For the young people at The Mockingbird Society who have experienced homelessness and foster care, advocating for the youth of the next generation is imperative.
“Even as I’m going through this journey of being homeless, I’m teaching, I’m inviting people in and changing people’s lives,” said Okesha Brandon, a youth advocate. “Everyone kind of learns your strengths and people notice, and it builds your confidence. That in itself is a contribution to society.”
Named after the great American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the organization draws inspiration from the book’s narrative.
“The power and promise of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is in reminding each of us of the untapped potential our most vulnerable citizens hold,” states the organization’s website.
In the seventeen years since its founding, The Mockingbird Society has had a hand in 25 new laws and reform policies to better the lives of young people in Washington state. Mockingbird’s youth programs train young people who have been homeless or in foster care to be their own best advocates. The result? Changes in the policies and perceptions that stand in the way of every child having a safe, stable home and a healthy family.
Mockingbird’s legislative agenda for 2017 is ambitious, but already making an impact.
“Some of our lead priorities are to improve normalcy and access to independence,” said the society’s Youth Program Manager Paula Carvalho.
Mockingbird’s legislative priorities are set by youth who have direct experience with foster care and homelessness in Washington state. Rather than rely on outsiders to determine the best course of action, Mockingbird youth share their personal stories with policymakers in Olympia and propose concrete solutions. This grassroots sensibility is reflected in Mockingbird’s adult staff members as well. Many grew up in foster care and on the street.
“I myself experienced foster care and homelessness for the majority of my childhood, so I saw a lot of people I knew still living on the street,” said Carvalho. “I truly believe that in order to fix the system, you have to work within the system.”
A new program providing support for foster youth in obtaining drivers’ licenses and automobile liability insurance was signed into law on May 5. Another bill requiring schools to help foster and homeless youth who are forced to frequently switch schools and districts consolidate course work and graduate on time was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in April.
“It’s really cool to see that we’re making actual changes,” said youth advocate Angel Gardner. Growing up in foster care, Gardner was placed in 28 different homes before aging out and finding herself living on the street.
“Before I aged out and became homeless, my social worker was supposed to tell me about extended foster care and let me know my options, but he didn’t,” Gardner said. “One thing I think people don’t realize is that there are a lot of kids in the system who have terrible social workers. I always want to assume that people have your best interest, but sometimes they don’t. Yeah, you went to school for social work, but you are going to be working with an actual person. Sometimes they are so used to what textbooks say and what they learned in school, that they’re not really communicating or really seeing the child.”
Focus on homelessness
Supporting youth through homelessness is an important priority of Mockingbird. Though Brandon didn’t grow up in foster care, her home life was not stable. After suffering years of physical abuse, she fled as a teenager and found herself living on the street. Every day is a challenge to figure out where she is going to sleep and how she is going to stay safe. Charismatic and motivated, Brandon says she can easily secure employment, but keeping the job is an uphill battle.
“I took the physical abuse till I was 17, but as I was going through it, it affected my mental health,” said Brandon. “How do I function in a regular society when I’m coping with so much trauma and anxiety? Some days I can’t get out of bed, and people think I’m being lazy, but I’m not. I’m dealing with all this mental stuff.”
Her efforts to find affordable housing have been trying. She says she’s now in a position where she’s forced to choose between short-term safety and long-term stability.
“Do I use my savings and invest in an apartment for one month?” said Brandon. “Or do I keep saving and play this game of wait and see for one of the thousands of waitlists I’m on so that if I get a call, I’ll have the money ready to pay my first and last month’s rent?”
Despite her difficult circumstances, Brandon continues to attend Mockingbird meetings and support her peers.
“If you want people to be more loving, more compassionate, it starts with you,” said Brandon. “If you can manifest that change, someone is going to see it, they’re going to start doing it, too. That’s the way it works, initially.”
Many of the young people at Mockingbird expressed frustration over receiving insufficient support in times of crises that were outside their control.
