Ottawa, Canada—The meeting starts in the wood-paneled boardroom of Ottawa’s Children’s Aid Society.
The stylish decor isn’t totally lost on the eight youths gathered here; it is simply ignored. Most are used to sparser surroundings.
They order pizza. Then they move the meeting to the front lawn, where they can smoke. So much for the ergonomics of the office appointments.
Thus convenes a typical local affiliate meeting of Canada’s National Youth in Care Network, one of 70 such groups around the country, all run by youth who are or were in government care – foster homes, group homes, detention facilities, mental health institutions or, as one 17-year old put it, “all of the above.” Their objective: Give other kids in care resources and a voice.
This group – ranging in age from 15 to 19 – meets every two weeks with no “adult” supervision. They keep no minutes and keep the agenda in their heads. Still, they deal with business: getting free luggage for kids in care, finding tutors for a couple of youths facing big-time school problems and choosing a volunteer to tell a graduate social work class at Carleton University about what it’s like to live in foster care.
So it goes in cities and small towns across Canada: youths meeting in government offices, community centers, pizzerias, around kitchen tables, wherever they can borrow or sometimes rent space for a few hours.
There is nothing quite like it in the United States.
Skip the Adults
The network has its roots in the 1985 International Child and Youth Care Workers’ Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Seven Canadian youth in care were brought to the conference to discuss youth empowerment and develop an organization for youth in care.
The seven spent much of their time meeting behind closed doors. They decided that a network should serve as a self-directed resource base, fostering, as its mission statement says, the “voicing of opinions and concerns of youth in and from care, and promoting the improvement of services for their group.”
For a model, they looked to Great Britain. There, groups of in-care youth known as Who Cares, England, once supported and supervised by the National Children’s Bureau, had decided to go it alone. They felt that the adult agency presence reduced their credibility and hindered youth involvement.
In 1979 Who Cares was dissolved; its youth members formed the National Association of Young People in Care, which focused on peer participation, support and control and establishing a united voice among youth in care.
A year after the Vancouver conference, John Meston, executive director of the Canadian Child Welfare Association and a long-time advocate for youth empowerment, arranged for several Canadian youths in care to visit Britain and meet youths from the national association. The Canadians came home with a decision to skip stage one, where the British system had operated with significant adult guidance, and go directly to youth control. They figured the group would end up there anyway.
One of the seven youths from the Vancouver conference, 17-year-old Troy Rypstra, spent much of the summer of 1986 motorcycling cross-country to meet with youth, care workers and government officials – a 3,500-mile trip financed with a gas credit card borrowed from Meston.
With an annual operating and special projects budget of $500,000 (Canadian), the NYICN now works from Ottawa with four full-time staff, three of whom have been in care. The federal government provides most of the operating funds, with donations from charitable foundations and revenue from publication sales providing the rest.
Youth in Charge
The 14-member board of directors draws from the network’s 800 members (ages 14 to 25). Membership has more than tripled since 1999, a growth that Matthew Geigen-Miller, the network’s director of education and communications, attributes to added staff, more high-profile projects and more outreach and dissemination of resource materials.
For example, the network’s informal newsletter, “Funk’d,” has a circulation of 3,000. It provides a forum for youth expression, somewhat along the lines of the bigger and more established “Foster Care Youth United,” a New York-based bimonthly magazine with a national circulation of 10,000. “Funk’d” features original poetry, artwork and stories by members. In the past year, articles have dealt with eating disorders, sexuality, prescription drug use and youth rights.
A few organizations in the U.S. incorporate some elements of the network. The FosterClub.com website and the Mockingbird Times, a Seattle-based monthly newsletter for foster youth in the Northwest, provide venues for foster youth to discuss ideas and concerns. Unlike Funk’d, both are edited by adults, as is Foster Care Youth United.
Connection (CYC) probably comes closest to the Canadian network. The advisory and youth leadership organization has 22 chapters throughout the state, focusing on improving foster care and educating the public about foster care issues. Executive Director Janet Knipe says CYC is looking at ways to nationalize its model.
Especially important at the Canadian network is ensuring that youth hold the reins. Local affiliate board members are elected by the affiliate members. (Members “age out” at 25 and can’t vote, although some stay on to lend various types of support.) The national network serves as an enabler, providing information, support, linkages across the country and training.
“Training is synonymous with sharing, the building of confidence and channeling of energy in a non-judgmental peer environment,” says Geigen-Miller. “Knowing you’re not alone is a huge step up. Knowing you have support to change your own circumstances is another, and if you can also contribute to changing those for others, that’s a bonus.”
The network’s advocacy work is two-pronged: legislative and personal.
