25, No. 12, Dec. 15, 2005
foster kids share experiences with policymakers
Craig Chamberlain, News Bureau Staff Writer
Amy Clay called it “serendipity.”
The former foster child from Belleville, majoring in rhetoric and creative
writing at the UI, walked into Mark Testa’s office in January
almost three years ago. She knew Testa from her previous experience
advocating for foster-care legislation and was stopping by to say “hello.”
Testa was the director of the Children and Family Research Center, which
conducts nationally recognized research on foster care.
She didn’t know that Testa had been working on an idea. And he
was feeling inspired by the new movie “Antwone Fisher,”
about the struggles of a former foster child.
He proposed that Clay work for the CFRC, part of the School of Social
Work, and write about her experiences. He wanted to find ways to involve
former foster children in the life of the center, to find a means for
foster youth voices to be heard by researchers and policymakers.
At first, Clay said “absolutely not,” she recalled. She
had been telling her story as an advocate in Washington, D.C., and was
feeling a little used by the experience. “I said I don’t
want to be a foster kid for the rest of my life.”
But she respected Testa and agreed to start working with Mary Lynn Fletcher,
a research specialist on the center’s staff. Fletcher had worked
as a child welfare case manager in Illinois and her background also
included theater, psychology and education.
“We just immediately connected,” Clay said. They spent the
semester kicking around ideas and working on exercises in creativity
That fall they approached the Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana
and asked to talk to participants in the home’s Independent Living
Program, designed to help older youth (17 to 21 years old) in their
transition to adulthood.
They got six volunteers willing to come to the center every week to
talk about what they cared about, worried about, what they thought was
really important but which received little or no attention in the foster-care
One theme that comes through routinely, Testa said, is the often-negative
way that foster children feel they are perceived. “Again and again
and again, they’re saying: ‘We are good kids who got dealt
a crummy hand of cards and we’re trying to make our way through
it. We’re good kids and we feel that so many people see us as
bad kids.’ ”
For much of the fall semester, “ … we had incredible, long
discussions,” Fletcher said. She gave the participants creative
writing assignments, got them to brainstorm on ideas, asked them to
think about how they’d translate their experiences into changes
in foster-care policy.
By the next semester, they had the outlines of Project FYSH: Foster
Youth, Seen and Heard. The CFRC asked for and received funding from
the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the state’s
Part of the money would pay for hiring each semester at least six “writing
specialists,” all former foster kids who would work 10 hours per
week. They would attend a regular writers’ roundtable to discuss
ideas and writing, and participate in other activities. They also would
be asked to produce individual pieces of prose or poetry that spoke
about their experiences as foster children.
One of the writers in the program is Rebekah Childers, a UI sophomore
from Chicago majoring in advertising. Her experiences in foster care
date back almost to birth.
“This just feels like an opportunity to have a voice that’s
an important voice,” Childers said. “There’s not a
lot known, I think, from a child’s perspective, on what goes on
“The impact is bigger than myself,” said Kimberly Brown-Riley,
another writer in the program, also a UI sophomore from Chicago, majoring
in psychology. It motivates her to spend more time with her writing,
because she’s speaking not only for herself but for other people.
The CFRC was established in 1996 in a cooperative agreement with DCFS.
Its mission was to study outcomes for children served by the department,
as well as to promote research related to child-welfare policy and practice.
In doing that research, the center has access to DCFS data, a rare arrangement
between a state foster care agency and an academic institution. It has
helped Testa and the center’s other researchers do significant
What’s easily lost in the data, however, are the perceptions and
insights of the youth the system is meant to serve, Testa said. The
purpose of FYSH, from a research perspective, is to gather the stories
of former foster children “and see what starts floating to the
top in terms of recurring themes of experiences in the system,”
Fletcher called the FYSH approach “strength-based” and “success-oriented.”
The intent is to get the writers to focus not just on complaints about
the foster care system, but on how they have overcome barriers and how
they might use that to their advantage.
Ideally, Clay said, the participants are “walking away with the
knowledge that they can be advocates for themselves through the storytelling
The FYSH participants are telling their stories in a variety of ways
and to a variety of audiences. They have spoken to students in various
social work graduate courses, at a training institute for foster parents,
to DCFS planners and policymakers, and to groups of juvenile court judges.
So much of the interaction between foster children and state workers
is filtered by the use of forms, pre-set questions and legal procedures,
Testa said. “Hearing these first-person stories from the children
themselves touches workers, judges and officials in profound ways. They
give unique insight into the raw feelings and private concerns of the
children through their own eyes.”
Perhaps the high point came last December when several of the FYSH participants
were asked to appear at the 40th anniversary event for DCFS in Chicago,
where they spoke before several hundred people from around the country.
“It gave us all a huge sense of being heard,” Clay said.
And state officials are not only listening, but taking action, Testa
said. The greater sensitivity to foster-youth concerns has produced
initiatives on the preservation of sibling ties of children in foster
care, on the support of older children exiting state care, and on the
preparation of foster youth for college, he said.
During the spring semester, UI students Brown-Riley, Childers and Clay
started discussing ways they could work beyond the scope of FYSH to
support other foster children or former foster children. The result
was a new student organization on campus, the Foster Care Alumni Association.
Childers and Brown-Riley, the group’s president and vice president,
said they wanted to explore other means of advocacy and maybe mentor
younger foster children, in part to encourage them to think about college.
They also wanted to find ways to support other former foster children
on campus, who often can’t expect what other students take for
granted, such as parents to fall back on or even a home to return to
during the holidays.
Clay, the group’s treasurer, said she hoped to build on the sense
of community that had formed among the participants in FYSH and to use
that to support other students. “FYSH has shown me that people
who have not been given a whole lot in life are willing to put themselves
out there and give of themselves in a way that not just anybody would.”