Oregon Foster Youth Connection Achieves Another Legislative Victory!

Two bills aiming to increase independence and opportunity for Oregon’s foster youth received final approval today in the Oregon Legislature and now head to Governor Kate Brown’s desk for her signature. Both bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, thanks in-part to the efforts of Senators Sara Gelser and Michael Dembrow, and Representatives Alissa Keny-Guyer, Duane Stark, Jodi Hack, Carla Piluso and more!

Members of Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC) created House Bill 2889, which will allow the creation of savings accounts for Oregon foster youth. The accounts will provide an additional tool for foster youth to achieve financial independence by saving their own money for future educational opportunities and other vital living expenses.

OFYC members also created House Bill 2890, which will provide opportunities for youth in foster care to participate in at least one extracurricular activity. Extracurricular activities provide critical, formative experiences which help youth develop physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally.

“Like all of our legislative proposals, these ideas came directly from current and former foster youth,” says Lisa McMahon, OFYC Program Director. Both bills were featured in the 2015 Children’s Agenda and were also supported by NAYA Family Center, New Avenues for Youth, and Oregon CASA Network and others.

Building on past legislative success, Oregon Foster Youth Connection continues to thrive

Note: This is our fourth and final entry in a week long series of articles highlighting the Oregon Foster Youth Connection and foster youth in Oregon, in celebration of National Foster Care Month.

Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC) does a lot of great things for foster youth. Since 2008, the youth-led group has trained and developed hundreds of young leaders, collected and donated nearly 1,000 duffle bags for foster youth who frequently move, and provided training at conferences and events nationwide.

If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also racked up a string of victories in the Oregon Legislature, a process typically navigated by seasoned lobbyists and political insiders. Through the years, OFYC has created or testified on numerous legislative concepts, several of which became Oregon law.

The creation of the foster youth tuition waiver for Oregon’s colleges and universities originated with OFYC and was successfully passed during the 2011 session. That bill increases access to higher education for Oregon’s foster youth.

OFYC was also responsible for the creation and passage of 2013’s Foster Children’s Bill of Rights, which requires the state to inform foster youth of their rights and created a hotline and ombudsman position. That position works to ensure that foster children and youth rights are protected.

The 2015 session has been no different. With the help of legislative champions like Senator Sara Gelser, Representatives Carla Piluso, Duane Stark, Alissa Keny-Guyer, and many more, OFYC is already enjoying legislative success this time around.

OFYC’s two bills this session – one creating savings accounts for foster youth and another to encourage extracurricular activities – have already passed the Oregon House in a landslide, 58-1 and 59-0, respectively. This week they passed out of a Senate committee and should be headed to the floor for a full vote. Should they pass, they will head to Governor Kate Brown’s desk for a final signature and officially become law.

With their legislative success, volunteerism, and leadership development, OFYC has sent a message to the approximately 12,000 children and youth who experience the Oregon foster system each year: you have a voice in your state, your community, and your own lives.

And when foster youth gather together as one, that voice is heard loud and clear.

Stability, trust, and friendships: a conversation with an Oregon Foster Youth Connection leader

Akasha is 18 years old and she has been in the foster care system for 13 years. She is a Chapter Lead in the OFYC Lane County Chapter and has been involved in OFYC for the past year. We sat down to talk to her about foster care, OFYC, and using her civic voice.

Q: What activities are you involved in within OFYC?

A: I’m one of three chapter leads in the Lane County chapter, which means I help organize and lead the chapter meetings. In addition to that, I participate in panels for potential foster parents and I was a part of a work group to update rules around foster care after the passage of federal legislation. I also participated in the 2015 OFYC Advocacy Convening at the State Capitol in Salem in February.

Q: What do you like about participating in OFYC?

A: My favorite part is that I’m able to help other foster youth create a better experience in the foster care system. That’s important.

Q: Tell me more about the OFYC Advocacy Convening.

Akasha and other OFYC members meeting with Representative Carla Piluso at the 2015 OFYC Advocacy Convening.

