I Consider All of the Children Who Are Living in Detention Facilities, Group Homes, and Foster Care to Be My Siblings
by Jennifer Rodriguez, #LwC2018
September 13, 2018
“I spent my childhood in foster care and I was in and out of the juvenile justice system from the time I was twelve years old, often because a more suitable placement couldn’t be found.”
The way children are pushed from foster care to juvenile and adult justice systems has not been given enough attention. It’s very common to move youth between systems even though we know that spending even one night in the juvenile justice system exposes you to a multitude of harms. When I exited my last placement, I was in the same position I had been in when I entered foster care. I had no relationships with adults. I was homeless. I had a juvenile record. I had no education. I had moved so many times that I had never completed a single semester anywhere. Most importantly, I didn’t have a vision for my future and I didn’t have the belief in myself that would be necessary to have or execute a dream.
My road from system involvement to lawyer and leader required supportive policies and programs and the investment of adults who cared. I went to Job Corps, received my GED and was able to start at a community college. I had a teacher who became my mentor. She was the first person who believed I had potential and could have an impact on the world around me. She told me I could be anything I wanted to be. I realized that what I really wanted to do was to make sure that system-involved children had a different life than mine, and that those systems treated them like the special, unique and amazing potential leaders that they are. I don’t have any siblings, but I consider all of the children who are living today in detention facilities, group homes and foster care to be my siblings. I wanted to be their advocate, so I went to law school and I received my law degree in 2004.
I have been working at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center for 11 years, the last six as Executive Director. We are a national organization and we’ve worked in 37 states and Washington, D.C. Our advocacy is focused on system transformation, and the strategies we use are targeted to have the greatest impact for children–litigation, policy reform, public education, technical assistance, and collaboration. The problems and solutions we work on are identified by the children and families that are most affected and we integrate cutting edge research from other fields–brain science, child and adolescent development, and marketing and branding–into our work. Our Quality Parenting Initiative is aimed at strengthening foster care. We’ve introduced it into close to 80 jurisdictions across the country. We work to create opportunity for justice involved youth by prioritizing the relationships between parenting youth and their children (including fathers) in our Just Beginning Program, and work to build pathways between higher education and the juvenile justice system so that youth have the access, information and supports to attend and excel in college. Most importantly, our goal is to change the culture of these systems so that instead of seeing the youth in their care as a laundry list of the worst experiences and things they ever did, they see them as they were meant to be seen: as whole and valuable children who are worthy of love, who will be the parents of the next generation and as promising and inspiring leaders who will be neighbors, colleagues and friends.
I often tell people that I have learned the most about what children deserve and how much we need to transform the system from my 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. Their job as teenagers is to take risks and challenge authority to become independent, and my job is not to punish them, but to protect them from harm and help them learn and use those experiences to launch themselves into the world. The only way to do that is with love, compassion and in the context of family. That’s what our systems have to understand.
The Leading with Conviction training has been a life-changing experience. When I look at the amount of growth I’ve experienced in my own work over the past year in the areas where I have been the most stuck, I am inspired that anything is possible. This is important, because the issues we are tackling are the hardest and can seem intractable. For us to lead the necessary transformation of policy, practice and culture, we need the best possible leadership training, skills, and coaching, and that’s what we are receiving through JustLeadershipUSA.