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The following was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on 10/1/18. 

On Tuesday, an Oregon foster youth will be asking tough questions of the state’s candidates for governor.  Organized by Children First for Oregon, the Debate for Oregon’s Future is entirely youth led, with all questions written and presented by 16 Oregon youths ages 12-19.

The forum includes the top three contenders for governor in November’s election: incumbent Gov. Kate Brown (D), Rep. Knute Buehler (R) and independent challenger Patrick Starnes.

Child welfare is already a big issue in the race, thanks to a critical January audit of Oregon’s child welfare system, which found the state struggling to maintain its stock of foster families, spending millions on housing foster children in hotels and offices and seeing high rates of child welfare staff turnover.

On Tuesday night, Oregon youth hope to shape the conversation about continuing reform efforts in the state. One of the 16 questioners will be Viktoria Rosqvist of Portland, who grew up in the state’s foster  care system.

Rosqvist, 19, is an advocate for children and youth in the state who works with the Oregon Trauma Advocates Coalition and the Oregon Foster Youth Connection. She also serves on the state’s important Family First Implementation Workgroup.

Here’s what Rosqvist had to say about the importance of adding youth voice to the governor’s race in Oregon and what the state’s next governor can do to support foster youth.

Child welfare has been a big part of the governor’s race this year.

It stems back to a 2016 federally mandated assessment of Oregon’s foster care system, which showed that Oregon’s foster care system was lagging behind. Along with that has come a lot of news articles recently about rampant abuse experienced by youth in care, while in the system. There’s a lot in the public eye about the trauma surrounding foster care, so it created this narrative where people started asking, “why is this happening to our kids” and “who should be responsible.” Many times, they’ve asked about why kids aren’t coming out of a bad home situation and going to a better home situation. Instead, they’ve been going from a bad home situation into a worse one or into a different kind of traumatic situation. There was a case where two children who were chronically starved by their foster parents or the one in which six foster adoptive youth were killed by their adoptive parents. There’s all these accounts coming out now. The media often likes to focus on the negative. And there’s a lot of negative things to focus on with foster care, but that’s also created a negative narrative for foster care.

On the Importance of a Youth-Led Perspective in the Governor’s Race

The idea for this forum is to have a youth-led, youth-voice focused debate [with the governor’s race]. Because that’s not something that’s ever really been done before. Especially because, here in Oregon, we really like to focus on children’s issues. The whole thing is going to be led by youth — all the questions are going to be asked by youth. We do have a moderator, but he’s just there to make sure all the questions are answered in full because you know how politicians can be.

It’s been interesting trying to fight obstacles that have come up. We had trouble getting media partners because all the media partners said, “We want our reporters to ask the questions and that’s how we want to be involved.” We did find media partners who were willing to take a backseat because they really did see and support the youth-led model.

It’s a lot more impactful to have questions coming from a child who would be directly impacted by any potential change in policy. Children and youth are the ones who know what’s going on. All the youth and young adults participating in the forum are systems involved, who are passionate about these subjects. There’s going to be a lot more personality behind the questions and a lot more feel for how important these issues are because they’re coming directly from the mouths of the people most impacted.

First Up on the Agenda of Oregon’s Next Governor

My first priority is that I’d like to see more community engagement and community partnership within the DHS (Oregon Department of Human Services) system and structures that we already have. Think about the people that are in a foster youth’s life: You have foster parents, caseworkers and other resources provided by the state because the youth is in foster care.

So, once [foster youth] exit care, who do they have left in their life? Often if they don’t have any family, they’re on their own. I’d like to see an opportunity for more community involvement, whether that’s with churches or Big Brother/Big Sister programs. Because there’s really no precedent for that; nothing like that really exists now. It’s my hope that we could start to see more community education and community involvement within foster youths’ lives so that they can make lasting relationships with people who aren’t paid to be there.

I like to see every DHS office in the state partnering with community members, whether that be a religious program, an after-school program or whatever opportunities there might be to get the community involved. Every single DHS office should have a relationship with a community partner so that we can begin to create meaningful relationships in the lives of foster youth.

What the State Can Do to Address a Lack of Foster Parents

I’d like to see a lot more public education and public outreach from DHS. As it stands now, foster care is still pretty taboo. You don’t hear about it in the common eye except for maybe a mention of a clothes drive on TV. That’s about all most people know about foster care unless they know it already or personally have been in foster care. There’s not much familiarity with the system.

I don’t think most people would ever consider becoming foster parents because there’s not a huge amount public outreach trying to recruit foster parents. If we had more of the public education piece, then we wouldn’t have the chronic hoteling issues and the chronic under-recruitment of foster parents.

Messaging Foster Care in Oregon

It’s important to start a dialogue that emphasizes that foster youth aren’t troubled. There’s this idea that foster youth are inherently trouble. They cause trouble, make trouble and they must have done something to end up in foster care. I think any sort of public education or public outreach campaign needs to emphasize that these youth are in the system because of no fault of their own. I think that dispelling some of the taboo around foster care would really pique interest and encourage community members to take part.

Aging Out of Care

A big issue within foster care is after aging out. Foster youth don’t know what to do or where to go. They end up homeless or get into situations involving drugs or abusive relationships because they don’t have the resources to know better. One thing that I’d like to see is a lot more support for transition age youth to teach them the skills they need to become independent. There are some programs here like the Independent Living Program or Youth Villages, things like that. But there’s a lack of funding for those programs, so you end up with a few youth who receive some of the skills but the majority of the youth don’t get the transition skills that normal youth might. They can ask their parent things like “how can I get an apartment?” Or “what do I need to apply to this job?” Foster youth don’t have that opportunity. I’d like to see more funding go toward programs like the Independent Living Program so youth can get taught the skills they need to be successful adults.

Helping Oregon’s Child Welfare Caseworkers

There’s only so much caseworkers can do. Caseworkers are chronically overloaded. They generally have 30-50 kids that they’re supposed to look after. It’s impossible to disseminate the right information to 50 kids. Because our caseworkers within the DHS system are so overworked, there needs to be a push for more caseworkers.

Another issue is that because of the high caseloads, there’s a high burnout rate [among caseworkers]. A lot of caseworkers will work for a few months, or maybe a year, and then they leave. Not only does that affect the knowledge available — if you’re new, you don’t know all the resources because you don’t know the systems really well — but it also affects the youth because they’re constantly having to build new relationships with caseworkers. In the past, they may have had awful relationships with caseworkers who aren’t helping so it’s hard for youth to have to keep building trusting relationship with their caseworkers.

The Debate for Oregon’s Future takes place on October 2 at 7 p.m. PST. Follow along by tuning into KOIN TV, KOIN.com, KDRV TV, KBNZ and on KPAM radio. Click here for more information about the debate.