Akasha and other OFYC members meeting with Representative Carla Piluso at the 2015 OFYC Advocacy Convening.

A: I had a really fun time! It was a two day event in Salem attended by fellow OFYC members and a variety of advocates and supporters. I was able to meet new friends and talk to people about similar situations in our chapters and in our lives. Because all of us there are either foster youth or we support the system, we all know how the system works. It was really helpful to know there is so much support from my fellow foster youth and advocates. And it was really inspiring to be around so many people who want to improve the foster care system.

Q: What was it like to go to the capitol and talk to lawmakers about the foster care system?

A: We were broken up into several teams and we prepared our speeches. We got training on how to adequately express the issues we wanted to discuss and then our teams visited with different lawmakers. My most memorable meeting was with Representative Carla Piluso. She is very supportive of our foster youth bills and she really wants to help in any way she can to improve the foster system. She was a big reason why the day was so memorable.

Q: You also recently participated in a group that met to discuss how to implement new federal rules for the foster care system. What was that experience like?

A: It was another positive experience of being a member of OFYC. It was also a lot of paperwork! I got to sit at a table alongside judges, caseworkers, policy makers, and advocates. As a youth inside of the foster care system, you don’t often get to see what happens “behind the scenes” – let alone have a voice in crafting policy and rules. So this was a great experience because I got to learn more about the rules and policies firsthand and we had the opportunity to share our own opinions and experiences to ensure that our voices were included in the process.

Q: How has OFYC helped you in other areas of your life?

A: It has already helped me improve my communication skills, teamwork, leadership, and my organizational skills. It has encouraged me to raise my hand and participate in class more often. It has given me a reasonable and appropriate voice when speaking with my foster parents so that I can have productive conversations with them, especially if an issue arises. When you learn the skills to speak and handle things appropriately, it’s a huge plus. I know it’s going to help me in the future with things like job interviews and at work.

Q: What would you say to encourage other foster youth to join OFYC?

A: It can make a big difference in your life. Foster youth don’t have a lot of connections or friends because they have to move a lot. OFYC brings stability and trust and helps us develop peer relationships and friendships. There are also a lot of adult supporters to talk to that you can trust.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I am stepping down from DHS care in July, but OFYC will still be a big part of my life and I plan to remain a member. Even when people age out of OFYC, a lot of people continue to volunteer and help. Once you’re involved, you want to stay involved.

About Oregon Foster Youth Connection: OFYC, a program of Children First for Oregon, is a statewide, youth led, advocacy group of current and former foster youth between 14 – 25 years of age. OFYC trains and empowers youth to actively participate in the development of policies, programs, and practices that improve the lives of kids in foster care.

Oregon Foster Youth Celebrate National Foster Care Month

OFYC 2013 Advocacy Convening: Day at the Capitol

OFYC 2015 Advocacy Convening: Day at the Capitol

Note: This is the first of a week long series of articles highlighting the Oregon Foster Youth Connection. Check back daily for more stories.

May is National Foster Care Month, a time to recognize and promote efforts to enhance the lives of children and youth in foster care. It’s a month set aside to renew our commitment to ensuring a bright future for the children and youth in foster care, and celebrate all those who make a meaningful difference in their lives.

Here in Oregon, more than 12,000 children and youth will spend time in the foster care system this year. That number is one of the highest percentages of youth in foster care in the entire country. The good news is that Oregon is also home to a unique advocacy group focused on improving the lives of kids in foster care.

Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC), a program of Children First for Oregon, is a statewide, youth led, advocacy group of current and former foster youth between 14 – 25 years of age. OFYC trains and empowers youth to actively participate in the development of policies, programs, and practices that improve the lives of kids in foster care.

Youth members work to educate lawmakers, administrators, and the community about the unique issues facing foster youth. They share youth-created recommendations with the Oregon Department of Human Services, state and federal legislators and local citizens.

