Each year during National Adoption Month, AdoptUSKids, the Children’s Bureau, and the Child Welfare Information Gateway identify a theme for their awareness and recruitment campaign messaging. Past years have had themes of “Youth Voices: Why Family Matters,” “In Their Own Words: Lifting Up Youth Voices,” and “Teens Need Families, No Matter What.” This year’s initiative is focused on “Engage Youth: Listen and Learn.”
Before we dig into why that theme and what it means, though, time for a show of hands: Who remembers being a teenager? Remember being so eager to get your driver’s license? The first time you earned a curfew later than your younger siblings: didn’t that make you feel a little more grown-up than you were just a few minutes before? And the prospect of graduation and the Future, with a capital F – would you get into college? Would your high school relationship continue after graduation? At what point were you supposed to know what you wanted to do with your life?
Those are all defining moments of being a teen. But of all the things that define the teenage years, being heard may be one of the most important. Here you are, on the cusp of “real” adulthood, with your own convictions and ideas about your life, your own voice that is yours alone. You’re not just someone’s little sister, or the school mascot, or last year’s student government treasurer – you’re your own person. Maybe it took you a while to find your voice, but now that you have it, you want to use it often. And more than that: you want the people who matter most – parents, mentors, friends – to ask for your perspective, and then listen to it.
While all youth have a desire to be included and listened to, it is of utmost importance to those in foster care. Teens in foster care may not have had much say in the path their lives have taken, but they certainly have ideas about the shape of their future. It’s critical to encourage youth to be engaged in conversations about their future – doing so empowers the youth to feel as though she is seen as an individual, and can share her thoughts. It also helps build resilience and confidence: each time you speak up for yourself, it helps you feel more capable of doing so, and can help you deal with tough situations in the future.
So this month while we focus on celebrating adoptions, we also focus on the importance of hearing what young people are saying – about what they need in a family, what they want, what’s most important to them. Listening to youth in foster care can give us new insight into what a particular teen needs or wants. Maybe they don’t want to be part of a big family with lots of siblings. Maybe they want a family that adheres to their same faith traditions or is of the same race. Maybe they’re not sure they want to be adopted, but would be open to guardianship or informal supports. Maybe they don’t know yet — and that’s okay! We need to be sure we’re hearing that uncertainty too, and helping youth feel safe and empowered to “unpack” that.
If you’re interested in reading some stories written by youth who were in foster care, we encourage you to visit the National Adoption Month website. (If you prefer video over written narratives, they have that too!)