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Before a standing room only crowd gathered in the stately law library of New York Family Court in Manhattan last Thursday afternoon, a group of teenagers reported that youth in foster care would be better served if they were more involved in the process aimed at finding them a permanent home.

The speakers, part of the 15-member Youth Justice Board (YJB), presented a new report on improving the family court system’s permanency planning process to children’s advocates, court personnel and foster care professionals. The board, a project of the Center for Court Innovation, is made up of New York City teens who study juvenile justice issues and propose policy solutions to make the courts, foster care and detention system more responsive to the needs of the children they serve. After the presentation last week, adults said they were impressed with the quality of the youth people’s work and eager to see many of their ideas implemented.

Called “Step Up, Step Out,” the report finds many youth in foster care don’t understand how the family court system works, have little contact with the legal guardians who argue on their behalf in court, and are unaware that they can attend court proceedings or petition the judge who oversees their case.

“The youth are at the core of the whole situation. They are the center. If the youth is not being heard, how are they going to be served?” asked Theresa, 17, a YJB member from Brooklyn who is in foster care. (The Center for Court Innovation keeps YJB members’ last names and school affiliations private.)

Under the current system, young people’s voices are rarely heard in the courtroom or judge’s chambers where adults determine who they live with, whether they’re reunited with parents, if they can visit siblings, and when they will leave the foster care system. But not all the young people under the court’s supervision are too young to advocate for themselves. More than 50 percent of the youth in foster care are 13 or older, according to the report. But they are often caught in the tide of other people’s decisions at an age when they need to be developing control and defining themselves.

“Step Up, Step Out” argues that those older children should have a say in their cases, particularly as they come closer to aging out of the foster care system at 21.

The report’s recommendations cover three areas: helping to prepare youth to take an active role in their cases, fostering stronger partnerships between law guardians, caseworkers and youth, and creating a court environment that welcomes and supports youth involvement.

According to YJB, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which is the city agency handling foster care, should provide youth with information on the permanency planning process and their rights in foster care, and conduct peer-led workshops to prepare youth in care to participate in their hearings.

Among the other recommendations:

  • Communication between youth and law guardians should be strengthened to ensure the youth understand what’s going on in their cases.
  • Caseworkers should help youth surmount obstacles that prevent them from attending hearings.
  • ACS should help caseworkers get permanency planning reports done and help them communicate better with their clients.
  • New York City Family Court should create an advisory board of youth.
  • Teens should be able to avoid unwanted encounters with family in the courthouse.
  • The courthouse should have more private places for law guardians and youth to discuss their case.
  • Hearings should be scheduled at times youth can attend.
  • Family court chief clerk James Kenny listened intently as board members made their presentation. “I support their work and their efforts. They should be participating in the process that affects their lives,” Kenny said afterwards.

    The report garnered praise from the Citizens’ Committee for Children as well. “I think people in this system are very enthusiastic to hear from the youth,” said Stephanie Jill Gendell, a CCC senior policy associate who attended Thursday’s presentation. “Some of these ideas have been said before, but coming from the youth really gives them credibility.”

    YJB youth coordinator Dory Hack acknowledged change will come slowly in a system as complex and overburdened as New York’s family court. “We’ve been really impressed to learn how eager our audience is to hear these recommendations. There is a real sincere interest in hearing from youth themselves,” Hack said. ACS was unable to comment on the report’s recommendations by press time. However, the YJB got positive feedback from staff in ACS’s Office of Youth Development who saw a preview of “Step Up, Step Out,” Hack said.

    Students on the board conducted six months of research for the report, including more than 40 interviews with judges, legal guardians, caseworkers, ACS personnel and discussions with young people in the foster care system. They came up with 75 ideas on how to improve the family court system, then whittled them down to the 14 recommendations in the report, said Michael, a 19-year-old board member from the Bronx who is in foster care.

    “I hope our recommendations will be put into consideration and looked over for the youth after us,” Michael said. Several board members echoed his motivation to improve the family court and foster care system for the children who will come after them.

    “I was in the system, and I felt that it wasn’t doing good, and I wanted to change it for other kids,” said Kevin, a soft-spoken 18-year-old from Queens.

    Phyllis, 16, from Brooklyn, did not have first-hand experience being in care, but its effects are all around her, she said. “I wanted to be more informed about the foster care system and how it works because a lot of my friends and family are part of the system,” she said. “I wanted to be able to educate them.”

    The Youth Justice Board was created in 2004 to provide a voice for young people in the debates and discussions on criminal justice in New York City. Its parent Center for Court Innovation is a nonprofit think tank founded as a public-private partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York.

    The YJB consists of young people between age 15 and 19 who hear about the board from caseworkers, social service providers, school guidance counselors or teachers and write a letter explaining why they are interested in its work. Hack, the project coordinator, stressed that students are not selected based on their academic success, but rather on their passion for juvenile justice matters. The board meets two afternoons a week and provides a small stipend and subway fare from school.

    Members of YJB plan to present their findings to ACS Commissioner John Mattingly next month.

    For more on Family Court, see Child Welfare Watch: A Matter of Judgement: Deciding the Future of Family Court in NYC.

    – Eileen Markey