In the United States, hundreds of thousands of young people are in the foster care system, and, worldwide, UNICEF reports the numbers jump into the millions. With research showing that youth exiting care without a forever family are more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration as adults, we in the global community must ask ourselves—how can we better serve foster youth?
One way IYF has worked to answer that question is through the (Re)Connecting Youth initiative, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. IYF has brought together two groups working to spur necessary change in their own local and national contexts: the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and Doncel Asociación Civil, from Argentina. The two groups, plus other youth, practitioners, families, and elected officials working within the foster care system in Nebraska, recently gathered in Omaha and Lincoln for a week of in-depth conversations.
The goal of the convening was to share best practices, learn from each other’s challenges, and form the foundations for continued partnership and exchange. Despite working within different systems and contexts, the groups identified several common strategies for moving forward. Here are some of the cross-border insights gleaned for better supporting foster youth and care leavers around the globe:
- Advocate for systemic change. Doncel’s Dana Borzese aptly described “the bomb in the birthday cake” faced by Argentine youth leaving foster care—that is, when youth turn 18, they are forced to exit care. It’s a key reason why 60 percent of care leavers drop out of high school. In response to this challenge, Doncel has been particularly successful in achieving major legislative changes. They conducted original research, built coalitions across sectors and national borders, and trained both policymakers and caregivers on the needs and rights of youth. As a result, Doncel was instrumental in passing Ley No. 27.364, which will guarantee financial support for youth exiting the care system and entering independent living.
- Equip youth for success after foster case by building intentional communities among peers. Youth who have aged out of foster care—those who have the most nuanced understanding of and personal experience with the system—ought to be among the greatest resources for youth still in the system. While some exchange participants shared how older youth helped them navigate the system, too often those connections occurred by chance. One model helping to change that reality in Nebraska is Project Everlast, a youth-led initiative with chapters in Omaha and Lincoln that aims to pool resources, connections, and support among young people. The key is to nurture and formalize such networks so they can reach more youth in the system—especially those young people who live in less populous areas, where these vital connections are less likely to be made organically.
- Include youth in more authentic ways. While adults—whether foster parents, policy makers, or caseworkers—often have the best of intentions, they do young people a great disservice by excluding them from the conversations and decision-making tables that have such great potential to shape their lives. Rather than tokenism, we must invest thoroughly in creating a culture and systems that value young people’s perspectives. “I believe that youth have the best understanding of what’s best for their own personal interests,” said participant Khalil. “I believe adults do a good job of knowing when children need to be placed in a better household, but that doesn’t always mean they are placed in a better household. Sometimes it just substitutes one problem with another.”
Children and teens do not choose to find themselves in foster care, but they bear all the consequences of imperfect systems. Like their peers, they deserve full access to choices and opportunities.