Janay Swain '06, MSW '09 (Social Work)
Foster youth have major ally in Swain
In 2010, California passed Assembly Bill 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, representing milestone legislation for the state’s foster youth. The bill extended eligibility for foster care from age 18 to 21 and implemented federal support for kinship care programs, where youth live with extended family instead of strangers.
AB 12 was not only a victory for those in the foster system, but for one of the bill’s greatest advocates, Janay Swain, who pushed for three years to get it passed.
Swain worked with the foster youth advocacy organization California Youth Connection as state youth council coordinator and AB 12 implementer. She speaks nationally about the importance of policies that support foster kids, but she also talks peer-to-peer with youth about their experiences in the system in order to advocate on their behalf. She is currently a social worker with Sacramento County.
“Ultimately, the decisions that are being made are changing their lives forever,” Swain says. “A lot of times the youth voice is not heard or recognized. I knew things had to change and wanted them to have a voice.”
That voice—or lack thereof—is one she knows well. Swain is a foster child herself.
“When I was 14 years old, I was placed in foster care,” she says. “I ended up in kinship care and was able to be raised by my grandmother.” The experience motivates her to advocate for a future foster care system that strengthens extended family ties.
Swain says that youth who live with supportive extended families rather than strangers retain a valuable connection, a sense of permanency, which can improve their quality of life and secure more successful futures. Many foster kids, for example, never achieve a college education. In Swain’s case, she succeeded all the way through grad school—although working 33 hours a week and taking nearly a full load of classes were just a few of the challenges she faced during her college years.
“Once you get to a university, your story is so different from all those other people,” she says. “A lot of my peers had family support to pay for books or where they’re living, whereas many foster youth go at this by themselves. There was not a place for foster kids.”
A woman of action, Swain sought change. In 2006, she brought the Guardian Scholars Program to Sac State with the help of program director Joy Salvetti-Wolf. The campus support system provides financial and academic assistance and community mentors to recently emancipated students. Many mentors are Sac State alumni.
“That mentoring piece connects us to a community, a safety net or network that other students usually pick up socially,” she says. “Kids in the foster care system don’t usually have those connections.”
Guardian Scholars also offers year-round housing and transitional housing opportunities as well as emotional support and solidarity—a sense of family. In 2009, Swain was named Outstanding Youth Leader by the national support network FosterClub for her achievements and advocacy efforts to improve the lives of foster youth on a state and federal scale.
In April, she was awarded the Rising Star Award from the Sacramento State Alumni Association and the University at the 2012 Distinguished Alumni Awards.
Swain says, “I just hold on to the hope that foster youth—like any other kid who has a dream—should be able to succeed and have their dreams come true.”
This article was originally published in the September 2012 edition of Connection.
This video was produced by Sacramento State's Office of Public Affairs, published June 2012.