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KEENE

Finding a voice in the system

Foster kids embrace Bill of Rights

The little girl in the picture looked up at the camera, big brown eyes wide, an expression of curiosity on her face.

As the picture changed to one of the girl walking through a field of grass, Kendra Guay's voice narrated her life story to a room full of strangers.

"Because of my ADHD, teachers treated me like a delinquent. I was convinced nobody was caring enough to listen to my story," she said.

Guay, now 23 and a master's degree student at UNH, used the video to tell her story, the story of just one of the hundreds of youth in foster care and other alternative placements in New Hampshire every year.

"It was scary to say to the world, 'this is how I grew up.' But it was also liberating," she said.

Yesterday was the eighth annual Division for Children, Youth and Families Teen Conference, held this year at Keene State College. More than half of the kids ages 14 to 20 who live in residential care facilities attended. They played icebreaker games, learned what they'll need to do to successfully apply to college, and heard from kids who were just like them not too long ago.

Guay and nine other former wards of the state made videos as a three-day project with professional video editors from the National Resource Center for Permanency at the Hunter College School of Social Work. The folks from New York came to New Hampshire armed with computers, cameras and editing software. The youths provided photos and their stories.

 Not alone

They all spoke afterward to the audience, more than 120 of those same youths, drawn together from across the state for the day, where they learned a number of lessons: They're not alone, their stories count, and they have rights.

At last year's conference, a group of youths began crafting a Bill of Rights they wanted the state to acknowledge and promote to kids in the system. Yesterday, DCYF Director Maggie Bishop signed the bill, along with one developed regionally to secure the rights of siblings in state care throughout New England, and every student got a copy of both.

The Sibling Bill of Rights, an initiative of the New England Youth Advisory Council, will act as a guiding policy for the division in the future, she said.

"There may not be a law that says siblings should be placed together if possible, but philosophically, they have that right. There might be safety reasons we can't fulfill it, but we consider it like a right, and they will be informed and part of the process, as appropriate," she said.

Bishop said the division is "100 percent behind" the sentiment of the Bill of Rights, at least partly because it continues to put the safety of children and youth first.

"It says in it, 'when appropriate,' " she said. "Our priority is always that the kids are safe, but as human beings, they have a right to know what is going on and to have a voice. They know they won't always get what they want, but that they will have input. And why shouldn't they? It's their lives. Any of us, you want to feel your voice is heard."

"Every kid has a story to tell and those stories can be lessons learned to the adults working for them."

Corey, who's 17 and declined to give his last name, said in his video that he felt invisible when adults spoke about his case like he wasn't in the room.

"I did everything they wanted me to, but . . . I was powerless," he said.

Things started to change when he stood up for himself, he said.

"At first, I did it by pounding my fists on the table and yelling at people until they had to stop and listen. That doesn't get you very far. I got fed up and realized it wasn't getting me anywhere, so I had my social worker set the schedule of meetings so that I could control it."

At age 13, he went back home, "because people had begun to listen."

 Right to family visits

Besides the right to be involved in their case plan development, the Bill of Rights assures kids in the state's care that, among other things, they can have uncensored communication and visits with friends and family, to have access to medical care and be fully informed of the risks and benefits of medication and medical procedures, and to participate in "normal" activities consistent with their age and development level.

Knowing that she had that right would have made a world of difference for Emily Quigley, a division staffer who used to be in state care.

When she was a teen, she lived in a group home where "normalcy wasn't a priority," she said. The kids weren't allowed to participate in extracurricular activities because the practice times conflicted with counseling.

She left almost 10 years ago, on her 18th birthday, because she wasn't allowed to go on a date.

"It was just a normal thing to do, and I wasn't given any choice in the matter, so I left," she said. "We want to be normal kids and do the things normal kids do. These are normal kids in abnormal situations.

"I can't go back and change the way things happened for me, but I can change how it works for other youth still in care."

Helping other kids in the system was the driving force for many of the youth leaders at the event yesterday.

 'I'm a fighter'

Mariah, 17, was 13 when a social worker packed her things, filled out a tall pile of paperwork and drove her half an hour away to a foster home.

Left with nothing except assurances that "this is temporary," she sat at the kitchen table alone for hours. The home later proved to be run by a woman who used the kids' scheduled visits with their biological families as a weapon.

If the girls didn't do their chores exactly right, if they didn't finish their homework, their weekly visits with family would be canceled, something that's been against the law and is now also listed in the Bill of Rights.

"It amazes me how a person can make you feel so worthless," Mariah said.

But she eventually spoke out. She told her social worker what was happening, and they arranged a new placement for her.

"I am a fighter," she said in the video, "and I believe that no child should ever be taken away from a bad situation just to be put into another."

Since then, she's been active by being on the Youth Advisory Board, representing the southern New Hampshire region, she said in a later interview.

They work on long-term projects like planning the annual conference and a food drive and writing and collecting letters to members of the armed forces on active duty, and they "clean up the stupid little stuff," the state policies that can be fixed easily.

Youth in state care have always had the rights listed in the bill, but they haven't been known or publicized much before, she said.

"I hope more of (the youth) will stand up now. A lot of them don't know what they can do."

Alex Myers, 18, is the president of the Youth Advisory Board, and though he's out of placement now too, he stayed involved with the board to keep helping other kids in state care.

He also wants to educate the broader community.

"I feel like most people don't know anything about kids in placements," he said. "The stereotype is that they're troublemakers, but all of them are good kids. They made mistakes and they've been misled in life, and need to turn it around, but the more support we have, the easier that will be."

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SpalermoNews.)

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