Youths advocate for foster care

Brevard Youth Leadership Council members Rayla James and John Watson visit Tallahassee with Angela Oliver-Burgess, Phil Scarpelli, Julie Boynton and others during Children’s Week to advocate for youth in foster care with local legislators.

This is a continuation from the story “Brevard County youth honored for advocacy” printed in last week’s edition.

BREVARD COUNTY — Two young adults were honored with Outstanding Youth Awards for their advocacy efforts in the foster care system.

John Watson and Rayla James have been working with Brevard Family Partnership under its Brevard Youth Leadership Council to make positive changes and raise the voices of youth in the foster care system in Brevard.

The BYLC also partners with the Brevard Youth Thrive Action Committee, which is comprised of adults who work under BFP, Family Allies, Guardian Ad Litem and other agencies.

Some of the ways in which the BYLC has increased engagement with youth in foster care is by launching a committee specifically to hear out the youth who wish to voice opinions and share any issues regarding the system of care.

Ms. James shared that by listening to these youth, BYLC can take these concerns back to the action committee and BFP so they can work together to make positive changes.

“You think about the importance of their voice, of children who have been through the system, and 30 years ago when I started all this after graduate school, there weren’t opportunities where children’s voices were heard,” said Phil Scarpelli, CEO of BFP.

“Such insight to professionals, insight to families who consider fostering/adopting kids, have really opened up doors of communication and understanding,” he continued. “We, in fact, today, do a better job meeting these kids. It’s not a perfect system, but we’re lightyears ahead of where we once were.”

Florida is one of the few states in the nation to have privatized the child welfare system, which led to a movement toward change and innovation, Mr. Scarpelli noted.

In the early days of privatization, Mr. Scarpelli explained how organizations became too focused on the legalities of managing the system instead of on the children it was trying to protect.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Mr. Scarpelli said. “Many, many years later we got wise and realized that if we truly want youth to grow up in and outside of that system, we’d have to devise a way to have people within the system – foster parents, social workers – to understand that these children need to experience as much of a normal life in a very irregular way.

“Foster care was never meant to be a permanent status, it’s a temporary status by which the system has to mitigate and ameliorate issues with moms and dads who are struggling,” Mr. Scarpelli added.

Normalcy has since been written into operating procedures to give children in foster care a chance to live as much as a normal life possible.

“When I first thought about this [BYLC] program four years ago, I would have never thought that we would have been at this stage so quickly,” said Dr. Angela Oliver-Burgess, founder and president of Smile for Budgie. “They’re the reason why I get up and keep doing what I do, even when I hit obstacles. If these young people can be up and advocating, we need to be their champions and make sure their voices are widely heard by all.”

Mr. Watson shared that it’s important for foster families and those interested in becoming a foster parent to understand that every child is one caring home away from being a success story.

Having moved around to different foster families while living in the system, Mr. Watson attributed his success to the current foster family he lives with, whom he considers as family.

“No matter what I did or said, they wouldn’t kick me out, which was something I was not used to or sure how to react to,” Mr. Watson said. “Them being there for me gave me a lot of room to grow and develop as a person. I definitely attribute a lot of my success today to that caring family that wouldn’t let go.”

Mr. Watson is looking forward to starting his first semester at the University of Central Florida, having earned his Associate’s degree from Eastern Florida State College this summer.

His goal is to earn his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and one day hope to enter the field of child welfare.

Ms. James is also beginning her first semester at the University of Central Florida after earning her Associate’s degree. She will work toward a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

“As far as child welfare goes, I see myself staying with the council forever,” Ms. James said. “I want to continue to be a voice for those in care, and after I have biological children and they’re out of the house, I’m going to become a foster parent.”

Brevard Family Partnership currently hosts a virtual “Foster Parent Information Session” twice a month on its Facebook page at 4 p.m. with the next few online sessions scheduled for Sept. 22; Oct. 13, 27; Nov. 10, 24; Dec. 8, 22.

On October 5, BFP will launch “The Real Deal” a Facebook broadcast featuring foster parents and their experiences as a means to break down barriers and stigmas, as well as to share how becoming a foster parent is a positive life-changing experience.

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Associate Managing Editor

I have been a Viera resident for 15 years and a writer my whole life. I love to travel when the opportunity presents itself, as well as try new things.

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