In the United States, the child welfare system was set up to protect the interests of young children, not to raise teens to adulthood. By preparing teens in foster care to be their own advocates, Betsy is helping them envision and achieve a brighter future. Once they can change their own prospects for life beyond foster care, they can change the system itself.
The New Idea
Betsy recognizes that teens in foster care aspire to more than adults in the system realize or expect. About 90 percent of the 17-year-olds in foster care are optimistic about their future; and 70 percent want to attend college. Since the foster care system does little to prepare teens to be self-reliant adults, Betsy’s idea is to help these young people become powerful self-advocates and take charge of their lives. Through the Youth Advocacy Center, Betsy helps youth in foster care learn new ways of thinking and communicating and of finding and grasping opportunities. Further, she helps connect them with successful business professionals who can guide their education and career choices.
For decades, child welfare debates have focused on how best to serve young children. Now the discussion is starting to include teenagers in foster care and their lives after they are “emancipated.” Although policy is moving in this direction, the practices are not. To align practices with current thinking, Betsy aims to give people working in the child welfare system the practical tools they need to support the teens’ efforts to achieve independent and fulfilling adult lives. With the support of her cofounder Paul Pitcoff, Betsy created a program, “Getting Beyond the System,” to help teens gain a voice and the self-advocacy skills they need to achieve the future they seek. When foster care providers see the results of this approach—teens who go to college pursue careers and “make it” in the adult world—Betsy expects they will be more open to adopting these methods in their programs. When her self-advocacy program becomes standard practice, it will impact the youth, the agencies that serve them, and the entire system.
Betsy believes that all citizens are responsible for and can contribute to the success of foster care teens. The first step is to break down the walls between the teens and the community, positioning young people as the powerful, untapped resource that they are. Given the chance to promote their own interests, they can engage the larger community in changing the field so that child welfare is not just a custodial system for “wards of the state,” but a springboard to a full, productive life.
Teenagers growing up in the foster care system have hopes and dreams, but rarely achieve them. They are caught in a system characterized by low expectations and little support for a successful transition to adulthood. Most will have lived in eight different families by the time they’re 18 years old. Efforts to change the system, carried out “on behalf” of foster care teens, often do not yield the benefits teens seek. And, they fail to take effect quickly enough to help teens who are about to enter adulthood. In 12 to 18 months after leaving foster care, 33 percent of young people are on public assistance, 37 percent have not finished high school, and 27 percent of the young men are incarcerated. 50 percent of the youth in homeless shelters were formerly in foster care. Billions of dollars are spent on foster care annually, and even more on the shelters, welfare and criminal justice expenses incurred by those who leave foster care unable to support themselves.
The government places children who lack a stable home with relatives, temporary families, in group homes, or in residential treatment programs until they are legally adults—then releases them without the knowledge and skills to be self-reliant. The system lacks the incentives or methods to prepare teens to make their own way in the adult world. The government’s mission is to maintain the children while in custody, not ensure their later success. Because a mental health approach prevails, service providers focus on the traumatic pasts of the teenagers; they aim to repair past emotional “damage” and keep them out of trouble until they leave custodial care. Although the numbers in foster care have dropped as younger children have been adopted or reunited with family, the number of teens has remained constant, comprising a larger percentage of the foster care population. Since 1989, the number of youth aging out of care has increased by 600 percent, accounting for 25,000 of the 540,000 foster care children in the United States.
Foster care providers support the idea of empowering teens, but it rarely happens. The Foster Care Independence Act requires states to consult with the teens in their care, but most agencies just gather a group of kids together with little result or real outcome. A former state director of social services notes that “I spent less than 5 minutes a year on kids transitioning out of the system because we were so consumed by little kids and the kids still in the system.” Life skills programs, mandated by law, tend to be of little appeal or value to teens. Due to the insularity of the system and its tight control by mental health and social service professionals, teens in foster care do not get to participate in promising new school-to-career mentoring, or youth development programs that exist outside the Web of the foster care system
At the heart of Betsy’s approach is the direct work with the Youth Advocacy Center (YAC) which ensures that teens in foster care can take the lead in securing a bright future for themselves. YAC offers a 12-week seminar, “Getting Beyond the System,” an intellectually rigorous course that uses the Socratic method to prepare young people (17-21) to be their own advocates. Students—many of them low-literate or school dropouts—read, write about, and discuss case studies that are relevant to their lives. Despite predictions from teachers and social workers that “they’ll never do it,” teens come from across the city to participate in weekly classes. These classes are often the first time the teens encounter adults who treat them with respect and encourage them to hope. No one asks about their history, only about their future. The classes become an oasis where the teens can think about what they want to become, and learn the practical skills they need to achieve their goals. YAC urges them to aim high; more than 80 percent of the students complete the program.