OFYC also creates legislation and advocates in the Oregon Legislature. Their two proposed bills during this 2015 session already passed the Oregon House of Representatives by a wide bipartisan margin and now await movement in the Oregon Senate.

On Tuesday, May 26, 2015, OFYC will be honored by the City Club of Portland as a Civic Hero at their annual award ceremony. The award recognizes organizations that empower youth to use their civic voice.

There’s little doubt that OFYC members are using their voices – and using them well – for Oregon’s foster children and youth.

What’s new at Children First for Oregon?

By Tonia Hunt

The answer is: a lot. The last few months at Children First have been a whirlwind.

In February, we launched United for Kids and unveiled the 2015 Children’s Agenda – which compiles the best thinking of 65 pro-child advocacy organizations and coalitions and makes clear to legislators what Oregon’s children need.

As the convener and coordinator of United for Kids, Children First is bringing together a diverse group of voters, child and family advocates, businesses, labor groups, funders, faith communities, and elected leaders to speak with a unified voice for kids.  I urge you to join United for Kids today and add your name to the nearly 5,000 Oregonians who have already signed up to make kids a top public policy priority!

Since the start of the legislative session the Children First staff team has been in Salem every day to support the Children’s Agenda participants and help advance policy items that make kids’ lives better. We have been privileged to work with great advocacy peers to expand access to free school lunch for children from low-income families, health care for all children in Oregon, gun safety to protect children, affordable child care for working families, and adequate school funding – among other issues.  Whether meeting with legislators, offering testimony and floor letters, providing policy and data research, or coordinating behind the scenes with advocacy partners, Children First has been working hard to speak for Oregon’s 860,000 children.

A lot of work remains to make Oregon the best place to be a kid. We can only make that change if you help us. Start today by joining United for Kids, reading our blogs, making a gift, and visiting us on social media. And stay tuned for what we have in store next!

Children First releases 2015 Children’s Agenda

Children First for Oregon is proud to partner with more than 60 advocacy organizations to create a first-ever, coordinated policy agenda for kids for Oregon. The 2015 Children’s Agenda compiles the best thinking about what it will take to make Oregon a great place to be a kid and specific policy recommendations from the community of advocates working on behalf of Oregon’s children and families. Focused on children’s education, economic stability and overall health, the Children’s Agenda captures the depth and breadth of challenges and real solutions that can make a difference for kids in our state. See the full Children’s Agenda here.agenda-blog-graphic-1024x757

Children First for Oregon believes advocates for children are stronger together – a coordinated agenda with shared messaging creates momentum and power in the politically charged world of policy change. The Children’s Agenda is an important step forward for Oregon’s children and we deeply appreciate the contribution and engagement of our advocacy peers. Children First is honored to support our peers and their priorities for children with the Children First advocacy and outreach team.

In the last year Children First has dedicated its energy and resources to expanding its historic leadership role in child well-being measurements and children’s advocacy to include building a constituency for children and serving the advocacy community as a convener and coordinator of a larger pro-child movement. Our goal remains clear and simple: to make Oregon to be a great place to be a kid. Stay tuned for our next steps to engage Oregonians in building a united voice for kids!

To download the 2015 Children’s Agenda or join United for Kids, visit www.ORUnitedforKids.org.

Capitol Update: It’s a wrap! How kids fared in the 2014 legislative session

The 2014 legislative session wrapped today, marking the end of a major budget rebalance that left many state agencies forced to make some difficult cuts. Despite it being a whirlwind session, we were still able to accomplish some important things for Oregon families this year.

Here is a summary of our 2014 priorities:

This year, Children First focused on access to child care assistance for working parents as a key issue. We asked lawmakers to invest in Employment Related Day Care (ERDC) to make the child care subsidy available to more families. While we did not receive the full investment we asked for, we were able to successfully advocate for 400 more program openings. Although we would eventually like ERDC to serve all eligible families, we are happy that more families will be able to use this program right away to seize job opportunities and enroll their children in quality care.

