AAPI, Mental Health Awareness, and Foster Care Month Blog by Catalyst Center Staff Member Selena Liu Raphael

May 15, 2023

AAPI, Mental Health Awareness, and Foster Care Month,

Guest Blog by Catalyst Center Staff Member Selena Liu Raphael

She was 15 years old and one of the first 15 children assigned to me when I began working as a FFA case manager in 2002. She was of Chinese heritage like me, and also had a DCFS CSW who was Chinese too from the specialized API unit of LA DCFS. While I knew at the time that this cultural match was rare and significant, it strikes me 21 years later as even more special than I realized at the time.

Without sharing the specifics of her story as they aren’t mine to share, what I distinctly remember is her telling her CSW and me that what would feed her wellbeing most would be for us to help her focus on her education. Over the three years while she was in high school, she initially tried all the things that had been suggested to her. There was therapy and group therapy, and more than one foster home that didn’t quite fit for her but at least managed the job of keeping her in her desired community where there were plenty of other Asian kids and she felt she belonged.

One day she asked while we were in the car together if I would let her stop going to therapy. She feared that opening the wounds of her trauma would prevent her from reaching the goals she had for herself. On the flip side, I told her that I worried perhaps that if she stuffed down the trauma, perhaps it might implode and unexpectedly keep her from her dreams too. She promised that she would keep this in mind, but that what she needed most was to be able to focus on herself, not the people who had hurt her for so long and already delayed her thriving for most of her childhood.

I know from my own family history that there is something cultural about silencing and compartmentalizing trauma. Conversely, from my marriage and family therapy studies, I also believed in the power of therapy too. But what was important in this moment is what mattered to her. And what she said mattered to her in that moment was getting on the path to self-sufficiency, starting with getting to university.

Together, her CSW and I attended college tours with her, completed FAFSA paperwork, attended the United Friends of the Children graduation event, found money for prom as well as the graduation costs, and attended the commencement ceremonies at her high school. Although part of her wanted the opportunity of attending an elite private university, she also understood the crippling impact of debt and that she might have a higher chance of long-term success within a community of those who understood her life experiences. She chose CalPoly Pomona because of their relatively new at the time Renaissance Scholars program that would give support through college as a former foster youth, a work/study program with hands on experience, a place to stay during holiday weeks and a sense of belonging. Although her “case” had long closed, four years later, her CSW and I attended her graduation together. And shortly after that, when she got her first full time job, she invited us out to dinner, saying she wanted to use part of her first paycheck to say thankyou to her CSW and me for listening to what she wanted.

It’s been more than 20 years since I first met this young person who shaped my professional career. So for me, there is no place that makes more sense for our first Transition Aged Youth in-person convening, on May 22nd, 2023 than the campus of CalPoly Pomona where this first foster youth I had ever served studied, from the very hospitality program she graduated from.

As we think about what wellness means, I think back to all the things she taught me. That listening to what she most needed to get to where she wanted in life was most important. That effective partnership between those trying to help her was critical.

Necessarily, while she was in care, saying yes to certain things meant saying no to others. There were choices around seeking legal permanency vs. staying in her community, focusing her mental health on her future vs. healing from her past. There was the choice about seeking justice in the court of law or in her view, seeking justice by finding her own success.  Over the subsequent years there have been just as many youth who have defined their wellness path differently, and honoring them individually and supporting them in those choices has been equally important.  

At our May convening, generously funded by the Take Action LA grant in celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ll be focused on some of these varying ways that wellness can be fueled for youth. We’ll see and hear the stories from Transition Aged Youth themselves. From artwork and music, to finding a therapist that is a cultural fit, to exploring whether safety and healing can be restored within families, especially among LGBTQIA+ youth. While education felt like the right path for the one I shared about, for others, until they are taught in ways that help them see themselves in the curriculum, the learning can feel like it is meant for others, not them. We’ll also look at data and how this adds to the stories we hear. And we’ll look at innovative housing solutions because without a safe place to call home, whether it is a job or school or raising a child, thriving into adulthood becomes that much harder. More than all of this, there is the forging of connections and relationships and building more partnerships. We have a long way to go to help ALL youth exiting foster care or the juvenile justice system, but the core belief is that listening and partnering together to achieve it is the only way we’ll get there. There are still spots open, so click HERE to learn more and register!

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander month as well, to my former foster youth, my former LA DCFS partner and all those celebrating the unique heritage we share! Apropos, this year’s theme for the month is, “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration!”    

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