Six years after launching Doncel, a civil society organization dedicated to supporting youth transitioning out of the residential, or foster, care system in Argentina, Mariana Incarnato had a profound insight. “We started out as a program that helps young people; we were the professionals who knew what to do,” she says. What Incarnato came to realize is that the youth Doncel served often had insights and solutions she her team and failed to see.
“Youth voices needed to come before professional voices,” says Incarnato of her decision in 2010 to begin integrating youth views and voices more formally into Doncel’s work.
Incarnato’s realization came, in part, from observing how the residential care system as a whole had censored youth. “The system essentially said, ‘we know what you need,’” she reflects. But often that wasn’t the case, particularly when it came to preparing youth for independent living. The media, too, often perpetuated a false narrative of youth who lived in care, sensationalizing the circumstances that led them there and painting a predominantly negative picture of their lives after transitioning out of the system. Such misperceptions influenced not only the care youth received, but the resources allocated to support them.
“Youth voices need to come before professional voices.”
Mariana Incarnato, Founder & Executive Director, Doncel
Over time, Doncel has taken various steps to integrate youth voices—both within and outside the organization. Today, its structure is flatter and less hierarchical. Among its staff are care leavers. A youth-led online portal, launched by the organization in 2011, now serves as a clearinghouse of information for youth transitioning out of care. The youth group that led the effort has expanded with members now leading trainings benefiting their peers and staff within care institutions.
Most recently, Doncel’s efforts to amplify youth voices contributed to a major legislative victory. In May 2017, a new national policy was approved guaranteeing much-needed financial and emotional support for youth transitioning to independent living.
While the importance of youth voices to improving youth programs and policies is increasingly gaining recognition in the United States, not enough information exists on how to meaningfully engage vulnerable youth in sharing their experiences and opinions. Doncel offers a potent example of how to support youth in speaking truth to power—and the power of youth voices to create lasting change.
Toward an Integrated Approach
More than 15,000 young people live in state-run residential care institutions in Argentina. Most end up in care as a result of abuse or neglect at home. Such youth are largely ill-prepared for the reality that faces them when they are mandated by law to transition to independent living at the age of 18. Roughly 60 percent drop out of high school when they exit care, with 70 percent experiencing homelessness at some point once on their own.
A trained psychologist, Incarnato launched Doncel in 2004 to “prepare youth for the transition to independent living so they could develop as active citizens.” In the early years, the organization sought to equip youth for self-sufficiency through employment, enlisting a range of business allies in its efforts to train and place care leavers in jobs. Over time, Doncel’s approach evolved to include more holistic supports for youth exiting care.
Today, the organization pursues three core strategies. (See Figure 1.) The first of these involves the provision of direct services to youth, including training and counseling youth for independent living and offering peer-to-peer support, both online and in person. Second, the organization trains care-givers and provincial policy-makers on the needs and rights of youth. And third, Doncel advocates for improved policies benefiting young people. Its policy agenda is supported through research and publications, with efforts underway to improve the situation of youth exiting care in other countries through a Latin American regional network. Among Doncel’s partners are major businesses and civil society organizations, including Accenture, Amnesty International, FarmaCity, Manpower Group, UNICEF, and YPF.
The E-Guide: Youth Supporting Youth
Youth engagement at Doncel took on a whole new meaning in 2010 when the organization engaged a group of care leavers in creating what became known as the Guia Egreso (Exit Guide, or E-Guide, for short). With initial funding from The World Bank, the Guide took the form of a web-based platform designed to support youth preparing to leave residential facilities, along with those who had already transitioned to independent living. A team of dedicated youth worked alongside Doncel staff to create the site—developing a tagline, conceptualizing the design and content, conducting video interviews, and offering advice on marketing and distribution.
Launched in 2011, the platform provides care leavers with practical tips and resources on how to continue their education, find housing, prepare a budget, locate mental and reproductive health services, secure food subsidies, and access training and employment opportunities. Featured throughout are testimonials and stories from care-leavers about their lives and how they overcame obstacles. Beyond serving as a one-stop shop of resources for young people transitioning out of care, the platform builds community among youth who can feel isolated.
The Making of the E-Guide
“Our message was you’re not alone,” says Cristian Guarasci, one of the E-Guide’s founders, of its goal to create an online network among youth facing similar circumstances. To date, the site has logged more than 10,000 unique visitors, with over 2,100 followers subscribing to its Facebook page.
Version 2.0 of the E-Guide took a different direction as membership of the team expanded, along with its role. Recognizing the demand for information—and connection—among the Guide’s audience, Doncel supported the youth in taking their message on the road. Members began visiting residential care facilities to share their stories and inform youth of their rights and steps they could take to prepare for independent living. That work continues to this day with team members also advising care providers, policy-makers, and others on youth needs and gaps in resources.
Tatiana Lustig da Silva joined the E-Guide team four years ago. “When I was living in the institution, I saw realities I wanted to change,” she says. “I was trying to fight for something a lot bigger than me. From the Guide, I was able to face my past in a healthier way.”