To “graduate,” the teens have to meet high standards for punctuality, attendance, and written work, and demonstrate mastery of goal-setting, negotiating, and job interviewing techniques. The teens practice their skills by setting up and completing informational interviews with successful adults at their place of business. For example, if a student wants to be a singer, she might meet with a music company executive. Students arrange to meet with senior staff members at HBO and other corporate partners. The interviews are life-changing for the students, who get an inside view of their fields of interest. Interviewers affirm the teens’ goals, while offering insights on ways to enter and be engaged in their field. The experience is eye-opening for the interviewers; many ask to be called on again. Through these interviews, the private sector becomes a resource for the teens and an enlightened constituency for changing the system.
Beginning with this new generation of empowered young adults, Betsy’s strategy is to develop, test and disseminate a new body of self-advocacy practices for broader systemic change. Through writings and widespread replication, she hopes to effect policy change and practice, as well as to shift societal perception of foster care children. In the fall of 2005, YAC’s casebook, video and manual was published and is being sold nationwide to practitioners working with at-risk youth. Betsy also coauthored a book, Beyond the Foster Care System: The Future for Teens (Rutgers University Press, 2006), which exposes the realities of foster care for teens, includes practical and policy recommendations for providing education and career planning for these youth, and suggests ways for individuals outside the system to get involved. Her multilateral approach reaches all aspects of foster care. She is helping service providers change their outlook and practices through training, publication of YAC program materials, and helping foster care providers, schools and community organizations adopt her 12-week program. And, with youth leading the way, she is promoting policy change through publications, the media, and by joining in class action lawsuits.
In 2002, YAC expanded the program to include teens both in and out of foster care—offering the seminar in child welfare agencies, shelters, and a public high school. Next they trained the trainers at agencies serving youth. Based on program outcomes and feedback from these “early adopters,” Betsy saw that the program is portable. Since 2003, YAC has trained 100+ social services professionals from programs across the country. City and state governments and national foundations are helping YAC spread. The state of Michigan has contracted with YAC to pilot the program in Detroit, then statewide. The Jim Casey Youth Initiative, a foundation focusing on teens’ transition out of foster care, connects its grantees to Betsy’s program. Other partners include the New York City Administration for Children; the Andrus Family Foundation; and the Department of Human Services’ Best Practices Institute in Philadelphia. Betsy is also seeking creative outlets for replication such as colleges and traditional educational institutions that may reach out to students in, or emancipated from, foster care.
Betsy was born in New York City and grew up in the suburbs. She attended racially and economically integrated public schools from kindergarten through college. She decided to become a lawyer so she could work on issues of social justice, particularly related to children. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Betsy worked for law firms in Madrid and New York, but decided to pursue public interest law.
From 1988-1992 Betsy worked for Lawyers for Children, representing the interests of over 1,000 children and winning many cases for them in family court. She was passionate about the work, was good at it, but found she was more interested and attached to the teens because they were “poised for the next step in life.” To understand their situations, Betsy accompanied caseworkers to her clients’ homes. She saw that with no family advocate, no one was looking out for the teen’s long term interests, and the professionals charged with protecting the teens often left them in poverty. Outraged that the government had taken custody of these youth, and then let them languish until releasing them without a high school diploma or a way to support themselves, she felt society had “to do better for them than if they’d been left with their families.”
Working in family court Betsy met Paul Pitcoff, an attorney and filmmaker who was Professor Emeritus at Adelphi University where he founded the Department of Communications. Together, with some foster care teens as partners, they founded the Youth Advocacy Center in 1992, where they continue to collaborate today. While building this organization, of which she is now the executive director, Betsy married and started a family. Over 10 years, YAC accomplished many successful projects, all inspired by and in collaboration with foster care teens. These included working with teens to produce a video presenting teens’ views on the child welfare system; publishing booklets and pamphlets about teens’ rights; creating a legal rights helpline for foster care teens; and organizing teens to work on policy advocacy and community organizing. Despite YAC’s many accomplishments, it was clear that too many teens were still leaving foster care with out a plan for the future. Betsy sought solutions with a greater (and faster) likelihood of changing the way that foster care teens prepare for adulthood.
In 2000, with support from an Open Society Institute fellowship, YAC published a report on how self-advocacy could change the foster care experience and help teens chart their own futures. This became the blueprint for Getting Beyond the System, the program through which Betsy is realizing her vision of social justice.