PJC In The News

Teaching current foster children how to be their own advocates

Following is a wonderful article in the Daily Record featuring the work of Shantel Randolph, an Open Society Institute Community Fellow working at the PJC with child welfare advocacy fellow Rhonda Lipkin and our volunteer Henry Brown, to lead Foster Youth, Inc. ("FYI"). We are delighted to have this important new advocacy force at the PJC!

Teaching current foster children how to be their own advocates
Daily Record
Legal Affairs Writer
December 21, 2007 2:28 PM

For most of her childhood, Shantel Randolph was in foster care, separated from a mother battling drug addiction. She fared better than many foster children, partly because she was in the care of an aunt rather than a stranger. Still, Randolph encountered problems, mainly financial ones, as she moved through the system and, at 21, “aged out.” She attributes some of those struggles to systemic issues within the foster care system. Now 25, Randolph is helping foster kids learn to advocate for change in the system. This fall, she received a grant from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore to work with the Public Justice Center on a program for foster kids and their allies at Baltimore Freedom Academy high school. Randolph and Public Justice Center child welfare advocacy fellow Rhonda B. Lipkin collaborate with a social worker at the school to run Foster Youth Incorporated. Among other projects, the students speak to groups of social workers, legislators and lawyers about their experiences in the system and what they think should be changed. “I think it’s best heard from a person who’s actually been in the system, and I think that’s why we formed this group, is because we want them to hear directly from the youth living in foster care,” Randolph said. “I think sometimes when they tell their own stories, they’re kind of personal and [the listeners] get a firsthand view of what it’s like being in foster care. It’s important for them to be able to speak on their own behalf.” Beyond systemic change, Randolph and Lipkin see the program as an agent of personal growth for the kids — one that will help them escape some of the problems that tend to plague foster children, such as drug and alcohol abuse borne of hopelessness. “For foster youth in particular, it’s a sense of powerlessness, because so many other people are always making decisions about your life. It’s one thing when it’s just your parents, but there are these people you don’t even know or have any contact with, these judges and social workers and lawyers, and they’re making decisions about your life, and I think the kids often feel very powerless. “That powerlessness unfortunately can turn into sort of a helplessness,” she said. “They just don’t feel that they have any ability to make their lives what they want them to be.” Lipkin began working with Foster Youth Incorporated, or FYI, as part of her fellowship at the Public Justice Center, which is funded with attorneys’ fees from the class-action lawsuit L.J. v. Massinga. The lawsuit, brought against the state on behalf of Baltimore foster children in 1984 and settled by consent decree in 1988, alleged widespread problems in the foster care system. Lipkin’s job is to monitor compliance with the consent decree, but, she said, more is necessary to improve the lot of foster children. “You can have all the paper changes you want,” but that isn’t all the kids need, she said. That’s where FYI and Randolph come in. Growing into her voice Lipkin met Randolph when she was looking for a former foster youth to speak to a group. She encouraged Randolph to apply for the 18-month OSI-Baltimore grant and arranged for the Public Justice Center to be her sponsoring organization. Randolph won a grant and now works out of the Public Justice Center’s offices.

