Ashley Foster - The Value of My Voice
For Ashley Foster, it was a journey to become the keynote speaker at the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) “Leaders in Training” Summit. A long way from attending her first YAB meeting, an even greater distance from the feelings of disempowerment she experienced as a youth in care.
While speaking at the podium, the microphone was not the true mechanism for transmitting her voice. It was her message – “Speak up,” she said in a clear and convincing tone. “Question what is going on and the people sitting at the table”.
“No one knows you better than you,” she told the youth in the audience.
As an adolescent, Ashley entered a system struggling with youth engagement and the youth voice. While physically included in case reviews and discussions about her placements, she did not understand what these meetings were for, making it difficult for her to contribute. She also did not feel heard or valued. “I was told what to do,” Ashley recounts.
At the time, her family system and the child protective services system were acting in a parallel process – excluding her voice.
Ashley quickly learned how to navigate the environment. As a 16 year old youth, “Fake it until you make it,” was a term she heard often. When facing the system, you “Don’t put up a fight,” Ashley remembers.
Youth in care present with unique responses to their personal experiences and may embrace the support offered to them in non-traditional ways. It is incumbent upon the adults in their life to understand the meaning behind their behaviors. When missed, the impact can be significant. A clear example of this is Ashley’s story of where she lived for years of her life.
Growing up, Ashley recalls “Everyone was always telling me something was wrong with me. I was blamed for everything.” This lead to her not wanting to engage in therapy as it was viewed as yet another way in which her faults would be discussed. Yet, while in care, her “unwillingness” to engage in treatment was viewed as her being “non-compliant.” The result was that decisions were made for her to be placed into congregate care settings rather than a family.
Her path on life’s journey was not positive. Enter the Youth Advisory Board.
Ashley credits the Youth Advisory Board with helping her understand that her experiences were not what they should have been. With each meeting attended, she started to feel empowered. The confusing pieces of the Agency’s work became a little clearer. “If I knew things sooner, life could have been different,” she stated.
Impacted by the positive YAB message, she now began speaking up. Challenging the adults around her, influencing her own future.
“Personally, if you tell me I will fail, I will show you the opposite,” she clearly stated. This one sentence may give us the most Insight into Ashley’s strength.
Through the YAB, Ashley became part of the process with her peers to influence the system. As their voices were heard and momentum was gaining, the members pushed for legislation to ensure a better experience for future generations of youth in care. They advocated for the Children in Care Bill of Rights and Expectations and the Siblings Bill of Rights and both bills were promulgated into state statute this past legislative session. A true testament to the power of our youth!
Through the YAB, Ashley realized her passion for helping others to assist them with life’s struggles. She switched her major from Nursing and graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in 2016 with a degree in Social Work. Immediately upon graduation, she became a social worker in the DCF Milford Office.
Once a DCF youth in care, now a DCF Social Worker.
Ashley now sees the Agency from a different perspective – an insider. She believes the Agency has changed for the positive. Youth do have more of a voice and greater emphasis is placed on youth engagement in their planning and placement decisions.
In thinking back on her early days with the Department, Ashley recalls some staff did initially question if she could do the job, given her past. They underestimated her strength. Ashley is clear, “Trauma of your past can turn into a strength.” Those experiences she had growing up, and while in care, “Helped build the person I am, the values I have,” she stated. Now, her colleagues value her experiences and have asked her to go with them so she can assist with difficult discussions with adolescents on their own caseloads. Youth around the state have outreached to her directly for advice.
Ashley still attends the YAB meetings and looks for ways to empower youth just like what she needed years ago. Concurrently, she has thoughts for the staff in her own agency that work with youth just like her years ago.
“What we do now impacts future generations,” she pointed out. Reinforcing the need to continue to look across the Agency and all systems that impact youth, to ensure they have the youth voice embedded in policies and practices. While well intended, she also emphasizes that staff cannot get “Stuck in procedures and methods.” Pointing out that given the rapid pace of the work and risks identified, often what is in front of us may not be clearly seen. “We do not see the full effect of our actions,” she stated. The system must “Make room for individuality and the uniqueness of youth,” she added.
In her opinion, the ultimate question we strive to answer is “How are we meeting the needs of the youth?”
Her voice has been heard, and her actions have been recognized.
In 2018, she received the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) Cassaundra Rainey Youth Champion award in recognition of her personal and professional commitment to improving the lives of children who enter or are at risk of entering foster care. She accepted her award during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
She was not done.
In 2019, Ashley earned her Master’s in Social Work degree from Fordham University.
She earned both her degrees while parenting a son with specialized needs.
She was not done.
Ashley recently passed the State of Connecticut Licensed Master’s in Social Work (LMSW) exam.
What have all of these life experiences taught her? “I did not relax growing up,” Ashley stated. “Now, I appreciate the little things in life.” This includes just being able to sit on the couch in a quite house. “I don’t take anything for granted.”
During the interview, she expressed that her childhood, “Taught me to give my son what he needs. A better life than I had.” Perhaps that statement should have included “sons” as Ashley is now licensed as a pre-adoptive parent with the plan to adopt a two year-old little boy.
The message in Ashley Foster’s 15 minute keynote speech was far greater than the individual words. That focused and articulate young woman who stood so strongly in front of colleagues and youth was an example of resilience. An example of the power of the human spirit.
Perhaps the greatest irony of her story is that the system did not value Ashley Foster’s voice but Ashley Foster’s voice is the value in the system.
A former youth in care. A DCF worker. A mom. A future adoptive parent. An advocate.
Meet the empowered Ashley Foster.