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Rhode Island Foster Youth and Alumni Speak Up for Others in Care

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CWLA hosted two panel discussions with the Voice, the youth leadership board representing Rhode Island youth currently and formerly in out-of-home care, during the board's second annual Team Building Retreat, held from August 3-6, 2011 in Washington, DC. The Voice, made up of foster care youth and alumni aged 14 to 24, is a collaboration between the Rhode Island Council of Resource Providers and the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association through Rhode Island's Consolidated Youth Services contract. The group also serves to represent foster care youth for the regional board of the New England Youth Coalition, which has youth representatives from each of New England's six states.

Dee Saint Franc, Voice co-chair, talked about the Siblings Bill of Rights and the importance of keeping siblings together while in foster care.

"I like that you can advocate for youth in care who can't advocate for themselves... and make a difference and make a change. Our voice is your voice outside of your home," said Christian Aldarado, 17, who takes great pride in serving on the Voice. He has been in and out of foster care so many times that he cannot remember the exact number.

The theme of the 2011 retreat was "Leadership, Advocacy and Networking for Child Welfare Policy." It included panel discussions with CWLA, representatives from congressional offices, the Voice's executive board, foster care alumni, and child advocacy organizations. The first panel was held at CWLA and included Christine James-Brown, CEO; Tim Briceland-Betts, Director of Government Affairs; Amanda Chandler, Director of Operations at Foster Care Alumni of America; and Dee Saint Franc and Rodeline Saint Felix with the Voice.

The focus of the discussion was the proposal of a Siblings Bill of Rights for children in foster care in New England. It is a joint effort on behalf of the New England Youth Coalition and the New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners & Directors, which hopes to encourage the implementation of the Bill of Rights into each of the six New England states' child welfare systems.

"I'm really happy with the Siblings Bill of Rights," said Aldarado, who explained that one of the biggest complaints he hears from foster children is their frustration with not being able to see their siblings.

The Rhode Island Youth Advisory Board voices their concerns about issues related to foster care.

Children in foster care are often subject to frequent moves and the insecurities that come with aging out of the system. The proposed legislation is an effort to mitigate this instability by providing children in care the opportunity to develop some family continuity through sibling relationships. The Bill of Rights contains eight provisions to ensure contact with siblings. The definition of a "sibling" in the bill is not limited to blood relatives; it includes any person the youth in care considers a sibling. The provisions specify that each child in care would be notified of a sibling's status every six months, be guaranteed visits regardless of distance, and be a factor in the sibling's permanency plan.

What seems most important to the Voice is the Bill of Rights' protection against the use of sibling visitations as a form of reward or punishment for a youth's behavior. Dee Saint Franc, co-chair of the Voice, explained that children who are in foster care should have the same access to their siblings as children who are not in care do.

The panel also included commentary from the Voice's executive members on the difficulties of transitioning out of the foster care system and advice from child welfare agencies and policy experts on ways that youth organizations can further advocate for improving the system. Chandler advised the youth in care to contact their legislators, as each of them has a story to share that can inspire improvements.

The second panel was held on Capitol Hill with CWLA staff; additional foster alumni; representatives from Senator Mary Landrieu's office; Becky Ship from the Senate Finance Committee; Eric Lulow with Youth Move; and Shalita O'Neal, the Executive Director of the Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center. In addition to hearing the concerns of the Voice, the panel and participants discussed the reauthorization of title IV-B, which includes Part 1, Child Welfare Services and Part 2, the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program. During this discussion, Saint Franc and Saint Felix spoke about the bill. Subsequently, the legislation on title IV-B included language that enhances sibling connections for children in the child welfare system. This legislation was signed into law by President Obama on September 30, 2011.

Throughout the day, leaders and representatives on both panels encouraged the Voice to continue advocating for changes in the foster care system, saying there is no better voice for youth in care. Seventeen-year-old Bridgette Webb, a member of a Youth Advisory Board for foster care, had simple advice for lawmakers when dealing with foster care issues: "Try to put yourself in the position of a foster child and see how you would feel--and try and make the right decision."

Nicole Thieman was an editorial intern at CWLA during the summer of 2011.


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