By CASEY CHAFFIN
On Tuesday, July 24 a group more than 30 current and former foster youth from around the state met at Willamette University and presented their policy recommendations on how the foster care system should change to better accommodate the needs of foster youth. Their audience was a cross-section of lawmakers, Oregon Department of Human Services administrators, service providers and community members.
These policy recommendation presentations are the result of Oregon Foster Youth Connection’s (OFYC) annual Policy Conference. OFYC is a program of Children First for Oregon, and aims to empower youth to share their voices and provoke change in a system Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson has declared to be in a moment of crisis.
In terms of big-picture change, the goals of this conference are twofold: to let people who control foster care policy know what youth need from the system, and to lay the groundwork for the next long legislative session, when OFYC youth members will choose one policy recommendation to turn into a bill and lobby for at the Capitol. Giving foster youth access to policymakers is what OFYC and the policy conference are designed for.
“We want to remove as many barriers as possible so they can share their voice,” said Lisa McMahon, program director of OFYC.
The policy recommendations, which the foster youth spent the weekend hashing out, covered needed changes to foster care governance, including expanding mental health services, increasing funding for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) and prioritizing housing needs of youth at risk of becoming houseless. See sidebar onpage A7 the full list.
But for foster youth, OFYC and the Policy Conference have a more immediate purpose: empowering youth right in the moment.
Raven Sherrett has been involved with OFYC for four years. She’s been in the system since she was 8 years old, and now, at 21 years old, she just aged out of the Independent Living Program (ILP). In the past she’s attended Policy Conferences as a participant, but this year she was facilitating workshops and teaching other foster youth about policymaking.
For Sherrett, the policy recommendations this year resonated with her own experience growing up in the system. One policy recommendation in particular hit close to home: a concerted effort to limit the number of “houseless” foster youth. At the conference, the youth who presented on this issue said foster youth need better information about their housing rights and should be more involved in deciding where they end up after they turn 14 years old.
Foster youth are at risk of becoming houseless when they feel that their options are too narrow to accommodate their needs, whether that’s feeling pressure to exit the system because they feel they’re being forced into residential mental health treatment or can’t find an environment that accepts their identity, which is especially difficult for LGBT+ youth. Older youth who feel cornered often lobby to exit the system and end up homeless.
“If you consider couch-surfing homelessness, and I sure do, I was homeless for about a year and a half. … Even though I’ve had places to stay, it was always temporary, it was only a month-long thing,” Sherrett said. This type of homelessness—where the individual isn’t physically on the street, but doesn’t have a place to stay long-term—often goes unnoticed.
In addition to giving foster youth more information on and access to their housing rights, foster youth need more support to integrate into the community as they near adulthood. Another policy recommendation that addresses that need is increased funding for the Independent Living Program, which provides classes for current and former youth to better navigate adult life and funding for tuition, vocational training, and housing. State funding is currently set at $2 million, and the recommendation posits that $6 million is needed to allow the program to fulfill the current need.
“We need to make the effort to make sure foster kids have these services. How can we do that? By pushing legislators to make a choice,” Sherrett said. “Instead of putting money toward a prison, put it toward ILP services, so we don’t have these at-risk youth going to prison. They can stay at-risk, get the help they need, and eventually not be at-risk anymore.”
Sherrett’s passion for advocacy is evident, but the confidence with which she carries herself is something she’s had to work toward, she said. This year, as a workshop facilitator, she was coaching her peers on policymaking for the first time in her life. At first, she was anxious about filling that role. But after talking through her anxiety with some of her older peers, she realized the purpose of what they were doing.
“We’re going to make an impact on people, this why we’re doing this, to make a change within the foster care system, to make a difference and let our voice be heard,” Sherrett said. “That’s what I love about being involved with OFYC.”
This is the sixth part of a continuing series in the Keizertimes investigating the state of local foster care and shedding light on ways to get involved.