“At the time, the government treated being poor the same as being abused.”
This is how Ryan Young, a Peer Mentor with Arizona’s Children Association (AzCA), described the service structure that resulted in his removal from his biological family and placed in an orphanage. Although the traditional orphanage model has essentially ended in the United States, Ryan experienced this in his hometown of Mariupol, Ukraine. While no child ever expects the trauma of removal, placement in an unfamiliar home, and then moving across the globe to an unfamiliar country, this was the reality for Ryan.
Despite this being the distant past for Ryan, he still recalls some memories at the orphanage; apricot trees where children could pick apricots to eat, warm summers, very cold winters, willow tree branches used as tools for punishment.
At six years old, Ryan and his biological brother were adopted by an American mother and began their new life in Illinois.
For the next five years, Ryan and his family moved frequently between Illinois, California, and Arizona. In the home, Ryan found himself in semi-regular conflict with the family, which culminated in his enrollment in a boarding school where he remained until he was 16. After returning home, he found his relationship with his adoptive mother to be even more fractured than before. Ryan soon found himself back in the foster care system, only this time he was in a different country.
“I spent the following day at a DCS office not knowing where I was going, what happened to me, surrounded by people I didn’t know, and not knowing when I would see my brother next.”
The first few days in the group home were difficult. Ryan remained reserved and guarded, not knowing who to trust. Despite this being unknown territory for him, he knew that all of the other kids in the group home went through experiences just like his. He spent the remainder of his youth bouncing between group homes and foster families before aging out through the Department of Child Safety’s (DCS) Young Adult Program. Although today’s model of social services emphasizes programs to prepare youth for their transition to adulthood, youth in care still face obstacles to successful transition to adulthood regardless of their supports.
“Whether or not you were in foster care, no one is ever prepared for living on their own. But when you come from a foster care background, the obstacles are greater. I was lucky to have a YAP (Young Adult Program) case manager who was very helpful.”
Despite some of the skills Ryan still needed to refine after aging out, he had developed a very important skill during his time in care: his ability to advocate for himself. In areas of his case where he felt he lacked a voice, Ryan made his way into the discussion so that he had more opportunities to make decisions for himself. While he had made a voice for himself in his case, the unfortunate reality is that not all youth in care feel empowered enough to advocate for themselves in their case plan. Upon aging out and realizing the challenges of the child welfare system from his own experience, Ryan wanted to help vulnerable youth speak up for themselves.
“If I didn’t have an advocate, I wouldn’t have had a voice or be empowered to know what I want and express those wants. It inspired me to give back and help those who have been in my situation. Kids in care should know they can at least rely on someone who will pick up the phone and be there when they need them, where they are safe to be vulnerable without judgement.”
This desire to give back to his community eventually led Ryan into a role as president of DCS’s Youth Empowerment Council after aging out of foster care. The Council’s purpose is to help empower young leaders in care to navigate their lived experience and help inform about the Department’s efforts toward policy and practice, while also improving upon the problems in service delivery. Some of Ryan’s focus points as president were to support adoption of policies that ensure LGBTQ clients are placed in LGBTQ-friendly homes, and supporting the continuation and increase of the independent living subsidy. Along with the improvements in policy around LGBTQ youth, Ryan’s accomplishments as president included developing DCS youth telephonic policy and implementation of regional Youth Empowerment Council boards.
Today, now retired from his position as president of the Council, Ryan is a Peer Mentor at Arizona’s Children Association (AzCA). His relationship with AzCA started at a young age with the Family Engagement Specialist on his case. AzCA’s Family Engagement Specialists work with youth living in group homes to identify and connect them with their natural support network, who are often lost as the child moves between different placements during their time in out-of-home care. Ryan wanted to use his lived experience to support clients with the knowledge that they have someone on their team who truly understands and shares their experience.
“As a former youth in care, I felt like service providers often assume what kids need rather than asking them what they need. Engagement didn’t feel authentic and often felt transactional.”
Ryan met Michael Wydra, Program Director for AzCA’s Young Adult Services, and asked Michael about a role in which he could uplift youth in navigating the system, where he learned about the opportunity at AzCA as a peer mentor.
In his role, Ryan takes good client relations very seriously and wants to break the cycle of poor service delivery. When asked how to do this, Ryan provides some simple recommendations:
- Meet with the client at their level
- Be available to visit clients more often if they need it. Many kids in care only see their service providers once a month.
- Offer means of communicating that matches the youth’s preferred method, and establish this communication directly with them. Sometimes placements are busy juggling many different roles and do not always respond immediately.
While Ryan was able to take his experience and help others with it, he understands that this is not always possible. Learning the youth’s stories can be triggering for those who experienced the same losses that one likely does in the foster care system. Now that he is living independently and using his experience to help those in similar situations, Ryan is still trying to heal from old wounds. For adults in general who work with youth in care, Ryan recommends to show less apathy and more empathy. Asking the youth how they are doing is often an overlooked question, so it can mean a lot when you stop what you are doing and focus your attention on them when they need it. Most importantly, when asked how practitioners can help young people, Ryan believes that one must be an advocate for their client and work with them to feel empowered to be an advocate for themselves. When asked what advice he would give to kids on the verge or aging out, Ryan says:
“Identify someone in your life and make sure you nourish that relationship. It will help in the long run. If you don’t have anyone, then use your voice, reach out, and ask as many questions as you need. If there isn’t room at the table for your voice, then make room. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and while you’re in care, I want you to feel seen, heard, and mattered.”
If you or someone you know are between the ages of 18-20, and previously in the care and custody of any State Foster Care or federally recognized Tribal Foster Care program at age 16 or older, AzCA can help! AzCA’s Young Adult Services provides an opportunity for young adults who have experienced foster care to develop and enhance their protective and promotive factors – youth resilience, knowledge of adolescent brain development, social connections, concrete support in times of need, and cognitive and social-emotional competency. Young adults will also receive support and resources to increase their ability to live successfully outside of the foster care system. Youth currently in care who are between the ages of 14-20 may also qualify. Contact STA_Referral@AZDCS.gov to learn more.