Salt Lake Tribune Commentary

Abby Cox and Tracy Gruber: Utah offers a new type of internship for a new type of intern

A plan to help young people who have been in foster care or juvenile justice system

By Abby Cox and Tracy Gruber | Special to The Tribune | Originally published in the Salt Lake Tribune on March 9, 2023, 8:00 a.m.

Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to be taken from our families and placed into the foster care system. Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to have a criminal record as a juvenile. And most of us can’t imagine the limited opportunities for children experiencing economic hardship or living in poverty. Yet, thousands of children in Utah are living these experiences right now.

Youth with what is known as “lived experience” sometimes cope with tragic adverse events in their lives. Such events often leave lasting emotional scars, which can make it difficult to obtain and keep a job in the future. They often lack role models able to coach and support the development of a strong work ethic and exposure to professional work environments. And yet, many of them display incredible resilience, goodness and drive to succeed.

In this year’s State of the State Address, Gov. Spencer Cox said what we need all Utahns to understand: Our youth are one of Utah’s most valuable resources, regardless of where they started in life or what challenges they have faced in the interim. Together, Utah First Lady Abby Cox’s Show Up Initiatives and the Utah Department of Health and Human Services are working to support youth through difficult experiences and provide them with opportunities to transition successfully into adulthood to achieve long-term, positive outcomes.

In the absence of such opportunities, challenging trends for these youth will continue to be concerning: in 2020, only 53.2% of youth receiving services from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and 55.3% of youth in the juvenile justice system graduated from high school, compared to the state average of 88.2%. This highlights the significant challenges faced by vulnerable children in our communities.

On top of that, a recent report by the Department of Workforce Services revealed that more than 200,000 Utah children — that’s 22% of all children in the state — are at risk of remaining in poverty as adults. It’s crucial that we come together to support these children, giving them the tools and resources they need to thrive.

This summer, we are launching a pilot program to provide internship opportunities within the Department of Health and Human Services for youth in care (or who have formerly been in care). These youth are among those who have interacted with the child welfare or juvenile justice systems or are receiving services from the Division of Services for People with Disabilities (DSPD). The pilot will take place over eight weeks in the summer and will offer the opportunity for a limited number of youth, ages 16 to 19. This pilot program will provide learning and growth opportunities while expanding individual and professional skills through new experiences, mentorship and training.

For many young people, internships are a stepping stone for lifelong career paths, and job opportunities within the social service sector are among some of the most rewarding. We expect these internships to be no different. However, we also see the value these youth will bring to DHHS. These internships will introduce them to the many aspects of the department and give them the opportunity to engage and offer authentic input and feedback on what they see and learn.

Investing in our youth with lived experience creates a ripple effect throughout our entire community. It sends a message of hope and promise for a brighter future for all Utahns. When we empower our young people to pursue their passions and make a difference in the world, we are building a better tomorrow for everyone.

We are committed to creating a career path into public service for all members of our community, including those who have faced unique challenges. Let’s work together to create a future that is full of promise, opportunity, and possibility for every youth in Utah.

Abby Cox is the first lady of Utah.
Tracy Gruber is the executive director of the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.