At the legislative level, the network produces issue briefs, such as “Failure to Protect: The (Broken) Promise of Protection for Children Aged 16 and 17,” which Canadian Sen. Landon Pearson presented at the United Nations Special Session On Children last May. Network youth prepare the briefs without professional assistance or consultant services.
The network also issues news releases and holds news conferences. After the recent deaths of three youth in care, the network went to the media and legislators to discuss physical abuse and violence in care facilities. (Coroners concluded that two of the deaths were due to improper use of physical restraints, and the third was a suicide.) The network has also spoken out about “pro-spanking” legislation in one province, educational opportunities and funding cuts for services to youth.
The network’s “person-focused” work revolves largely around producing and distributing resource materials – in hard copy, diskette and video formats – that tell youths about their legal rights, what to expect in care and how to deal with it, how to organize local networks, how to navigate the child care system, and “how to win friends and influence people” (especially care professionals and agency managers) without compromising their objectives.
The briefs and manuals are intended to be user-friendly and candid, because they are designed for youth who probably lack academic training in organizing, issue resolution or life skills. The materials serve as both capacity building and personal development tools. For example, one manual devotes more space to time management and burnout prevention than to actual proactive organizing techniques.
But for many of Canada’s youth in care, the real benefits are more nuts-and-bolts.
Back on that front lawn in Ottawa, the youths discuss the issue of getting luggage for youth coming into government care. As every member of the group knows firsthand, young people in care are moved around a lot. The luggage provides them more dignity than showing up at a new residence with their belongings in a garbage bag.
The group decides to canvass Salvation Army Thrift Stores and a local discount chain. The 19-year-old, who’s been in the group for nearly six years, recalls that they haven’t hit Wal-Mart for a donation lately.
“You’ve got such a good memory, you do it,” one youth tells him. He agrees, with the proviso that a less experienced member accompany him to learn the pitch and meet the contact people. He knows that the activity will be a confidence-builder regardless of whether they are successful. A 15-year-old volunteers.
The pizza arrives.
While they eat, the youths talk about the tutoring item, which is an ongoing problem. There’s always someone in need, but few who are able or willing to tutor. The youths work it around and around, finally deciding to approach a couple of strong students who are in care.
No one suggests a professional tutor provided by Children’s Aid. Peers are the first choice. Item three, providing someone to speak to the social work class, is easy. One youth looks at another and says, “You’re the best BS-er, so you’re elected. Plus, you’ve taken the training and you’ve done it before.”
The girl has been trained at NYICN workshops on public speaking and seminar presentations. The 16-year-old has been in care since she was 5. The grad students will get more reality than baloney.
Business done, pizza done. The next hour is gossip: sex, drugs, music, creepy teachers, how to get a hike in the clothing allowance, the rising cost of cigarettes, who’s run away, who’s come back. There’s a little horseplay.
Some kids catch a bus back to their care facilities, while four others await their rides – from a probation officer, a caseworker and two foster parents. The 19-year-old bikes to another evening meeting – the board of directors of the national network, of which he is secretary.
Success and Frustration
The network doesn’t claim to do everything right.
“Our ambitions can outrun our resources, and we sometimes have to find different ways to do things,” Geigen-Miller says. He describes a pilot project to establish a peer advocacy hotline for local members to the national network office. Simple as it seemed, it proved too cumbersome, costly and draining on resources.
Next came an attempt to staff each local group with a trained peer advocate. Staff turnover made training prohibitively expensive. Now the network is working with the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies on a “train the trainer” initiative in hopes of developing more cost-effective service continuity in the local groups.
At those local groups, progress mixes with roadblocks.
Two weeks after the meeting on the lawn, the Ottawa group meets again. This time, 11 youths show up. Again, they gather on the lawn.
There’s good news from the luggage foray: A discount store chain will donate lots of soft luggage: sports bags, knapsacks, duffel bags, even suit bags. Wal-Mart offered toiletries.
They need a van to pick it all up. A member knows a youth from care who can help.
As for tutoring, at least one of the potential tutors can’t do it.
The board learns that the session with the social work students went so well that another teacher asked one of the network members to speak to her class, too.
They discuss this and other matters over another pizza.
Matthew Geigen-Miller, Director
Education and Communications
National Youth in Care Network
Unit 20, 99 Fifth Ave.
Ottawa, Ontario K1S 5K4
The Laidlaw and Muttart Family foundations provided start-up funding for the National Youth in Care Network through the Canadian Child Welfare Association in late 1986. Laidlaw continues to fund special projects. In 2000, it provided $60,000 in partial support for research on the educational needs of youth in care. In 2001, it provided $20,000 to train network members to make presentations to social work students.
The other primary ongoing funders include:
Human Resources Development Canada – $90,000 annually for core operating support, plus special project funding.
J.W. McConnell Family Foundation – $90,000 over three years to strengthen organizational capacities of national and local networks.