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OGDEN — In a meeting very much like Friday's Youth Summit, a group of teenagers and young adults who had been placed in Utah's foster care system gathered together to talk about their common desire for "normalcy" during their teen years.
They wanted to take part in activities that most teenagers take for granted, such as going to a school dance, competing on an athletic team or even learning how to drive.
For a teenager in the care of the state Division of Child and Family Services, getting the OK to travel on a team bus out of town meant his or her foster parent getting permission from their caseworker, who then had to get the approval of a supervisor, who would likely check with a juvenile court judge before giving the green light.
Youths taking part in the division's annual Youth Summit took a lead role in changing Utah law to streamline the process with the Utah Legislature's passage of HB346 in 2014.
It was a watershed moment for the youths and their self-advocacy efforts, said Jennifer Larson, the DCFS out-of-home program director, who works extensively with foster youths.
"As we have moved to this use of the youth foster care experience and seeing them as experts in their own experience, I think it has changed the scene, the format and the way we talk about foster care," she said Friday.
The 14th annual summit, held at Weber State University, is offering sessions on money management, job preparation, relationships and advocacy. Each of the state's public colleges and universities, applied technology colleges and Job Corps have representatives at the summit to encourage students to attend college or seek other post-secondary education opportunities.
The state Youth Council, made up of youths in foster care from five regions throughout the state as well as youths who have aged out of care, takes the lead in organizing each year's summit.
As we have moved to this use of the youth foster care experience and seeing them as experts in their own experience, I think it has changed the scene, the format and the way we talk about foster care.
–Jennifer Larson, DCFS out-of-home program director
This year, the council has organized guided discussions on the issues of permanent placements, obtaining driver licenses and staying connected with siblings who are in different foster care placements and the appropriate use of psychotropic drugs. While many youths in foster care acknowledge they need treatment, they do not want to be overmedicated, Larson said.
"It's, 'How can I get my treatment needs met without the overuse of psychotropic meds?' Some of the youth in that region are really passionate about that because they really feel strongly that they have been overmedicated over the years," she said.
On Saturday afternoon, the youths have the opportunity to participate in a "Speak Out," to discuss their experiences in foster care.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, is taking part in the conference instructing the youths how to advocate and participate in the legislative process. He was the Senate sponsor of HB346, which was introduced by Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville.
"We're so pleased he wanted to do this. I think it says a lot about his commitment to the outcomes of these kids and his commitment to make sure that we have a balanced system where they have a voice and that they're getting their needs met and we're helping to change those outcomes," she said.
The summit, titled "Raise Your Voice," concludes Saturday with a concert by Janiva Magness, an award-winning blues singer and former youth in foster care.
Magness, who entered foster care after the suicides of both of her parents, is a national spokeswoman for Casey Family Programs National Foster Care Month Campaign and an ambassador for the Foster Care Alumni of America.