“Sit down for just one minute and listen to me. That is what I would want to see changed; not, ‘You go here or here, or if you do this, we will put you here.’ As a kid, you don’t need to be threatened with a placement.”
Young leader Jacob Mckirdy is talking about the foster care system and the needs of young people who have experienced this complicated entity. Lincoln Legislative Days serve as an opportunity for young people to make their voices heard about their passions.
For Jacob, who has been an active part of this program for the past few years, Legislative Days played a pivotal role in his growth as a thriving youth advocate.
“I found my voice when I went to Legislative Days,” he said. “I was a foster youth; when I turned 10, I moved through 50 different placements in three different states and was hospitalized 31 times for mental health issues. Legislative Days opened up a whole new door in my life for me to have my voice and use it. I tell people, I found my voice, and no one, no one, can take it away from me.”
The event this year included young people hailing from Nebraska Children’s Connected Youth Initiative (CYI). CYI intentionally encourages young people who experienced foster care to pursue these advocacy positions. As an organization that values lived experience, CYI’s supports include providing young people with these leadership opportunities. Lincoln Arneal, Nebraska Children’s Assistant Vice President of Policy and Leadership, led CYI’s Youth Advisory Board in organizing the entire event!
“I enjoyed this year’s Legislative Days as we connected young people throughout the state to find their voice on issues that matter to them,” Lincoln said.
He added that he loved to witness the participants’ commitment to hot-button issues.
“I’m proud of how they represented themselves and advocated for their issues. In addition, I’m glad they had the opportunity to speak with elected officials, policymakers and the governor,” he said.
This year’s Legislative Days program took place over Zoom from Saturday, February 5 through Monday, February 7.
Throughout this time, young people had the opportunity to network with other leaders, learn from their peers about the unicameral process, strengthen public speaking skills, and learn about the legislative process.
One of the brightest highlights of Legislative Days includes when young people discuss and share the upcoming bills. After deciding which bills resonate the most with them, attendants form groups, research their arguments, and then present their cases for the state senators at the Senator’s Luncheon. The event culminates with the young leaders meeting with the Honorable Judge Lawrence Gendler and Governor Pete Ricketts.
Among the senators and aides in attendance at the Senators’ Luncheon included Sen. John Cavanaugh, Lisa Weeks – aide for Sen. Joni Albrecht, Amanda Callaway – aide for Sen. Lynne Walz, Maggie English – aide for Sen. Matt Hansen, and Stephanie Beasley, the Director of the Division of Children and Family Services in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Naturally, participants like Jacob are especially committed to making their voices heard, not only on behalf of proposed bills, but also the foster care system. In fact, Jacob and his peers are provided opportunities outside of Legislative Days to discuss hot-button issues and represent a wide range of experiences.
The bills that the young people chose to support included LB810, which proposes that room confinement of a young person for longer than an hour within 24 hours should be approved by a juvenile facility supervisor.
One of Nebraska Children’s Youth Advisory Board members expressed her opposition to solitary confinement and support of the bill. Some of the group’s research included the inhumane treatment of young people through this disciplinary measure, including inducing anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
The groups also presented on LB872, which authorizes the wearing of tribal regalia for certain students, including those of Native American heritage. Maykayla Ridgebear expressed pride about her heritage and her frustration when her high school principal refused to allow her to wear a beaded mortarboard, while some of her peers had violated the formal dress code with no disciplinary repercussions.
“It made me feel like it was a crime to be proud of who I am and where I came from,” said Maykayla. “The student wants to be recognized as a proud tribal member, and there shouldn’t be a problem with wanting to be recognized as a proud tribal member,” she said.
Another team of young advocates shared support of LB881, which proposes a sales tax exemption for feminine hygiene products, along with a mandate for detention centers to provide free feminine products to prisoners. The group delivered some compelling points, including findings that female prisoners were at higher risk of being shamed or sexually abused by guards in exchange for these essential items.
Young leaders also presented LB912, which proposes that lottery funds may be used toward school districts and change provisions to undergo mental health first aid training. The young leaders agreed that teachers ought to become versed in escalation techniques with students grappling with mental health issues.
Finally, a group represented LB1000, which seeks to alter child abuse and neglect-related provisions and terms under the Child Protection and Family Safety Act and the Nebraska Juvenile Code.
Overall, the participants vocalized their appreciation of the event as they pushed out of their comfort zone, connected with others, and applied their lived experiences to advocate for better outcomes.
“It was challenging; it was my first year. I had a good time,” said Lilith Haury-Kinder. “I like how I can connect to others; that was cool. What hit me the most was [LB872]. I am part Apache, so I loved everyone’s stories so much. I like how people have experiences about what they’ve gone through; I like to see people’s perspectives.”
Maykayla said she appreciated the opportunity to speak on behalf of her heritage. “So far, the experience I’ve had has been fun. I’ve reconnected with old friends, met new people, and some of the bills did hit home, especially the tribal one because I am Native American; I also got to work on my public speaking skills,” she said.
Meanwhile, Jacob said he continues to lobby for young people who experienced foster care.
“I had an opportunity two years in a row to testify on the same bill. It got me pumped up for Legislative Days and being a youth advocate,” he said. “Now, I just want to be an advocate for foster youth who have similarities like me and don’t get treated very well in the [foster care] system,” Jacob said.
Caitlynn Escobedo said she had a similar experience as she continued to use her voice.
“The meaning [of Legislative Days] for me is helping me voice my opinion and be able to publicly speak,” she said. For Caitlynn, many of these efforts hit home, as she has mixed feelings about the foster care system due to her son’s experiences in the system.
“I wish the state would hear what the parent of a child has to say about placement and believe us,” she said. “I feel like here I could open up more. I could hear others’ experiences and share mine. Mine wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the greatest. The state should listen to parents and children.”
According to Jacob, the work is far from done. The good news is days like today give him the ability to express his wishes for other foster youth.
On the bright side, Jacob has the chance to tell others what he and other young people in foster care need from their adult peers.
“I was at-risk; I’d run away, self-harm, and try suicide, I had problems because of the system, and nobody said, ‘We care about you, and we need to sit down and listen.’”
Now, Jacob and his peers are ready to speak and provide their insights into a better system.
“Sit down for just one minute and listen to me,” he said. “That is what I would want to see changed in the system.”