Nearly 140 youth and professionals from all over Michigan attended the Summit, which was planned and organized by Fostering Success Michigan, an initiative of Western Michigan University’s Center for Fostering Success, and representatives from Michigan’s Children, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, Eastern Michigan University MAGIC Program, University of Michigan Blavin Scholars Program, Enterprising Youth Program, Wayne State University, Student Advocacy Center, and alumni of foster care.
The Summit kicked off with a presentation about the role of youth voice in developing effective services and policy for young people in foster care. Following this, a representative from DHHS highlighted pertinent data from the National Youth in Transition Database and invited the young people in the room to share their ideas and provide feedback on how to improve data collection and increase services to directly improve outcomes for young people in foster care.
Later in the day, attendees were divided into three smaller breakout groups that focused the following policy areas: the extension of foster care to 21, transition planning, and school stability. These breakout sessions were led by peer leaders, young adults with experience in foster care who have taken the role of advocates in improving the foster care system. The peer leaders facilitated each breakout conversation, thereby developing advocacy skills, learning how to share stories to make an impact, engaging with other leaders, professionals, and policymakers, and discussing tangible ways to advance the foster care system. In the afternoon, 14 policymakers and influencers joined the breakout groups and continued discussions. Youth were able to voice concerns and recommendations directly to those who develop policies that impact young people in foster care.
Several themes emerged during the Michigan Young Leader Advocacy Summit discussions. First, funding and resources were brought up as particularly helpful to youth, but limited access and aid are often difficult barriers. Chafee and Youth in Transition funding were noted as being extremely important to the success of young people moving from the foster care system into adulthood and the discussion called for increasing and expanding this funding. In addition, technology was identified as a powerful tool with wide availability and potential to be extremely helpful to youth with experience in foster care. Many of the young leaders participating in the Summit suggested developing cell phone apps to increase access to as well as awareness and availability of resources.
Support and training were other major themes that emerged during the sessions. One recommendation involved training professionals and supportive adults in conjunction with youth to ensure continuity between foster care, youth in transition, and voluntary extended care. In addition, participants agreed that specialized youth workers need more support. One possible way to develop this support system could be to pair youth and their workers with peer advocates who could help maintain connections to resources and mediate between the youth and their workers when there are disconnects. It was also identified that professionals need more flexibility in terms of logistics in attaining resources for the youth they work with. For example, when youth face obstacles, they should not be limited to certain policies such as application periods and deadlines; extensions should be given to workers if and when the youth they are working for experience crises and challenges.
The most powerful message brought about by the Summit was how important these conversations are in creating positive change. An agreement among everyone in attendance was the necessity of holding each other accountable. The young leaders, peer leaders, policymakers, and influencers all established that the opportunity to sit down with one-another and engage in open conversation is the first and perhaps the most important step in facilitating understanding and creating lasting policy-level change.