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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Keynote presentation at Daniel Memorial Foster Parent Conference, May 2008

The title of Lisa Dickson's keynote presentation at the Daniel Memorial Foster Care Conference was "Life Without Limits: Exceeding Expectations for Former Foster Care Youth."

Below are some quotes from her presentation... The theme was ordinary heroes, and the purpose was to improve outcomes for foster care youth and alumni.

"When faced with extraordinary odds, we need ordinary heroes... and the opportunity to become one of those heroes exists for every person in this room. Each one of you have the opportunity to make a lasting and positive impact when it comes to foster care.

"The lady who introduced me did a wonderful job of listing my credentials. But, just like every person in this room, there are layers to who I am. I could tell you that I am a wife and a mother – and that would work. That would be a safe answer.

"I could tell you that I am a stepmother, and that would reveal a little more about me. Those of you who are stepparents or foster parents know the challenges of defining your role. You’re not the “real” parent – so, are you allowed to discipline? You’re not the “real” parent,” so what if the biological parents don’t always respect your rules?

"But – what if I told you that I was a foster child? What are the first images that come up in your mind when you consider that as part of my background? How does that change the way that you see me?

"Does it make me more or less credible? Just as foster parents are often perceived as either saints or sinners, telling someone that you are a former foster child can open up a Pandora’s Box of preconceived notions. Am I 'Annie' or 'Ellen Foster?' Or, am I the latest perpetrator on CSI?

"It is never quite that simple and straight-forward, is it? What if I told you that, after aging out of foster care, I struggled along the way? What if I admitted to making dumb decisions that I am ashamed of now?

" I could tell you, in my softest voice that, even though I made it to college, and earned degrees from both college and graduate school, along the way, there were many times when I was discouraged, and ready-willing-and-able to make any number of the same stupid mistakes that most young people make along the way.

"So, help me here: At what point was I a statistic? And when exactly did I become a survivor?

"Because, we all know that there are dire foster care statistics - and they tell us what to expect, don’t they? Most of those studies focus primarily on teenagers and young people in their 20s. In a sense foster care youth are taught what to expect from themselves, and the adults in their lives are given preconceived notion of what to expect from them. I believe those expectations are too low.

"Those statistics tell us that we stand a great chance of being homeless, incarcerated, unemployed, uneducated and uninsured. We are at higher risk of sexual promiscuity, unplanned pregnancy and carrying on the cycle with our own children of neglect, abuse or abandonment.

"But is that all we are? Does that truly define what we are capable of? Are we just a case number?

"Or can we be empowered? There are 12 million foster care alumni in the United States. We are not children. We are not teenagers. We are adults – and we represent a formerly invisible population.

"We are the consumers of the child welfare system - and listening to our voices will provide child welfare professionals with insights that are not available elsewhere. As adults, we have had time to reflect upon our experiences and make sense of them.

Because of our personal and professional experiences, we are uniquely aware of the challenges faced by young people in and from foster care. We have first-hand knowledge what it is like to age out of care and navigate the adult world.

"The idea behind consumer movements is that the consumers of a service should be involved in its design and delivery, and should be given opportunities to evaluate their experience. We are the consumers of foster care, and any time that a new law is passed that effects foster care, it needs our input.

"Similar movements include: the civil rights movement, women's suffrage, the disability rights movement, the faith movement and GLTBQ.

"There comes a time when we need to stand up and be counted. After all, where would the civil rights movement have been without Martin Luther King Jr.? Where would the women’s rights movement have been without Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Where would the disability rights movement be without Ed Roberts?

"But Martin Luther King Jr. didn't start out being MLK. The 2007 It's My Life conference took place in Atlanta, Georgia, and a group of us were able to take a trip to see his birthplace. Have any of you ever been there? Martin Luther King started out as an ordinary hero with humble beginnings.

"The foster care movement started in Canada, inspired the development of CYC in California, and led to the development of alumni groups and youth advisory boards in various states.

"The collective voice of former foster children all over the nation, and their allies within the child welfare system, is currently being shared through membership and involvement in Foster Care Alumni of America.

"Rather than simply celebrating those who 'beat the odds,' it is time for all of us to work together to change those statistics for the better:

- Do we want to change the homelessness rate? Well, then it's time to invest in youth housing.

- Are we concerned about emancipated youth lacking medical insurance? Then, it's time to extend Medicaid to age 21 years old for former foster care youth.

"But making these resources available is not enough. It is only the first step. Young people need to know that these services are out there. And they will often need assistance in navigating Medicaid, college entrance and the myraid of other mazes that exist in the adult world."

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