Amy Clay knows better than most about the challenges of growing up in the welfare system. At age 15, Clay was placed in foster care in Illinois and over three years, was moved to four different homes. During that same time, her caseworkers routinely changed, and she had to fight to stay in her same school.
Such experiences were painfully difficult, recalled Clay, especially for a girl who had already lived much of her life surrounded by violence. Although her childhood was far from perfect, Clay, now 33, eventually learned to embrace her own story. Over the years, she also gained the confidence to share her experience with others.
Today, with help and encouragement from Mark Testa, a professor at UNC’s School of Social Work, Clay is among several former foster care children who are working to help researchers and policymakers better understand the experiences of children in the welfare system. Their work is part of an ongoing campaign to resolve the “wicked problems” of child welfare.
Testa, the School’s Spears-Turner Distinguished Professor, and the national nonprofit Children’s Home Society of America (CHSA), launched the effort in February 2012 with a series of roundtable discussions with national and international social work leaders, child welfare administrators, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers. Known as the “Wicked Problems of Child Welfare,” the series was created to identify solutions for improving the safety, family permanence, and overall well-being of abused and neglected children.
Over the next year, Testa and CHSA will focus on building a national public education campaign to reform federal child welfare policies and practices. Part of that campaign will include strengthening the voice of youth in the child welfare system—a “grand challenge” that emerged from the roundtable discussions. Hearing directly from former foster care youth about their own needs as well as their insights into what works and what doesn’t in the foster care system is also vital to improving research and services, Testa said.
“Too often we tend to gather together as policymakers and make policies based on our hunches, experiences and a sense of what will sell,” he said. “But making sure that we draw on the experiences of those who have actually gone through the system is important.”
Through his own work, including in Illinois where Testa first met Clay, the professor said he’s learned that much more must be done to offer mental health support to children, especially after they leave or age out of the foster care system. While research has shown that former foster care youth often struggle with homelessness and employment, few studies have focused on the trauma that these children experienced and how it “continues to play out in” their lives, he said.
“Uniformly, when I talk to young people, they talk about the mental health issues that they confront and that they deal with with their own families and the challenges of holding it all together under very difficult circumstances,” he said.
“But these are not the topics that you hear about when you go to a conference on kids aging out of foster care. There, it’s about homelessness, which is an important problem or education, jobs, and access to medical care—all of those bread and butter important issues. But what you don’t hear about are the quiet struggles that young folks go through just to feel some sense of control over their lives.”
That researchers and others might have the chance to learn from these kinds of personal narratives is why Testa developed the Foster Youth Seen and Heard (FYSH) project in 2003, a writing workshop designed to give foster youth a voice by showing what the system looks like through their own eyes. He created the project while serving as the director of the Children and Family Research Center at the University of Illinois.
Although the project no longer exists, Testa continued to keep in touch with the youth who participated, including Clay, who helped design the program and who, along with several other former foster care youth, are helping to co-author a chapter of a book the professor is writing on the child welfare system. Clay, now a health insurance agent in Champaign, Ill., said the lessons she learned from the FYSH project still inspire her.
“It gives me a chance to make meaning of my experience and to use it to improve the lives of others,” said Clay, who met with Testa and two other FYSH alumni in late October to discuss their writing and how their lives have changed since leaving foster care. “I didn’t have the greatest childhood experience, but if I can make someone else’s experience better because of what I went through, I want to do that,” Clay said.
Long-term, Testa would love to see similar writing projects incorporated into child welfare systems across the country. Of the estimated 400,540 children currently in foster care, every child has story that needs to be told, he said. Such stories can teach policymakers where change is needed and give children in care a chance to exercise some control over their own lives, which are usually constrained by the choices of professionals and other external agents.
“Kids who come into care typically do so under circumstances out of their control,” she said. “To offer young people the sense that they can have some influence, however small, on the system that they deal with on a day-to-day basis is really empowering.”