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Championing Change: My Journey from Foster Youth to Advocate

Guest Post by Celeste Walley, Permanency & Youth Engagement Specialist
Photos from ACRC's 68th Conference and Celeste's award presentation.

Foster Care Awareness Month (May)  

As we close out May. I want to submit my own reflection for the month that has been coined ‘foster care awareness month’. My name is Celeste Walley, and I am the permanency and youth engagement specialist at the CA Alliance Catalyst Center. I am also a former foster youth of the California child welfare system and a proud advocate for all youth impacted by the child welfare, behavioral health, carceral and medical systems. As an advocate for this community, it is my job to uplift important issues and legislation happening at both the state and local level. One issue I want to raise during the month when the call to action is for awareness is legislation AB 2906 authored by Asm. Issac Bryan and co-authored by Asm. Mike Gipson. AB 2906 hopes to address the misuse of social security dollars on behalf of youth placed in foster care.  

Currently:  

California foster care children are fighting for millions of dollars of their own benefits. County placing agencies in California are required to screen for federal SSI benefits on behalf of eligible youth in their care over 16. Advocates report that these agencies often fail to notify the youth and their attorneys that they are applying for benefits, and report that after the youth has been approved for benefits, county placing agencies automatically apply to serve as representative payees for the youth and use the youth’s funds to reimburse themselves for the costs of the child’s care. 

Changes requested in the bill:  

This bill, among other things, would require counties to instead use this money for the best interest of the youth and/or conserve the funds for the youth to access when they have aged out of the system, and to notify youth when applications for benefits are being made on their behalf. For foster youth who have lost a parent, this money could make all the difference in the world.   

My Impact statement:  

I was amazed to see AB 2906 and the discussion of foster youth rights to access survivor benefits finally happening just of shy of seven years since I turned 18 and 4 years since I was no longer eligible for AB 12 services.  

My father died when I was 13. My family, I would argue like most low income black/minority and inner-city families, wasn’t the priviest on how to support your loved ones once they’ve passed. I would say I was happy or even proud to name that my family took initiative to get life insurance for my father. Their hopes laid in the belief that this system support could pay for the proper treatment for not only my father but continue providing support for the two children that he leaves behind in the world, Celeste and Connie Walley, but this did not happen.  

Losing my father, wasn’t the sole reason we went into foster care, but I will say that a unemployed, single mother, dealing with substance-abuse issues, losing their then partner trying to manage raising children on her own only with the support of Social Security benefits wasn’t an easy job and her efforts to keep us safe were unsuccessful.  

Due to this, we entered care just a few years later. I formally came into non-kinship care at the age of 15 through the facilitation of a foster family agency. Me and my sister were placed into an intensive foster care treatment home with a foster parent who was trained through the FFA on how to support youth with significant behavioral challenges.  

I knew about the survivor benefits because I had been told by my family that once I turned 16 until I turned 18, I would be eligible to start receiving this money and my family had plans to put it into a savings account for me.  

Upon my entry into care, how could we know that the system would continue to find ways to take things they had no right too. I vividly remember asking so many questions to my social worker about why I wasn’t getting my money. My mother, as his widow, was receiving her benefits and so I didn’t understand why my father ‘s children weren’t. I know that it was what he wished for us. 

I never stopped asking for this money!  

When I turned 16, AB 12 had been introduced to me as an additional money supplement that I was eligible for as long as I stayed a ward of court (worked or went to school) and didn’t emancipate and return home once I turned 18. (Another funny law that was also recently changed.)  

I never stopped asking about this money!  

My birthday is in September, and I would be 17 1/2 when it was time for me to opt into AB 12. I begged my social worker to figure out a loophole for my benefits. Was there any way, even if it was a small amount a possibility, to get my benefits for the 1-2 months before I turned 18? (There wasn’t...)  

Looking back, I should’ve been able to have the support of AB12(the state) and the money that my father had left for me! AB12 was money that the state decided to give to me because I was now their problem. The survivor benefits that my father left behind was not because we were his problem. It’s because we were his world. We were his life. He wanted us to continue with the support necessary, even if he wasn’t there. Knowing that my father had hopes of putting us in a position to be OK and knowing that the county who was responsible for us deprived us of this care, is wrong. It’s not something that we should have our hands on. 

I am relieved to see this issue is finally being addressed and thankful to Assemblymember Bryan for his leadership. It’s such an important issue that is hidden under a cast of shadiness that seeps out from our system. I’m happy it’s a story being brought to light, and I want to be a part of bringing it to the light! 

Youth already face enough trauma and disruption upon entering and interfacing with the systems I mentioned previously. I am continuously shocked to find out the many ways injustice prevails in our systems but in the same breath, I am also continuously inspired by the voices of those impacted and the will of our leaders to do something about it. My story, unfortunately, isn't uncommon but we can change that with bills that seek the undoing of injustice like AB2906. Don't just be inspired during the month - we are celebrating the brilliance that are foster youth, mobilize with intention and raise the necessary awareness for the continued battle this community faces because the work isn't done!  Join me in supporting AB 2906 and in other efforts to dismantle barriers in our State so foster youth cannot just survive but thrive.  

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