Empowering Older Youth

Advocacy groups help youth turn their experiences into expertise

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The facts are these: more than 25,000 children age out of the foster care system each year. Of these, 25% don't have a high school diploma or GED. Almost 30% will be incarcerated. And more than half will experience homelessness.

In 2001, Nicole Dobbins was one of the tens of thousands discharged. When she turned 18, she aged out of Oregon's foster care system and faced those daunting statistics. Now Dobbins is the executive director of Voice for Adoption (VFA), a membership-based advocacy organization and CWLA member that works with members of Congress to educate them on the issues related to foster youth and adoption. However, at one time, she never thought she would be working on the policy side of the field that left her suddenly to fend for herself. "I was kicked out of the system very abruptly, and I had a sour taste in my mouth about how they just left me," she says. "I didn't think I wanted anything to do with child welfare."

Ruth Bodian and her son Jaron, along with their dog Cookie, participated in Voice for Adoption’s Portrait Project last year to remind people that age shouldn’t be a determining factor in the adoption process. "My mantra is that the right match is so much more important than the right age," says Bodian.

Dobbins went to college and graduated with a bachelor's degree in exercise sport science, but her career path took a turn when she landed an internship with Foster Club. "[Foster Club] really changed my perspective," Dobbins says. "They helped me realize that I really [do] have a unique perspective and something to offer." Foster Club trained Dobbins on how to turn her experiences into expertise. She testified in front of the U.S. House of Representative's Ways and Means Committee about the lack of resources and preparation children transitioning from foster care have. Youth aging out of the foster care system as early as age 18 are expected to take on all adult responsibilities; however, developmental research from Cornell University shows that the transition to adulthood extends well into the third decade of life. Dobbins later trained other youth at Foster Club to speak at briefings and give testimony on Capitol Hill.

Dobbins now leads the VFA's annual Adoptive Family Portrait Project, which celebrates families who have adopted. Framed photos and stories of adoptive families are displayed in senators' and representatives' offices with the intent to raise awareness about the importance of adoption. The theme of this year's Portrait Project is older youth adoption. "Once a child reaches a certain age, their chances of adoption are significantly lowered," Dobbins says. "[But] youth can be adopted into their teens, and we have seen that happen."

The Portrait Project is not only a celebration of adoption, but also a push for policy change. The idea behind it is that those who have experienced the issues are raising the issues. According to Dobbins, older youth who have experienced foster care are the best people to discuss the problems older youth face. This idea was shown to work in 2008, when Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. Title IV-E of the act improves incentives for older youth adoption, which include the extension of the Adoption Incentive Grant Program for another five years and a payment of $8,000 to the state for each child over the age of 9 who is adopted. Fostering Connections also motivates families to look into adopting older children. As of now, any 16- or 17-year-old child that a family adopts is eligible for federal adoption assistance payments. The children eligible will be phased in over nine years; next year the assistance payments will reach children ages 14 to 17.

Tamara White adopted Chino when he was 11; this photo was taken at his adoption announcement, just a few weeks prior to his legal adoption. Chino, who is now 17, wanted to participate in the Portrait Project to use his experience to empower other foster youth.

The congressional staffers who played a vital role in passing Fostering Connections--Diedra Henry-Spires (Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana), Becky Shipp (Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa), Barbra Pryor (Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia), and Sonja Nesbit (Representative Jim McDermott, D-Washington)--expressed that listening to foster youth tell their stories is what spurred them to work such long hours for the law's passage. "[There was] a specific staff who's been on the Hill for 15 years and she was in the office crying because of the stories she heard," Dobbins says. "She said that it made a difference that she heard from the young people themselves; the impact was much greater."

Ruth Bodian, who participated in the Portrait Project with her son Jaron last year, knows the influence that a child's personal story can have. "Families who've adopted do have a powerful message, but what blows people away is hearing directly from the teens," Bodian says. "It expels all those misconceptions and myths." According to Bodian, who works as the family support services director at Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE), a CWLA member agency, the system tends to give up on a child's adoption after the age of 9; she thinks older youth who have been adopted need to vouch for the fact that adoption is possible--and successfully so--far beyond that age. "Society just gives up on these kids and people just kind of write [them] off," Bodian says. "But when people meet and talk to them directly, I think [they] can't help but realize the importance of providing these teens with what they need to be successful."

Bodian met Jaron, who is now 15, at an adoption party that MARE organized; he had spent about six years in foster care. "I saw him, and I said, 'that's my son,'" she remembers. Adoption had been on Bodian's mind from the time she was a young girl; however, the thought of adopting an older child had always been out of the question. "The whole idea of parenting a teen was terrifying to me," says Bodian. "Starting with a preteen or teen was not at all appealing; actually, I was adamantly opposed to it." Just a year after meeting Jaron, she adopted him when he was 12 years old and considers it the most rewarding decision she's ever made. "I didn't go into this so much for myself," Bodian says. "But I have gained far more than I have given."

