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Interview: Betsy Krebs on how foster kids can get out of the system

,    /   Sep 13th, 2010Interviews

Foster care kids don’t get many breaks. Imagine being abandoned by or forcibly separated from your parents, and then having to adjust to life in a new family or within an impersonal, bureaucratic system Some 30,000 young people age out of foster care each year. Many end up homeless, in trouble with the law, or with substance abuse problems. According to Casey Family Programs, less than half of them will make the transition to independent, successful adulthood.

As a legal advocate for foster care youths in New York’s family court system, Betsy Krebs saw the massive challenges youths faced. That’s where she began imagining a better solution. She enlisted help from family court colleagues to create the Youth Advocacy Center, an organization that helps older teens and young adults learn to advocate for themselves and plan for their futures. Krebs has found that young people who are able to identify their own needs, speak up for themselves, and assert control of their lives while in the system are far more likely to succeed in life when they are beyond it.

So, Krebs shifted from being an advocate for youths to being an advocate for youth self-advocacy. She spoke with Dowser about her journey.

Dowser: What is the Youth Advocacy Center all about?
Krebs: The Youth Advocacy Center empowers young people leaving the foster care system and other government systems to become participating citizens. These young people are an untapped resource in our community, and we demonstrate that they have the potential to contribute in meaningful ways when given the opportunity and support to do so. We give young people tools to help them advocate for themselves.

Do you have a specific formula or model you use?
The main program model we’ve developed is called the ‘Getting Beyond the System®’ (GBS) self-advocacy seminar, a  semester-long seminar in a campus setting that teaches young people ages 17 and up how to set goals and how to get information about how to reach those goals from leading professionals in the community.  Right now the GBS seminar is taking place at Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, mostly for young people involved with foster care and juvenile justice systems, among other places.

How did you get into youth self-advocacy?
I left law school knowing I wanted to do something in the public sector, but not sure what. My first legal job was representing kids in court in New York City. Over four years, I represented hundreds of children and teens in family court.

What’s a typical case?
In our book Beyond the Foster Care System, I talk about Carlos. He was 15 when I met him, living in a temporary group home. When I asked him what he wanted me to help with, he would say, ‘Just get me back in high school,’ or ‘Help me figure out how I’m going to get to college.’ These were things the legal system and social services systems were supposed to take care of but ignored. I saw teens being trained by the system to be professional victims and service recipients—even when the services weren’t working—as opposed to future college students, employees, critical thinkers, or independent decision makers.

What happened to Carlos?
First, I did help him get him into an alternative high school from which he graduated.  He was very involved with Youth Advocacy Center’s work for several years around that time, as well as with other community organizations.  He now has graduated from college, is enrolled in a master’s level management program, and works full time for a major international corporation.  He lives in Brooklyn with his partner of eight years.  He was always a good advocate for himself, among many other things, and taught me a lot not just about self-advocacy but also about the potential of all young people, despite the labels put on them while they’re in government systems.

How did you feel working in this system?
I learned a lot, and at the same time it was very frustrating. There are many people working in government systems who are incredibly caring and devoted, yet so many families and children go through the systems without anybody paying attention to what they are saying they want for themselves. I felt that there was a real need for the older teenagers to get meaningful help toward planning for their futures—and that needed to come at least in part from outside the system.

What did you have in mind for the Youth Advocacy Center at the beginning?
When we first started in 1993 we were focused on how young people could advocate to change systems, specifically the child welfare system, but also the education and health care systems. Our Youth Advocates learned about their rights, testifying, doing policy advocacy. But that alone wasn’t enough. Too many still didn’t have any plans for their own futures.

How did your work evolve after that?
Over the years, we saw the need to raise expectations about what young people can achieve. We shifted from teaching kids to be our advocates for system change to helping them become advocates for their own goals. This is the core of our work now.

What’s the biggest problem with the government foster care system as it is?
The expectations are too low. The focus is on managing crises, controlling behavior, and keeping young people safe, which are important things, but when they are released from the government agencies, they often have inadequate education, no place to live, and no way to support themselves.

What was the biggest unexpected obstacle when you started?
Realizing that the resistance to change in the child welfare and government social services systems is not from a lack of funding—but rather from a culture of low expectations for what young people and their families can achieve.

What’s the most innovative thing about the Youth Advocacy Center?
Our use of the Socratic method with youths who most people have labeled as problem kids who somehow lack intellectual capacity.  It’s all about questioning, and listening.  And it leads to interactions instead of lecturing. The young people gather information, analyze it, come to their own conclusions and then explain and defend their thinking. The final project of the GBS seminar is an informational interview where every student prepares for and meets with a top leader in the community in the field of the student’s choice. It’s a simple idea: empower students to go out and get the information they need to make their own decisions from the top people they can find. The impact on both sides is stunning.

What’s one of your unexpected successes?
We get youth workers in big agencies who hear what we’re doing start using the Socratic method with teens to encourage them to become better critical thinkers.

What’s your vision for the future?
Overall, that young people who are involved in foster care or juvenile justice systems are recognized as precious resources for our country.  We’d like to keep educating people in and outside of these systems about how to tap into the potential of teens to prepare them for adulthood—and how to engage the community in the process.

What do people find most surprising about your work?
That we have perfect attendance records from young people who have been written off as being too troubled, uneducated or disaffected. People say these teens would never come to a voluntary program where they have to sit in a classroom after school and read, discuss cases, and hand in homework. But they get very excited—especially about preparing for their informational interview.

What keeps you going every day?
The relationships I’ve developed with all the young people and colleagues who create and support the Youth Advocacy Center. That’s what makes it fun.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Youth Advocacy Center

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