The end of former President Trump’s term brings me hope that history will never forget his cruel immigration policy that separated migrant children from their families as they were seeking refuge here in America. Unfortunately, we’re still hearing about hundreds of youth that are currently in foster care (or lost in the system) and have not been reunited with their parents.
When I read stories about family separation, it really hits home. I am not able to see my family — not only because of COVID-19, but also because I am in foster care. Although I was born in the US and was placed in foster care for different reasons, I questioned whether migrant youth had any rights. In addition to migrant youth, American foster youth have to fight for their rights every single day.
I had no clue that I had rights as a foster youth. When I first was sent to live with foster parents, I was psychologically traumatized and could barely comprehend what was happening to me. But I’d soon learn that my rights were being violated in their care, whether it was my right to privacy, my right to have a safe environment, my right to attend religious services, my right to visit my siblings, or the basic right to just be treated as a human being. Does the system even see me as someone beyond my case number?
I watched in horror in 2020 as George Floyd was held down with a knee on his throat as he pleaded and cried out for his mom. As crazy as it sounds, I wondered if those in charge of the foster care system would finally wake up after seeing all the Black Lives Matter protests and understand that the system is one of the reasons that so many youth of color end up in foster care.
My family has always had to deal with systemic racism and wealth inequality, even before I was placed in foster care. My family did not challenge or speak out against it. However, the Black Lives Matter movement has empowered me to challenge, advocate, and be the voice for those who are afraid to speak on their concerns with classism and systemic racism. It has also allowed foster youth to join with other groups that have been seeking their representation. Together, we can educate foster youth on their rights and advocate for legislative and practical change in our institutional systems.
Foster youth don’t always know or understand that they have the power to say what they want. Foster youth in California have over 40 rights. The ombudsman’s office can support them to ensure their rights aren’t being violated. Many youth in foster care don’t voice their concerns or know how to talk to a person of power, like an attorney or a judge. They’re also afraid of saying something that might punish them or jeopardize their placement.
What the general public needs to know is that foster youth are human beings. Just because we are under the care of the system and have price tags next to our names doesn’t mean you can violate our rights. Foster youth are strong, street-smart, persistent, and passionate. We are natural leaders and problem solvers who are helping to fix the system.
I am proud to say that I was a part of making some big changes happen. In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 175, which expands the existing Foster Youth Bill of Rights legislation. The expanded law now requires children in foster care and their representatives to be informed of their rights in an age-appropriate manner. In addition, there are expanded rights such as rights that better protect and serve LGBTQ+ youth, the right for foster youth to review their own case plan starting at the age of 10, and the right to have reasonable access to a computer and the internet, among other new rights. This led to the creation of a new website that educates foster youth on their rights and includes a lot of tools for social workers and caregivers.
My experiences in foster care have taught me and empowered me to be an advocate and a leader and to, someday, run for public office. So, while the system has oppressed us, my hope is to use the system to show other foster youth that life gets better.
This article is published in partnership with the Youth Voice program, which provides writing opportunities to young people across the country with experience in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.