Randolph and her siblings were taken from their mother to live with their aunt — a kind of foster care called “kinship care” — when Randolph was just 6 months old. When she was 10, they were returned to their mother, only to wind up back in the foster care system two years later. “She was on drugs real bad and I just remember the furniture being — she was selling everything in the house and we didn’t have anything and it just got to the point where my mom told us that she couldn’t take care of us anymore because it had gotten to a point where she felt like she needed to let us go to get herself together,” Randolph said. At that point, Randolph had eight siblings. She and three others went to live with their aunt, while the other five went to different homes. For years, she had no idea where those five were because no one involved in the foster care system would tell her. The only time she got to see them was in court. When Randolph was 17, she entered a program called “independent living,” in which young adults in foster care live together in apartments paid for by the state. She was required to take classes to learn life skills such as cooking, health and money management. Still, she said, the foster care system did not prepare her adequately for adult life. She graduated from high school and began working and attending community college, where she studied psychology. The state will pay for foster kids to attend in-state colleges, so Randolph got a free ride, but that turned out not to be enough. “I didn’t have a savings account,” she said. “I just basically lived from paycheck to paycheck, did a lot of job-hopping, no real stability. … Then it got to a point where bills started coming in and I had to make a decision between going to school and going to work, because once the reality of me possibly being homeless hit me I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to start getting serious about this.’” Randolph made the painful decision to drop out of college, unaware of an important catch in the free-tuition deal: Since she had already turned 21 and aged out of the foster care system when she left college, if she wanted to return she would have to pay her own way. Randolph has not yet been able to go back to school. After dropping out, she worked a few different jobs, most recently as a receptionist at the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. She is, however, determined to return to college one day. (She said she wants to work with children, but Lipkin casually suggested that she would make a great lawyer.) Another problem she encountered upon aging out was that she had no health insurance, and didn’t know it. She found out the hard way when she had a medical emergency. She also had no dental insurance, which she discovered when she needed $1,000 worth of dental work. Still, Randolph did manage to emerge from her foster care experience without becoming homeless or turning to drugs. Some of that was due to the advantages of kinship care and independent living, but the rest she attributes to meeting the right mentors and beginning to stand up for herself. She joined an advocacy group called the National Foster Youth Advisory Council, which presses for change in the foster care system. “I didn’t want someone else telling me how my life was going to be,” Randolph said. “I just believed that I do have a voice and what I want matters and I just became one of those outspoken people.” ‘Rules for Lawyers’ She wants the students in FYI to become outspoken, too. Last year, the kids twice spoke to groups of lawyers who represent foster children. One of the students, Henry Brown, participated in a mock interview between a lawyer and a foster child. The interview was videotaped and shown at a Legal Aid-sponsored training session for 90 attorneys who represent foster kids. Brown critiqued the lawyer’s performance, especially the fact that the “interview” was conducted only one day before the child’s court appearance, recalled Seri Wilpone, chief attorney of Legal Aid’s Southern Maryland office. Brown also came up with a list of “Rules for Lawyers” who advocate for foster children.

Those rules include “Don’t dumb it down” and “Prove to your client that he can count on you. (For example, if you say you can arrange for him to come to court, arrange for him to come to court.)” Wilpone said the foster kids’ visits were helpful for the attorneys. “We have lots of opportunities to speak to our clients, but those tend to be pretty focused on the issues that are highest on the agenda, and to just sit and talk about what that experience is like from their perspective is something we don’t get the opportunity to do much,” she said. Brown, who graduated from Baltimore Freedom Academy last spring, now attends Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., and works at the Public Justice Center during breaks. He plans to become an attorney because of “the fact that when I had lawyers, I felt as though they didn’t care enough to include me in the decisions that they were making for me,” he said. “I would want to be a lawyer so other lawyers realize how it’s supposed to be done the correct way,” he said. The students are working on other projects, too. For example, they are trying to win a grant to make a documentary about foster children who are separated from their brothers and sisters. At an FYI lunchtime meeting at Baltimore Freedom Academy earlier this month, volunteer Christie Coe sat in a circle with some of the girls in FYI, trying to figure out how to convince grantmakers that their proposal is worthy. “Is it typical that siblings are separated?” asked Coe, who is teaching the students about fund raising. The students, mostly current or former foster kids, replied that it is. “I don’t think people know that,” Coe said. “The people reading this don’t know a lot about foster care.” Dejanae Edwards, a senior, said that foster parents or adoptive parents have been known to keep kids from seeing their brothers and sisters. “Sometimes if you get adopted, your parents don’t want you to see your siblings,” said Edwards. “When they get in trouble, their foster parents won’t allow them to see them. It’s like punishment.” Randolph and Lipkin said that the kids’ ultimate goal is to create a center where siblings in foster care can gather for visits. “It would be like a rec center where they actually play pool, play basketball, watch movies together, just sort of be normal,” Lipkin said. “I mean, one thing that’s the hardest for foster youth is having normalcy.” Spreading the message At the same meeting, Randolph met with another group of girls — there are more girls than boys in the group — to talk about going to other schools to give talks about being in foster care. The goal is to start FYI chapters at other schools in Baltimore, since so many children in the city are in foster care; something that will be easier now that Randolph is in the picture, Lipkin said. “Now it can really take off and spread the message to other schools,” she said. The students have also prepared a pamphlet explaining their organization. They are working on a Web site and a regular newsletter for foster kids at other schools. A day after the FYI meeting, some of the kids joined Randolph, Lipkin and Baltimore Freedom Academy social worker Gretchen Banks at a conference of school social workers from across the city. The kids and their adult advisors gave a brief description of the group and took questions from the social workers. Randolph explained the group’s goal of helping teens to believe they have agency in their lives. “These are our kids and they’re getting ready to transition out,” Randolph said, “and we want to make sure they’re ready to become adults.”

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