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Adopted youth find their voice

Advocacy: California Adopted Youth Advocacy Team begins sharing stories, bonding and training

Posted: September 23, 2010 10:21 p.m.
Updated: September 24, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The California Adopted Youth Advocacy Team, located from cities across Southern California, recently gathered for a barbecue and pool party at a home in Canyon Country. It was the group’s second gathering since their formation.

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Moriah Levy is 13 now, but she still remembers the harsh words of a third-grade peer.

“At least I have real parents and a real sister,” the child told Moriah, a Canyon Country girl adopted at age 3.

The comment bothered Moriah but its sting was not long-lasting. Moriah knows that she does have real parents and siblings, she said. They may not be her biological family, but they are “real.”

“Even when you’re adopted, you’re still the same and it’s your family,” she said.

That’s just one of many messages Moriah wants to relay to students, foster parents, social workers and even government officials. She is part of the California Adopted Youth Advocacy Team, a new group formed to give a voice to adopted and foster kids.

The advocacy team, referred to as CAYAT, will also allow the siblings of those youth to speak out on struggles they face.

For example, Moriah’s brothers want others to know that an adopted sister is a sister.

“She’s just as much blood as blood can get,” said Robin Levy, 15.

Through sharing their stories, group members aim to contradict negative stigmas about foster and adopted youth. They also hope to impact statewide policies and services related to adoption and foster care.

While no two stories are alike, the youth hope that by exposing their personal experiences they can bond together and build a strong front to take to the state capitol in the spring.

The youth will be trained over the next several months, leading up to their capitol visit.  They will have the opportunity to share their stories, what they feel is good about the system and ways they believe more foster youth can get adopted.

Advocacy training
In May, Santa Clarita resident Beverly Lucia traveled to Washington, D.C. for adoption advocacy training. The program was hosted by the North American Council on Adoptable Children, or NACAC.

Lucia, who has fostered 27 children and adopted five with her husband Jeff, joined seven other trainees from California.

The group engaged in three days of training where adoption experts, social workers and parents exchanged needs and service gaps in their respective states. Some, for example, expressed the need for post-adoption services in their state.

Discussions of these needs, Lucia said, ultimately converged at one question: “How do we access these services?”

That’s when talk of adoption funding came in and stunned many at the training, including Lucia.

For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $35 million to 38 states and Puerto Rico in 2009 for increasing the number of children adopted from foster care, according to a news release posted online by the department at www.hhs.gov.

California received about $1.5 million of that money. States are supposed to use the funds from the adoption incentive award to enhance their programs for abused and neglected children, and boost their efforts to find children loving, adoptive homes.

But Lucia, who works as a parent mentor for Children’s Bureau of Southern California, said that she and other trainees in Washington, D.C. wanted some accountability for exactly where that money is going.

“This is revenue that is coming back to the state based on adoptions and yet the kids that need the services aren’t receiving it,” she said.

Lucia and others uncovered a need for post-adoption services. In 2007, 5,188 youth in California aged out of foster care without a permanent, legal family, according to numbers released this year by North American Council on Adoptable Children.

More than 20,000 foster children were awaiting adoption, according to that same report. Somewhere around 80,000 are in California’s foster care system.

On the third day, trainees converged on Capitol Hill with representatives for Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita.

Trainees asked the representatives to look into how the returns from the adoption incentives were being invested. Meanwhile, as ideas flowed throughout the weekend, it became apparent that something was missing — the voices of the youth themselves.

Lucia and others recognized a need for the youth to be able to speak out on their own behalf to representatives, advocating for proper use of those funds and personifying positive adoption examples.
“Kids see some needs, parents see other needs and siblings see other needs,” Lucia said.

Sharing stories in California
When the California team of trainees returned home they wasted no time in gathering adopted youth and their siblings together.

To their surprise, 17 youths ranging in age showed up at the initial meeting, Lucia said. 

The meeting’s organizers were just as shocked when the youth began to speak out. It started with a simple question: “What are the issues?”

One by one, the kids became more comfortable with sharing their stories, Lucia said.

“It’s scary at first but once you start speaking about what you feel and what you want everyone else to understand, the words just start coming out,” said Chad Lucia, 22, one of Beverly Lucia’s adopted children.

