More than a dozen Florida Youth SHINE (FYS) members from all over the state attended the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Dependency Summit August 24-26, 2010. Melina (another FYS Broward member) and I work up very early on Tuesday, August 24 to travel with FYS Statewide Coordinator, Lindsay Baach, to Orlando for our first conference as FYS members.
What is the Dependency Summit? Great question! I didn’t know about it either until Lindsay called me in July to invite me to attend as a founding member of the FYS Broward chapter. I thought to myself…a chance to travel outside of Broward County, to stand for a cause I believe in…why not? But I quickly learned that the Summit is an annual statewide conference held for all child welfare professionals in Florida. A conference just for the foster care system, I never knew something like this existed! I couldn’t believe is so I had to learn a little more. Starting in August of 1997, DCF hosted this conference annually until 2004. For several years (I was unable to determine why) they chose to host regional conferences until a few years ago DCF reinstated the full statewide conference similar to the one I attended. Now, every year there are workshops, award ceremonies, circuit breakout sessions (where everyone from your area meets and talks), receptions, and impressive speakers all packed into three days.
Imagine this: top DCF officials, CBC staff, service providers, Guadian ad litems, attorneys, advocates, foster parents, judges, child protective investigators, etc. all in a room together sharing experiences, expressing opinions, and voicing concerns. But most importantly, the Summit is an opportunity for everyone to learn how to advance Florida’s child welfare system. Who is missing from this attendance list? Take a good guess. We are – the young adults who have aged out of care along with the youth who are still in care. After all isn’t it all about us? That is where being a member of Florida Youth SHINE came in. I met some other wonderful young adults from all over the state who share my interest in standing up for our cause. Although we were all over 18, FYS has an incredible reputation for being a trained group of advocates giving voice to those who are still in care. “You are a wakeup call to those who deal with children in foster care. To show them who you all really are” said Christina Spudeas (Florida’s Children First Executive Director) when I asked her what impact we had at the Summit. We came prepared and presented ourselves as professionals.
And they really do care what we have to say. I was even asked to speak to a room full of court employees on why it is so important for youth in care to be present at all court hearings related to their case. I was joined by John and Thomas, brothers from Tallahassee, who were barely present throughout their whole dependency case. I never felt so lucky. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on, I was always present at my dependency hearings. And we all agreed, even though we can’t go back and undo our experiences, giving our voice so that you or others who will enter the system after us will have an easier path because we opened the door to you being in court. As a member of FYS, I also had the opportunity to speak with Secretary Sheldon about several other concerns that have come up since we last met with him (normalcy and sibling visits to name a few). And, FYS also presented two workshops called “So you came to take us away, now what?” where a couple of our members along with several other child welfare professionals spoke about their experiences being removed from their families and entering into the foster care system. The room was packed on both days and I overheard so many people recommending our workshop to their peers.
Our time in Orlando wasn’t all work and no play. We had the opportunity to relax one evening at Universal Studios and Island of Adventures. I rode the Spiderman ride, and of course, the brand new Harry Potter ride. Awesome! I spent a lot of my time with John (FYS Tallahassee). We talked a lot about our past experiences in care and he said a lot of the same things I felt about being in care too. He opened my eyes to the fact that so many of us leave care wanting the same thing – to change the system for the better for those will come after us.
Then, it was back to business. My biggest eye opener of the trip came during the first of two district circuit breakout sessions for Broward County. It was there that I heard so many professionals quoting us – Florida Youth SHINE, youth from within the system. That’s when I realized that everyone listened when we spoke. Over the years, I had come to form an opinion that everyone working within the child welfare system went to school to get their degree and worked in the field simply following protocols and earning a paycheck. Seeing them at the Summit has slowly started to change my mind. Now I can safely say that some of the professionals we get to know while we’re in care do work from the heart while others may not. It was overwhelming to listen to their response to our words and I want to let each child welfare professional out there know that you’re passion motivates us to continue educating the community about the other side of the coin.
Next year I hope you’re there with me.