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Top Tips for Volunteers

5 Ways to Better Serve Older Youth

Ryan Miller, Team Leader
Transitioning Youth Project
CASA of Travis County
Austin, TX

Thousands of youth age out of foster care every year. They are at greater risk of homelessness, incarceration and poverty. They are often woefully underprepared for the independence they are given after they reach adulthood. How can CASA volunteers better serve these youth?

The Transitioning Youth Project of CASA of Travis County was created to better meet the needs of youth at risk of aging out without a permanent family. Through our work, we have learned a few techniques that help us connect with youth and ultimately better represent their interests. Here are five points to consider while working with teenagers in care.

1. Seek Opportunities for Growth Through Decision Making.

The system is set up so that the teens we represent have minimal decision-making power. From the big questions to the small, professionals and foster parents are often calling the shots. Where does that leave an 18-year-old who is on his own for the first time?

Being able to make healthy decisions is a learned skill. Youth need the chance to cook their own dinners, even at the cost of burning their thumbs on the stove. Or the chance to manage their own money, even if they misspend some of it. Making poor decisions is a part of growing up, and we are only delaying that process by trying to keep foster youth in a bubble until their 18th birthdays.

2. Don’t Be a Disciplinarian. Youth Don’t Need Any More of Those.

Foster youth usually have plenty of people to tell them how they have messed up. Their placement, their school, their judge, their caseworker and possibly others are going to chime in after a poor decision. Even if the CASA volunteer is the person the youth most trusts, the youth does not need to hear from one more person how they blew it. Instead, be future-focused and ask, “Where do we go from here?” or “How do we get past this?”

3. Give Youth a Voice.

Countless foster care alumni have stated that they felt as though they never had a voice. CASA volunteers can change that. Make sure that youth are participants in meetings concerning their case and are able to speak to judges at hearings. Keep them informed about what is going on. In Travis County, youth have begun to write their own court reports in which they share with the judge their plan, concerns and wishes.

4. Find Connections for Youth.

Youth need healthy adults in their lives. The idea of preparing youth for “independent” living is a fallacy. Successful young adults are almost always dependent on those around them for support. No one can do it alone.

So reconsider family. Even if the biological parents were not healthy years ago, things may have changed. A great majority of foster care alumni seek out biological parents after leaving care. Volunteer advocates can help make this connection while the youth is in care and still has support available. Also, CASA volunteers can find healthy connections from the community—teachers, coaches, foster parents or even parents of friends. Use FosterClub’s Permanency Pact toolkit described at CASAforChildren.org/Adulthood to assist in defining these relationships.

5. Expect Snags Along the Way, But Don’t Let the Snags Distract.

Emergencies are going to come up. We are working with teenagers who have been through a lot. Ups and downs are to be expected. However, it is the CASA volunteer’s role to remain future-focused. While facing the daily strains of being in care, a youth needs someone able to step back and look at the big picture. CASA volunteers can be the voice that speaks up for a youth’s goals of higher education, future employment and lifelong relationships.

 

Transitioning Youth Team Leader Ryan Miller (standing) with (from left) Transitioning Youth Specialists Erik Lugo, Charron Sumler and Melanie Ann Watson


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