Last Thursday, the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Multicultural Center (MCC) hosted a discussion titled, “Care or Criminalization?: BIPOC Youth in Foster Care.”
The panelists were Ali Guajardo, Eclasia Wesley, Kayla Martensen, and Levette Morales, and the discussions were moderated by Isabella Restrepo.
Having experienced the foster care system themselves, the panelists discussed various struggles they faced growing up and the issues they continue to see as they work with today’s foster youth. The topics discussed affect Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) youth currently in foster care, or who have already left the foster care system, and can be especially relevant for students at UCSB.
A central point of the conversation revolved around the lack of autonomy and constant surveillance that youth in foster care experience.
Martensen pointed out that youth involved in court-related issues are often forced to undergo therapy and rehabilitation and complete similar programs, as well. Unlike normal court-related issues, which have a set end date, foster youth in special court circumstances do not know how long they have to remain in these programs.
As such, they are monitored for an indefinite amount of time. As soon as they make one slip-up, they have to return to the beginning and restart the entire process, and the likelihood of them remaining in foster care increases.
Even for youth who are not involved in these special court programs, the state’s foster care system is constantly surveilling what each foster child is doing and where they are through social workers, probation officers, clinicians, and more.
At the end of the day, whether it’s the state’s foster care system having a tight grip on everyone’s whereabouts, or someone being forced to attend therapy, these youth find themselves trapped and smothered.
This leads to foster youth trying to reclaim their lack of autonomy through subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, ways.
Guajardo recounted a story about a girl in foster care who stole something. When questioned about it, she remained completely silent, knowing that she did not have to say anything. That sense of knowing that she had the autonomy to remain silent, that she didn’t have to do something she didn’t want to do, was liberating for her.
For Morales, this act of autonomy manifested itself as running away from her foster home and stealing a car. The foster home that she was in was abusive, but no one would listen to her or take her out of it. As a result, she took matters into her own hands and did what she had to do to save her life.
However, Guajardo points out that as liberating these small moments of civil disobedience can be, they can lead to more problems down the road. These acts of resistance can push foster youth deeper into the never-ending surveillance of the foster care system and further problems with the law — an issue BIPOC youth are already disproportionately affected by.
Moreover, when these youth begin to commit crimes out of desperation, they get labeled as criminals. Rather than being viewed holistically as human beings like everyone else, the panelists say, they become ostracized and viewed as “troubled kids” and it becomes difficult to make genuine connections with other students.
This can also become an issue for foster youth who go to college. Coming from such a controlling environment where no one seems to listen to them, it’s difficult to search for help. The panelists discussed how many foster-home students find it difficult to trust the university staff who are meant to support them because they resemble a mirror image of the staff from the foster care system.
To make matters worse, Wesley said staff from both UCSB and the foster care system often lack trauma-informed training. This kind of training focuses on a holistic understanding of foster youth and their trauma, rather than just punishing them in hopes that they become less troublesome.
To help with these flaws in the system, UCSB’s Guardian Scholars Program works with incoming and current students who have been through foster care to provide academic advising, mentoring, social support, and more.
Students’ testimonies about the program often praise the strong sense of community this program provides.
One sociology student, Spechell Colbert, said, “Guardian Scholars was the very first community that I felt welcomed in. Everyone that I have met has been so genuinely nice and welcoming. We’re a little family here. You’re not alone — there are other people who are going through the same things, and we can get through it together.”
However, the MCC panel discussed another key challenge that many foster care youths face: homelessness.
As someone who grew up as a foster youth in Los Angeles, Guajardo noted that, over time, his city ended up developing an impressive safety net that included stipends for housing, housing resources, and more.
In contrast, Santa Barbara County lacks such a safety net. This issue is especially pertinent because of the current housing crisis in the Santa Barbara area.
For the most part, foster youth are not wealthy and so finding housing is especially difficult. Thus, the lack of wealth and resources coupled with Santa Barbara’s current housing crisis creates a nightmare situation for foster youth in Santa Barbara.
The Guardian Scholars Program tries to combat this by giving former foster youth priority placements when it comes to choosing campus housing.
These are some of the challenges that BIPOC youth in foster care face. However, even for college students who have left the system, these issues still cling to them, making what should be a time to form new friends and develop themselves emotionally and professionally a difficult experience.
Thankfully, the Guardian Scholars Program made it their mission to help former foster youth in every way possible, from providing resources for necessities such as housing to simply giving these students someone who actually understands and cares about them.
As Liam Wall, a Physics and Psychological and Brain Sciences major, put it, “The program feels like I have people looking out for me. They provide a safe support system on campus that is very inclusive but not overwhelming.”