Meet people where they are. Don’t project your values onto others. Help individuals get beyond their expectations.
These approaches have helped the Family and Youth Law Center at Capital University Law School expand and broaden its mission — ultimately leading the nonprofit to rebrand under a new name in March.
The National Center for Adoption Law and Policy started out looking at adoption and permanency issues that bring kids into the child welfare system, including how to work with that system to insure better outcomes for kids and their families, says Executive Director Denise St. Clair.
But as they looked closely at the issues, they realized many challenges were related to the needs of kids transitioning out of foster care, she says. The youth weren’t prepared to go out in the world on their own, and experienced homelessness, drug addiction issues, poverty and more.
A new name for wider services
Over time, the nonprofit’s scope evolved into the child welfare, adoption and juvenile justice systems. Today, it provides some direct legal services to youth from age 16 to 25 as well as policy and legislative advocacy and research. It also started looking into foster youth issues in area school systems.
“We’re really a three-pronged organization now, but focusing very heavily on the juvenile justice, youth justice issues,” St. Clair says.
Five years ago, FYLaw created a long-range plan that focused on wider services for vulnerable youth. The natural progress was a new brand to better reflect what the organization does.
St. Clair says the rebranding process went well, but quickly.
“We were very fortunate to receive a grant for the work, but it also meant that the funds for the name change had to be expended within a fixed amount of time,” she says. “Looking back, just having enough time to do things as thoroughly as we would have liked would be a real luxury for us.”
Just like with the long-range plan, the rebranding helped FYLaw prioritize where it wanted to add services. It also helped cement and form new relationships, St. Clair says.
Understanding and acceptance
With a staff of seven, FYLaw relies on the university community to assist with research, training and clinical work. For example, student volunteers certified as staff attorneys work on barriers to successful living like expunging a juvenile record so youth can get jobs, or helping former foster kids deal with the identity theft that results from personal information in so many systems.
St. Clair says FYLaw not only helps the former foster youth but also trains the next generation of advocates for family and children.
A few students have been involved with systems themselves and can identify with the issues, but during training St. Clair says the nonprofit brings in panelists who have been in foster care.
“It can be hard for them to relate, because your typical student coming to law school may not know a lot about foster care systems and the conditions that many kids who come to us for our services have lived in,” she says.
That’s one of FYLaw’s strengths — helping people get beyond their expectations to meet others where they are.
“A lot of what we do is ask our volunteers to put aside their own values and preconceptions of why someone might act the way that they do, and simply accept the fact that they do — with the understanding that there are so many things that go into building someone’s character and someone’s actions,” St. Clair says.
“Many of the youth who we work with seem like they’re cocky and self-assured, but are really working from a place of fear and a place of trauma,” she says.
Trying to find understanding and acceptance cuts across areas — whether you’re working with former foster youth or in the corporate world, St. Clair says.
Although FYLaw has expanded its types of services, it can only directly help a limited number, about 30 to 35 per year. Additional referrals may be sent to other organizations.
“It is a challenge, and it really impacts how we market our services, because we don’t want to have to turn people away,” St. Clair says. “We’re trying to build a good network here so that the youth don’t fall through the cracks.”
In order to meet the demand, FYLaw also wants to create partnerships with corporations.
“It would be wonderful to be able to engage professionals to assist with educating youth on smart credit management, financial practices, budgeting — those types of things,” she says.