Mentoring At-Risk Youth

At the age of 24, Marisa works at Children’s Law Center of California (CLC) in Los Angeles, where she helps foster youth access the resources they need to advocate for themselves. Marisa spent her early years shuffling between relatives in Mexico and California before going into foster care at the age of 12. Despite the challenges she faced though, Marisa persevered and emancipated at 19. Today, she has become a thriving young career woman. She’s a graduate of California State University–Long Beach (CSULB), a study abroad alum and a former intern for Latino Family Institute. She also helped establish the first foster youth student organization, which empowers students to raise awareness about issues affecting foster care through peer mentorship and networking. In her own words, Marisa shares her experiences of working for the CLC while reflecting on her past years in foster care.

Having been a former foster youth and now working for the CLC on the other side of the child welfare system, has been an eye-opening journey. I’ve gained more confidence and a sense of purpose. Above all, I’ve learned three important things.

#1: Our voice as former foster youth is valuable.

Being in the foster care system, youth often feel voiceless and doubt their importance. Many youth want to erase this part of their lives and try to be normal. But the reality is that our lived experiences–both good and bad–brings us a level of expertise, can shape the foster care system and help professionals understand how to work with young adults.

Through coaching over the years, I have learned to use my own negative experiences in foster care as fuel.

Violence was a constant in my home, and eventually my father was incarcerated due to his physical abuse. That prompted an investigation by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and my mother feared my brother and I would be separated. So we fled to my grandparents’ home near the California-Mexico border. Sadly though, a few months later my grandfather or “abuelito” passed away. He was the glue that kept my family together and the main breadwinner, so his passing made things tougher. But I kept believing that my way out of all the challenges would be through my education–that constant hope was what kept me going all those years.

I now know my worth and understand that our voice does matter, and I stress this to the young adults I work with to give them hope for their future. Seeing many of my peers and myself beat the odds, go to college and give back to the foster care community has been motivation enough for me to continue working to advocate for change.

#2: Each foster care experience is unique.

Working at CLC today, I’ve learned more about the diversity of foster care situations of the young adults I advocate for. Foster care is different for each individual.

I went into foster care at 12 when my family fell apart. My brother suddenly went to live with his father in Arizona and shortly after that, I went back to the U.S. alone. My mother stayed behind, which to this day I still don’t know why. I returned to DCFS’ supervision and they sent me to live with many of my dysfunctional family members all over California. As I approached my teenage years though, I started running out of family members to live with. Finally I was placed in a foster home just before my 15th birthday.

Today, while I do have high expectations for any youth I advocate for, I understand each one still has more learning to do. Some youth are very independent. Some require more specialized care. Some mask their feelings with drugs or alcohol. Some excel academically. Some have intellectual or physical disabilities. And some are artistic, stubborn and intelligent. I don’t give up on them or pretend to know everything; rather I hear out each youth individually to understand their fears and dreams and help them create a vision for their life.

#3: Advocating for youth can be demanding and disheartening, but rewarding overall.

I personally know that it’s easy to get discouraged or burned out after years of advocating for youth. I have been exposed to the full scope of child welfare, from helping youth who have experienced homelessness and severe mental health issues, to ones becoming scholars and entrepreneurs. While it has been frustrating and heartbreaking to work with young homeless adults and only be able to offer them shelter (because the waitlist and intake process for housing programs was too long), it’s also been amazing to see the resilience of young people despite their struggles.

During my foster care experience, I faced struggles. I felt exploited and neglected, like the foster care system created unnecessary barriers for me to succeed. After researching ways to emancipate and learning about housing options and basic rights for foster youth (which had never been mentioned to me before by any social worker), I was determined one day to make fellow foster youth more equipped.

I got an opportunity to work at CLC which represents children in foster care, while attending college and taking my pre-social work courses. Excited to make a difference, I applied to their Peer Advocate Program which pairs advocates who are former foster youth with attorneys to help them build self-sufficiency. After a long process, I was hired as a Peer Advocate.

Three years later after I received my social work degree, I was promoted to the position of Transition Age Youth (TAY) Specialist where I am today. In my role, I conduct home visits and strategize with our attorneys on the complex issues youth face. I enjoy being a mentor and advocate for foster youth so that they feel empowered and prepared to take on any of life’s challenges.

Overall, I think for young adults, having a professional, consistent and supportive advocate in their lives is crucial. Young people notice when you genuinely care and want to help them; they become more open to advice, like a sponge, absorbing everything you can offer.