She now works at the place she met her son, as a resource at MARE for families considering adoption. "I went from being opposed to being one of those obnoxious advocates for adopting older kids," says Bodian. "One of my greatest joys I get from it is finding families who end up adopting older than their intended age range." Bodian does a lot of speaking on behalf of older children still waiting to be adopted; she says she has found her passion. Jaron, too, has discovered some passions of his own. He is very involved in hip-hop dance and he dreams of joining the military someday. "He's grown so much just in the short time that he's lived with me," says Bodian. "I look at the kid who walked through my door, and to look at the kid he is now--it just blows my mind." Bodian loves introducing prospective parents to Jaron to show them the successes children can achieve with the right opportunities.

Tamara White, a participant in this year's Portrait Project with her son Chino, also knows what children can accomplish when given the chance. White met Chino when he was 9 years old. He came to the clubhouse she used to help run for underprivileged youth in inner city Denver. "He came because he knew we were passing out Christmas presents," White laughs. "I thought he was adorable and had an immediate connection with him." She adopted him two years later, and ever since she has helped him battle with his special needs.

Chino, who is now 17, struggles with posttraumatic stress disorder and a visual processing ailment that prevents him from focusing in on a single visual stimulus. "He came with every scary diagnosis that everyone fears," White says. "He had just fallen through the cracks with medical systems [and] with educational systems. We estimated he had had only three months of school." However, Chino was determined to make things better. "He really does look at himself to be the one to change the history of his lineage," says White. Chino's biological father has been in prison for more than a decade, and his biological mother suffers from emotional and addiction issues.

White, who also has a 5-year-old daughter adopted as an infant, helped Chino accomplish his goals by creating a support system for him within her family and guiding his teachers through every step of his educational journey. One of the most important things White thinks she did with Chino is help him to connect with his story, from the very beginning. "We had a little journal and he would write down any scary stories he had, and he had a lot of scary stories," she says. "But I felt it was very important to look for the good stories [involving] his birth parents--you don't want to just focus on the bad, you want to build from it." White thinks that helping foster youth develop their stories empowers them because they learn to use their experiences to their benefit.

Chino is now comfortable enough to share his story--and he wants to. "In his words, he said, 'For all kids that come with problems, there is still hope in them that things will get better. No matter what their story is,'" White says. This fall, Chino will be a junior in high school, where he makes the honor roll. "He's the kid that gets A's and B's, plus the little notes [from teachers] saying what a joy he is to have in class," says White. He has every intention of going to college and continuing to share his story to help others.

The Kerin family from Colorado is part of the 2010 Portrait Project. The boys were adopted at ages 4, 7, and 14.

Though he is not involved with the Portrait Project, Chet Jackson has found other ways to use his story to empower others. Jackson was informally adopted at just 5 days old by his biological mother's best friend; he did not learn of his adoption until he was 30. "The information unhinged me a bit and left me a radical about truth in adoption," says Jackson. At the time, he was working at You Gotta Believe (YGB), a homelessness prevention program that works to find permanent homes specifically for older youth. Jackson currently holds the position of associate executive director, which involves meeting with contract monitors, conducting certification classes, and helping to head the organization's projects.

Jackson has been with YGB for 20 years now and has since learned the importance and power of older youth's stories in promoting older youth adoption. "Individual stories touch lives well beyond our e-mail list, and that's where the true success stories are," he says. Jackson and YGB use first-hand accounts to highlight the issues of older youth adoption on their award-winning live radio broadcast, The Adopting Teens and Tweens Forum. "We have great conversations with young people, adoptive parents, and fellow professionals in the field," says Jackson, who cohosts the weekly radio show. "I don't believe there is any place else where one can tune into the adoption story live." The topics include mostly personal experiences and the latest reports and research concerning older youth adoption. YGB also produces a weekly cable-access television show of the same name that features similar subject matter.

Personalizing the issues has helped YGB place several hundred young people with permanent families during recent years. Jackson, who has two biological children with his wife and three children who were adopted as teenagers, says this is in part attributed to the fact that YGB emphasizes the current connections children already have in their lives. "Every child has functioning grown folks in their life that care about them," he says. "Don't be afraid to look at who is in the youngster's life now." He also stresses operating from lessons in the foster youth's stories as the most efficient way to improve the system. Jackson believes in the importance of having youth share their stories because of the immediate knowledge they have concerning adoption. "If you believe fostering or adopting has value, then hire and incorporate real live adoptive and foster kids to share [their] message," he says. "Credibility is so important--provide safe opportunities for young people to be heard and seen."

Both the Portrait Project and YGB's radio show share first-hand knowledge from former and current foster youth. "I am blessed to carry such an important torch, to advo-cate for my brothers and sisters in the foster care system," Dobbins said in a message in the project's 2009 Family Photo Album. She is not alone--more than 50 families from all over the country participating this November in VFA's Portrait Project hope not only to educate but to make a change. "My son [Chino] was invisible to us and there are thou- sands of kids still like that," say White. "Funds have to be available, resources have to be available, and Congress needs to know."

Currently, advocates across the country are trying to build upon Fostering Connections; they want to implement it successfully on the state level and make the assistance and incentive programs that the law created applicable to foster care, as well as to adoption. This, according to Dobbins, will take more than child welfare professionals--it will take experts. "I encourage young people from foster care [to] take a part in reaching out and raising their voice on Capitol Hill," she says. "They won't have a voice until someone does that."

Erin Borg is an editorial intern at CWLA.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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