When David Inglish was first displaced from his biological family and put into foster care, he asked the police officer who was taking him to the social welfare office, “What happened? What’s wrong?” The officer responded, “Don’t worry about it.”
Inglish asked the same question to his case worker, who gave him the same answer. Not until Inglish talked with his foster parents did he hear that his biological family was unstable, but it took him years to realize how true that statement was. “I felt that I should’ve been given the right as a human being to know exactly what is going on in terms that I understand,” Inglish said during the recent International Youth Summit at the University of Washington.
The event marked a stepping stone in giving foster care youth a voice over their own lives and building connections between the United States and Japan. The International Foster Care Alliance (IFCA), a nonprofit organization aimed at creating opportunities for Japan and the United States to engage in collaborative efforts to better their child welfare systems, hosted the summit. IFCA is made up of teams of former foster care youth — foster care alumni — from Tokyo and Seattle, and in June the Tokyo Alumni Team visited Seattle for the first time to survey American foster care programs. The Japanese team was impressed by the opportunities America has for foster care youth.
In the United States and Japan, the voices of foster care youth are often left out of the conversation about their needs. Timothy Bell, IFCA Youth Programs director who himself aged out of the U.S. foster care system at 18 years old, argued that involving foster youth in every single stage of the process leads to better results. Their involvement, Bell said, “keeps the system honest, true to original policy and purpose, better informed and better able to get things done quickly.”
Tokyo Alumni Team member Yoshie Hoshiko, 20, said she felt isolated growing up in foster care because of the lack of public awareness of foster care and because she did not know anyone else who was in foster care. She felt as if she had no one to talk to about her concerns. “Society needs to cherish children’s voices,” Hoshiko said. “Emphasizing young people’s voices seeks to combat negative images of foster youth and give foster youth and alumni opportunities to send their own message.”
Janice Cole, IFCA’s Youth Programs director who also has been through the American foster care system, told of going to Japan in September 2013 for the International Foster Care Organization's world conference. Talking to the summit at the UW's Husky Union Building, Cole said her lack of Japanese speaking skills left her frustrated and feeling out of control.
“One of the common frustrations of foster youth is that they don’t have the ability to make big decisions in their lives,” she said. “Their decisions are often dictated by people they don’t know. Similar to my lack of ability to speak [for myself] in Japan and how that was lying in the hands of somebody else, the fates of foster youth are literally lying in the hands of strangers.”
IFCA is seeking to give the power to youth and the June 25 summit directly put their voices on the table, asking U.S. and Japanese alumni of foster care, “During your time in care, do you feel your rights as a human were violated?” The IFCA crafted the question based upon themes group members noticed in their discussions with other organizations and with each other. And foster youth do, indeed, feel their rights have been violated in various ways like not being able to connect with biological siblings, not getting basic services like regular haircuts or even access to food when they wanted it while in foster care, suffering physical abuse and not having information regarding their own situation communicated clearly to them.
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