Chad, who is pursuing a college education and recently received a scholarship, will help train the youth on the team.

“We want to put people in our shoes,” Chad Lucia said. “There’s things going on that we want to change but we also want to let people know, it’s good to adopt.”

While participants stated that they were grateful to be where they were at in life, all seemed to be frustrated by the negative stigma that is all-too-often attached with being a foster kid, Lucia said. The list of messages the youth wanted to communicate continued to grow:

* Older teens need families

* Race and culture matter

* Workers need to spend more time in the home where kids are and listen to their concerns about placements

* Sibling connections are important and need to be supported.

The list went on and concerns became more emotional.

Stephanie Richardson, age 17, shared about a time when she feared losing a brother, a young foster child that had been part of her family for several years.

During a time when Stephanie’s parents were having trouble meeting the needs of their already adopted son, social workers told the family that the foster child would have to move if they didn’t adopt him.

Stephanie was “sad and scared” that her brother would be taken from her family.

Eventually, Stephanie’s adopted brother was able to get the help he needed and the family will be adopting the young foster boy.

But Stephanie wants social workers, judges and others to realize the emotional turmoil that siblings experience when they fear losing their adopted or foster siblings, especially on such a short notice.

“I just think they should talk to us siblings too, because we matter and we have a lot of feelings about our siblings,” Richardson wrote in the team’s first newsletter.

Making changes
While the youth advocacy team is treading new water in California, similar groups have proved effective in other states.

One of the most impacting youth advocacy teams, “elevate,” is in Iowa, said Kim Stevens, Community Champions Network Program Manager, at the North American Council.

“In the years since their inception, elevate has formed regional chapters across the state,” Stevens said.

In the past five years, “elevate” has advocated for several legislative changes to occur including five bills that the youth helped develop, according to the advocacy team’s website, www.cfiowa.org.

In Massachusetts, Stevens helped develop “The Speak Out Team” which grew from seven founding members to more than 130 in eight years.

The team was instrumental in developing Massachusetts’ compliance with legislation following the passage of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, Stevens said. 

“Similar teams in New York, Tennessee, Kentucky, and other states work on legislative issues, training of parents and social workers, program and policy improvements, and supports to youth at risk of aging out of care without a permanent family,” Stevens said.

Different messages
Youth of all ages from the youth advocacy team and their parents converged at a recent barbecue pool party in Canyon Country.

It was only the second gathering of the team, yet there was a clearly established atmosphere of camaraderie and desire to make a difference.

“I think it’s great that kids who haven’t really had a say in their life and circumstances finally get to have a say,” said parent Susan Stephens, of Brea. Stephens is mother to three adopted daughters and two adopted sons. Despite stereotypes and media portrayals, there are more positive adoption stories than negative, Stephens said.

She was also adopted as a child and is confident the youth advocacy team will be a powerful voice.

“They’re going to be able influence some lawmakers because they’ve lived it,” she said.

Hong, Stephen’s 18-year-old daughter, said she’s excited to make a difference. She wants her peers, government officials and others to understand that adopted or foster children are not “outcasts,” as her adoptive parents have always gone out of their way to show her.

“My mom always tell us we were chosen; that we’re definitely special,” Hong said. “We’re normal people who’ve happened to have some life experiences that they haven’t had.”

Kyle Simkovich, age 21 of Altadena, has several messages to relay to legislators, social workers, adopting parents and others — many of them revolve around a theme of multiracial adoption.

For example, he believes social workers should be taught the ideas of class sensitivity, culture context and gender roles.

He also wants adopting parents to realize that their children have a heritage and background they may feel connected to and vice versa.

As a Mexican-American adopted into a Caucasian family, Simkovich said he had to switch his negative mind-set towards his families cultural traditions and instead view it in as a learning experience.

“It’s important to bring the two together and to be open minded to change,” he said.

Simkovich, as well as Chad Lucia are also adoptee mentors through Children’s Bureau of Southern California. Just having the ability to be amongst and work with other adopted youth has been a comfort for Simkovich.

“That by itself is welcoming,” said Simkovich, who will also help train the youth. “I’m not being looked at as an individual in a snow globe.”

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