“When I became homeless, my school didn’t know what to do,” said youth advocate Kylie McCroskey. “And then later I found out about all these resources. I was so mad.”
More than 35,000 students experience homelessness each year in Washington state. The youth advocates at Mockingbird are working to pass legislation this year to grant legal counsel to all children and youth in foster care before their 72-hour shelter care hearings. When it appears that a child is in danger of being harmed, or has already been seriously abused or neglected, a police officer can place the child in protective custody. Custody of the child is then transferred to Child Protective Services which places the child with a relative or in foster care. By law, a child can be kept in protective custody for no more than 72 hours. If the child is not returned to the parents or some other voluntary arrangement made within 72 hours, the matter must be reviewed by a court.
Studies show that having an attorney early in the dependency process increases permanency rates for youth. Currently, requirements for attorneys vary from county to county, resulting in “justice by geography.”
For example, a report released in 2016 by The Access to Counsel Project at the UW School of Law found that children in 12 Washington state counties are automatically appointed an attorney at a certain age, but the 27 remaining counties have no automatic appointment process. Children in more than 600 observed hearings received the best representation when they were appointed a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) and an attorney. The study found that 84 percent of children with a casa and an attorney had their opinions shared with the court, compared to the 19 percent of children with only a casa, and 6 percent of children with no advocate. Additionally, 85 percent of children with both had their well-being discussed, while only 62 percent of children with only a casa and 28 percent of children with no advocate had their well-being discussed.
Gardner says that without soliciting her input, the adults in her life were not equipped to make good decisions on her behalf.
“I was misdiagnosed so many times because they were consulting the foster parent instead of talking to me, so I ended up getting put on medications for things that I didn’t need,” she said.
Without first seeking her opinion on the matter, Gardner’s social worker sent her out of state to live in a severely understaffed group home for girls struggling with a wide range of mental health disorders and addictions.
“We need to start universally appointing attorneys for children who are the most vulnerable participants in these court proceedings,” said Alicia LeVezu, author of the report. “For too long, the voices of children in foster care have been ignored and overlooked. We must appoint children representation so that their voices can be heard.”
Substitute House Bill 1251 would have changed the law in Washington state to guarantee legal representation for children over the age of 2 who enter the foster care system. The bill was referred to the House Appropriations Committee in February, but no action was taken. Securing an attorney for all children in dependency proceedings would have required hiring more attorneys, and the cost of that could be high.
In Spokane County, it would likely require more than a dozen new attorneys, reports Spokane’s Inlander newspaper. Mockingbird youth advocates are now pursuing a budget proviso to further demonstrate and evaluate the impact of legal representation for dependent children prior to a shelter hearing.
Mockingbird youth advocates agree that there is so much more the local community can do to support homeless youth and youth in foster care.
“Everyone knows that the system is broken, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to fix it,” said Gardner. “Get involved with Mockingbird Society, United Way. Get informed about homeless youth and go out and meet them in your community. It’s not just about donating, it’s not just about money. If you can lend a smile or a hair brush or toilet paper, that’s something.”
McCroskey recently secured housing, but that hasn’t decreased her compassion for youth still living on the streets.
“Even now that I’m exiting homelessness, I’m always prepared for the possibility that I’ll slide back. I always have a bag packed,” said McCroskey. Increasing access to transportation for homeless youth is one of her personal priorities as an advocate with Mockingbird. “If you’re a bus driver and you can let someone on a bus so they can just get from point A to point B, that can really make a difference.”
The youth advocates at Mockingbird emphasize that the time and effort they commit to building a better future for homeless and foster youth in Washington state comes from a genuine desire to be of service to their community. “Homelessness isn’t just some virus that popped up. We all made homelessness happen,” said Gardner. “If we could help create homelessness, we can also help prevent it.”
Sydney Parker is a writer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Seattle Met and Splitsider.
Read our full May 10 issue.