they aren’t respected and a “normal” kid. It’s been a huge thing for me when teachers took five seconds to say, “Hey, are you okay?” I know teachers don’t always have time but even taking a moment to say you notice something is wrong and asking if they are okay makes a difference. When these relationships are made and teachers take the time to make them, youth automatically want to be around them more. Getting to know youth is the biggest thing because if you don’t know them then you obviously don’t know what they are dealing with or how to approach them.
What are the challenges young leaders like you face?
One challenge is the educational background piece. I just have the experience of being in the foster care system. The issue is making sure that this experience is a credible thing and that it is valued enough to be a leader, so that people know that even though I don’t have the formal education I do have a lot of experience. Another issue is that I don’t know everything but I want to learn more and I am constantly open to learning more. It’s hard for other people to know that I may not know everything that everyone else does but I am totally willing to learn more.
How could a youth-serving organization better support you in building leadership skills?
They could tell me their life experiences, trainings, or give advice on what they would do. Simply letting me know what their expectations of me are so that way I have a heads up can be key. Also, I’ve only experienced my story so if I can have the opportunity to learn other youths' stories then my knowledge of youth experiences is greater than my story alone. This goes for youth in or out of care. We all have experienced different circumstances so this helps broaden my knowledge as a leader.