Through the Guide, Lustig da Silva and other members now feel empowered to make change. When in early 2017, Doncel received support from the City of Buenos Aires to collect data on the situation of youth who had exited the care system, E-Guide members played a critical role. After advising Doncel on the development of a survey questionnaire, members fanned out across the city, vising youth in shelters and on the streets. The fact that they shared similar experiences helped them to build trust and solicit honest feedback from their peers.
“When I was living in the institution, I saw realities I wanted to change.I was trying to fight for something a lot bigger than me. From the Guide, I was able to face my past in a healthier way.”
Tatiana Lustig da Silva, E-Guide Member
Those youth interviewed shared feeling “afraid, alone, and unsafe” upon leaving the care system. Sixty percent reported not being involved in developing an exit plan for themselves (e.g., where they would live; what they would do) prior to moving on their own. Seven out of ten said they had experienced homelessness. Once the findings were compiled, E-Guide members presented the results to national level policy-makers in advocating for the new law benefiting care leavers.
Members have also sought to influence how youth in care are perceived by society at-large, beginning with media coverage. With support from Doncel, the team received leadership training and help in crafting messages to use in media interviews. Members, in turn, shared what they learned with their peers in care. “Journalists are often looking for people to buy a story,” says Guarasci, now 30. Media articles tend to focus on the sensational aspects of how children ended up in care, he adds, with older teens often referred to as ‘the non-adopted.’
“Some people have no idea of what it’s like to live in an institution,” says Yamila Carras, one of the E-Guide’s founding members. “They think it’s a prison.” By contrast, she and the others relay to the media the positive qualities of youth who have lived in care, while exposing myths and stereotypes perpetuated around the system as a whole. “People need to know we’re not to blame for the fact our parents left us out,” she adds.
As Doncel’s support of youth voices has deepened, so too has the impact of the E-Guide team. Figure 2 illustrates the resources (e.g., outreach channels, training, financial assistance) provided by Doncel over time and how E-Guide members have leveraged the knowledge, skills, and access they gained to support their peers and influence larger systems.
With all of the E-Guide’s successes, authentic youth engagement is far from easy. Doncel staff cite the very real personal challenges E-Guide members face—from housing insecurity to loss of jobs and family conflicts—all of which can result in crises, interruptions, and requests for support from peers and staff. To ensure the viability of youth-led efforts, staff emphasize the importance of establishing group norms, values, and procedures; of defining individual roles and responsibilities; and equipping youth with critical life skills (e.g., teamwork, conflict resolution) so they are better equipped to navigate difficult circumstances.
Law 27,364: A Victory for Youth Exiting Care
As part of its advocacy agenda, Doncel worked for several years, in partnership with other children rights’ organizations, to sensitize lawmakers to the need to better prepare and support youth exiting the care system. Part of their argument lay in the fact that parents are required by law to feed their children until the age of 21 (and until 25 if a child is studying and unable to support him or herself). By contrast, youth were expected to leave care institutions at 18 years of age with little-to-no preparation or financial support to help them access food and housing, complete their educations, and gain a foothold in the job market.
Over a period of three years, Doncel’s staff, its partners, and E-Guide members met regularly with legislators to sensitize them to the need for a new policy. As the language for the law took shape, the E-Guide youth offered their own changes and recommendations. Prior to the Bill’s passage, members testified before Congress. Finally, the new policy was approved on May 31, 2017. Law 27,364 provides care leavers with emotional support in the form of a mentor, and a financial allowance, equivalent to 80 percent of minimum wage, until they reach the age of 21.
Argentina’s New Law Advancing the Rights of Youth Exiting Care
Doncel staff attribute the law’s relatively swift passage to a number of factors, including a well-conceived strategy with a clear goal; champions within Congress; and strong national and international partners (e.g., UNICEF, SOS Children’s Villages).
While a major victory for Doncel and youth poised for independent living, the very youth who advocated for the new law are excluded given their ages and independent status. “We won’t benefit from the law, but we wanted to do it for others,” says Carras, now 28.
The law represents a major breakthrough in Argentina—and serves as a model for other nations in the region where lack of support for youth aging out of care is commonplace. Doncel staff and E-Guide representatives recently traveled to Bolivia for a meeting of Red Latinamericana de Egresados de Protection (Latin American Network of Protection Graduates), where they shared their strategies in advocating for the law.
Looking ahead, Doncel is focused on ensuring the law is properly implemented. At the provincial level, authorities and staff within care institutions will need guidance to fully deliver on the new legislation, says Incarnato, with Doncel well-positioned to provide such support. E-Guide members could also have an important role to play, she adds. With the law specifying that youth exiting care now have the right to a trained mentor (e.g., a peer, family member, or social work professional), Doncel hopes to equip E-Guide members to perform this role for which the youth would be paid by the government. In this way, youth who once worked to reform the care leaving system—from the outside—would have the chance to contribute to their peers from within an improved system.
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