Teens Need to Have a Say in Placement

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Represent, New York City

In foster care, a voice is one of the most important things you need to survive. Without a voice, you control nothing. I believe that teens should be able to express their thoughts about being put in foster care and have a say in that decision.

When I was first put in care, outside the United States, it happened very suddenly. I remember that some people came to my house and took me away from my mother. Before I knew it I was surrounded by a bunch of kids, running, screaming, playing and laughing, in a room whose walls were painted with happy children holding hands. Out of nowhere, reality turbo-smacked me – I was in a group home.

The child welfare worker was acting like it was nothing and I didn’t matter. She didn’t seem to care how I felt about being placed in this group home, or if I wanted to go back home. If she’d asked, I could have told her that my mother hadn’t harmed me in any way, and that putting me in foster care wouldn’t solve anything.

Back then I was only a child, so I couldn’t do anything about it. I knew no one would listen to a 7-year-old. But at 14, when I was placed into foster care again (this time in New York City), I thought it would be different.

I was living with my aunt and her kids. Her older son had been molesting me for years, and I’d finally told someone at school about it. But when I reported it, I thought it was just going to scare him, and he would stop. I didn’t think telling would put me in care.

When I was being interviewed, the foster care worker seemed more interested in building a high profile case than in finding out what I wanted. We were in a tiny room, with a nurse standing outside, just in case.

Everything had happened so quickly that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave my aunt’s house or stay with her. Deep down, I think I knew that I didn’t want to be in foster care. I just wanted to make my aunt see what was happening in her home and fix it. But I didn’t know how, or if it was possible to stay with her and still be safe.

So when the caseworker asked me how I felt about being put into care, I thought, “This is my chance to speak up.” But she went on to say, “Then again, why would anyone want to go back home after what you’ve been through with your cousin?”

When I saw that she was focused only on what my cousin had done to me and not on how my aunt or I felt about it, I realized there was no point in trying to talk.

I felt that, since my biological parents weren’t around, she’d already made the decision to put me in a foster home, and she just wanted to get it done as soon as possible. I wish she had made sure that removing me from my aunt’s home was the right decision, not for her but for me, by talking to me with an open mind.

When foster care workers talk to teens coming into care, they should trust us enough to take what we say seriously. And once kids are in care, the workers should keep checking up on how they feel about their placements and what they want.

Of course, some kids and teens might want to stay in a home that’s too dangerous. The foster care system should remove kids for their own safety, if they need to. But they also should listen to what the kid has to say about her placement. There may be another family member the child wants to stay with, or another way to make the home safe without removing the child.

In New York, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is starting to have “child safety conferences” – meetings with family, ACS staff, and trained facilitators to decide whether a child should come into care.

ACS says it wants to start including adolescents (above the age of 10) in these meetings with staff and parents. I think that’s great! If teens can stay hopeful, and if ACS staff are open-minded, I believe that, little by little, teens’ voices will be heard.

© 2008 Youth Communication/New York Center Inc., www.youthcomm.org.