By Dianna Walters

Connecticut Voices for Children’s 4th annual Youth at the Capitol Day Forum was held on Monday in Hartford, CT, providing an excellent example of the power of stakeholder engagement as an advocacy strategy. This year’s event, titled after a recently released report, Because Relationships Matter: Improving Opportunities and Outcomes for Youth in State Care, featured 11 youth speakers who experienced Connecticut’s foster care system. The youth shared powerful stories of their many relational challenges and triumphs with foster parents, caseworkers, mentors, attorneys, teachers, biological family members, fictive kin and their peers. The youth leaders exhibited great courage and passion as they grabbed the audience’s full attention with their remarks, leaving everyone energized and ready to work toward changes needed to ensure all youth in Connecticut’s foster care system have the relationships they need for successful, healthy, and happy lives.

While many important topics were raised during the forum, relationships with caseworkers received a great amount of attention from the youth as they highlighted the impact of these relationships on their lives. Youth discussed how difficult it was at times to reach their caseworkers by phone, get their needs met, and voice their concerns and weigh in on their case planning. One young person stated that “Caseworkers aren’t as involved as they should be and it feels like they don’t care.”

Many youth recognized that their caseworkers often have so much work to do that they simply can’t keep up with it all, with one youth noting, “It wasn’t until I was acting a fool that they paid attention to me.”

When some youth spoke about the work that was being done by their caseworkers, they expressed frustration about their level of engagement. A young woman shared “I’m not upset that she found my family and tried to reconnect us, I was upset that she didn’t ask me.”

What is being written by caseworkers to document youths’ lives can also have a negative or positive impact on their foster care experiences. One youth summed up the issue well when she said “What you read on paper is not always true or complete. I can be annoying and I am also funny and caring. But those things are not written on paper anywhere.”

While it was clear that many caseworkers and youth are struggling in their relationships and with the work needing to occur, there were also promising stories of success. While participating in a panel composed of four sets of youth and adult relationships, one youth leader shared with the audience how he built a strong relationship with his caseworker despite being in foster care for 15 years and having had negative experiences with his previous five caseworkers.  This young man said, “She has been with me for seven years now and we have been through a lot together. She approaches it different than anyone else. She is like a parent, like my second mom. We fight a lot and we love each other. I called her during a wedding once and she picked up. She treats me like blood.”

His caseworker talked about the importance of their relationship also being able to serve as a bridge to other relationships to ensure that he has multiple adults in his life, including both time limited and long-lasting relationships. She noted how great it was to see his progress through their work together and to be able to know she can now trust him to make good decisions about his life as he moves forward into his transition to adulthood.

While youth speakers and audience members were sharing their experiences in foster care, everyone was able to see the power of Connecticut Voices for Children’s youth engagement strategy and its impact on both youth and adults. Youth were supporting each other in real time by stating that they too had a similar experience or offering advice when a challenge was being shared. A young man in the audience said “I was labeled as a troubled youth who wasn’t going to make it anywhere, and I believed it. Then, I got in Passages what I’d always needed – a friend.”

Lexie Gruber, former First Focus intern and winner of the 2014 Youth Voice Award, awarded at Connecticut Voices for Children’s annual First for Kids awards ceremony, commented in her closing remarks that youth are only able to be heard when they are given a seat at the table and that it is critical to act on what youth say when they use their voice to advocate for themselves or their peers in foster care. Lexie also noted the often neglected need to give marginalized youth a voice, regardless of how articulate they are, and asserted that “maybe they can’t speak because we have silenced them.”

The youth voice elicited a powerful response from policy makers and other adults in the audience who were clearly very moved by all they had heard. While on a panel to respond to the youth, Senator Beth Bye, Co-Chair of the Appropriations Committee apologized to both the youth and caseworkers at the Capitol that day for giving caseworkers an impossible job.  Another respondent on the panel pointed out the need to invest in more social workers both in the child welfare and education system in the State. Michael Williams, Deputy Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), acknowledged the difficult nature of casework in child welfare systems since seemingly small decisions such as whether to return a phone call have a tremendous impact on the life of a child. He also expressed his great appreciation for the youth voice in their work, noting that some of the things youth say are things we don’t hear when we ask adults “how are our kids doing?” Michael Williams closed on a powerful note stating “We are challenging ourselves every day to do better based on what we hear from you.”  And finally, Connecticut State Senator Danté Bartolomeo responded to the youth by saying “I am committed to working with DCF to create a system that nurtures relationships and provides continuity.”

It is true that many states are encountering tough fiscal climates but it is tough times that are the most important times to protect kids. Edie Joseph with Connecticut Voices for Children presented concrete recommendations for reform during the forum and made the persuasive case when showing a slide about the 20 percent decline in Connecticut DCF’s budget over the last five fiscal years that “budgets should not be balanced on the backs of children.”

The promising news is that a lot is known about how to make progress in the area of child welfare casework, so it’s time to build on what works and fix what doesn’t. If policy makers maintain their commitments made at this week’s event, they can build a state that reflects their values, where all kids are safe and have a chance to reach their potential.