In addition, families currently eligible for ERDC will soon be able to receive child care assistance for the time they are in school. Previously, working parents enrolled in school could only receive child care assistance during working hours, but not during school hours.

A bill that would give kids more food options when they are out of school passed with unanimous support. The summer food program bill, House Bill 4090, will expand the use of state after-school food program mini-grants to include summer meal programs, so that more nutrition programs are available for children during summer break.

Despite gaining the support of the Senate health committee, the Toxics Disclosure for Healthy Kids Act lacked the necessary support to move on to a floor vote. The bill would have required manufacturers to disclose the presence of harmful toxins in children’s products. It would have also required manufacturers to begin phasing out the use of harmful chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives. Proponents plan to bring this bill back in 2015 legislative session.

Children First will continue to advocate for policies and investments that give our children opportunities to thrive and that give families pathways to security during periods of hardship.

Thank you to all of you who participated in our action opportunities this session and wrote your legislators in support of ERDC. We couldn’t do this work without you.

The 2013 legislative session is over. How did children and families fare?

The 2013 legislative session drew to a close this afternoon, wrapping up an intense budget negotiation defined by gridlock over revenue and PERS reform.

By failing to reach a compromise on revenue increases, legislators were unable to strengthen the strained human services budget, impacting programs for low-income children and their families. Although the final budget allowed for small reinvestments in child care, low-income assistance, and child welfare, several vital programs will remain underfunded in the coming year. As a result, thousands of families who need assistance will not be able to access services.

Here’s a summary of how our policy priorities fared this session:

Keeping Kids Safe:

The Foster Youth Bill of Rights passed with unanimous support. We are thrilled to have received such strong support from lawmakers for Oregon’s most vulnerable children. This bill will ensure youth know their rights while in foster care and will finally provide them with a safe way to report violations by establishing a foster care ombudsman in the Governor’s Advocacy office. This is also a big win for the members of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection, who are enjoying their fourth consecutive legislative victory. For updates on the work of OFYC to engage foster youth in child welfare policy, follow them on Facebook.

Although legislators did not fully restore child welfare prevention programs to their pre-recession service levels, the final budget allows for modest increases, including 113 new child welfare caseworkers. This will bring staffing levels from 67% of the minimum standard to 75%. While there is still room to grow, this is a much-needed first step. More staff will reduce caseloads on individual caseworkers, allowing them to perform more critical home visits and implement the Differential Response model, which connects families to the community resources they need to keep children safely at home.

Strengthening Families:

While lawmakers increased Employment Related Day Care (ERDC) by 500 families (up to 9,000 total), the program will remain capped well below the estimated need. Research released by Oregon State University last month shows that child care in some Oregon counties now averages twice the cost of college tuition. This cost places a significant burden on low-income working families trying to get a new start or struggling to get by in these difficult times. We urged lawmakers throughout this session to fully fund ERDC so that all 12,000 eligible families have the opportunity to work and provide their kids with safe child care arrangements. Learn more about how ERDC supports families, businesses, and the economy here.

In a big win for children experiencing poverty, lawmakers maintained, rather than reduced, the 60-month lifetime limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and invested additional funds in its job-training program. While this does not fully fund TANF, the added investment will allow the agency to serve more of its most vulnerable clients.

The budget maintains the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) at the current level (6% of the federal credit). Because EITC has proven itself to be the most effective approach to keeping working families out of poverty, we had hoped to see it expanded to the federal limit of 18%, so families could achieve greater financial security by keeping more of what they earn.

Senator Jackie Winters summed up the need for these investments best, saying “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had jobs where individuals could have their self-worth and dignity to take care of their own families? In the absence of that, we still need to have certainty that children and families are taken care of….”

We couldn’t agree more, which is why we will continue to advocate each session for budgets and programs that safeguard children and families through periods of hardship.
Thank you to all of you who participated in our action opportunities this session and wrote your legislators in support of ERDC and the Foster Youth Bill of Rights. We couldn’t do this work without you.