Josh Elizondo, 20, is an advocate with California Youth Connection (CYC), a statewide youth-led organization focused on improving foster care policy. He joined CYC in 2014 when he moved from Michigan to Los Angeles, CA to pursue a career in the entertainment industry and his interest in marine biology. Despite spending his adolescent years in and out of foster care, his California dream did not include working on foster care policy.
His foster care story began at age 12, when his grandmother, who had been his primary caregiver since he was five, passed away. Along with his younger brother, Josh bounced between his divorced parents, whose parental rights were taken away by the court shortly after Josh’s grandmother died, and foster care until he graduated from high school and made the decision to move to California.
“I did the biggest thing I could have done, moved 2,000 miles away from everyone I’ve ever known to start a new life here,” he said. “I moved to really make a difference in my life and do what I want to do and in a way the laws that are currently in place are stopping me from doing that.”
Technically Josh’s age would qualify him for the benefits of extended foster care, including transitional housing, until he turns 21. But the law requires that he have an open case in the state of California before he can qualify, so except for the resources CYC has helped him with, Josh is on his own. He explored what it would take to get the state of Michigan to relinquish his case to California, but quickly realized that investing his time and energy there would pull him away from his volunteer work with CYC and his paid work as an actor.
“They said I could fight it, there could be a legal battle, and it’s like is that really worth it?” Josh said. “It would be great for myself, and I’m still going to address and change that, either with CYC or over a longer period of time, but change it for everyone, not just myself. There’s hundreds of other youth that I’m sure are in my shoes.”
“Policy work opened my eyes that if you want something done a lot of times, it has to happen through legislation,” Josh said. “It’s really a challenge to get other people on board with it sometimes because it’s like ‘well it doesn’t really affect me,’ but it does affect you, because you’re going places where foster youth are being employed, or for all you know your boss is a foster youth. Everyone is affected by someone in some way who was a foster youth at one point in time, they just may not know it.”
“In California, children and youth in foster care are guaranteed certain rights by law. They have a social worker and their own attorney every time they go to court. But the laws aren’t perfect. Legislation is a process. It doesn’t just happen overnight. The intent of the law, in essence, is to act as a parent or custodial figure when biological parents cannot, and parenting is complicated. Without parents being the guidelines and rules in a child’s life, we can only look to the state and to social workers, and the laws are what they go off of – the manual that they get is the law.”
“A lot of the youth I work with are over 18, and for a lot of us it’s like ‘why do I want to do this, why do I want to help change the foster care system if it’s not going to affect me?’” Josh said, who tries to get other young people to see the bigger picture. “If there wasn’t a youth who did this for you, a lot of the things that you experience now… your life would not be the same if there weren’t people like you before you,” he said.
The Reality for Other Foster Youth, Like Josh, Impacted by Law and Policy
For kids in foster care, the law impacts every aspect of life.
Foster care is a government system which steps in to care for children who have been removed from their family’s home because of abuse or neglect. The purpose of foster care is to give children safe homes while services are provided to reunite them with their family. These services include counseling, parenting classes or substance abuse treatment. States and the federal government both oversee and operate the larger child welfare system. While the federal government mandates certain processes and provides funding for foster care, each state is the architect of its own foster care or child protection system.
Legislation is a key determining factor in the trajectory of the lives of children whose parents are unable to care for them. Youth like Josh demonstrate why laws need to be responsive, rather than static, and reflect the perspectives of the young people whose lives are governed by them. Laws are written by people to solve a social problem or address a need. By taking the time to understand foster care laws and advocating for change, everyone can improve the lives of children and youth in foster care.
Regarding child safety in California, once the state has enough evidence that the child is at risk, a case is opened and the children are removed from their family. The case can remain open for anywhere from six to 18 months, and sometimes longer under certain circumstances. It’s a complex sequence of hearings, court orders, parental visits and more. In that way, foster care mirrors its creator.