Q&A with Rep. Karen Bass: Engaging Youth, Educating Congress

Since coming to Washington, D.C. in 2010, Los Angeles Congresswoman Karen Bass has fast become one of the House’s lead champions on child welfare issues.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles)

Her first major piece of legislation, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, was signed into law in 2013 and allows for caregivers to access education records of foster youth to help guide their academic process. During her tenure in Congress, Bass has been instrumental in creating the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth (for which she serves as co-chair) and the National Foster Youth Institute. The institute is a national non-profit that works to elevate the perspective of current and former foster youth nationally on policy and legislative issues.

In this session, she is supporting five child welfare bills that were previously part of the Family First Prevention Services Act. Those bills passed the House of Representatives in June and are currently awaiting action in the Senate.

When did child welfare first become an important issue for you?
Child welfare became an important issue for me in 1990 at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, when the number of kids in foster care exploded. We were not as enlightened about substance abuse then as we are now, so in those years we just put everybody in prison. Crack was the first time that women used drugs equal to men, and that really hadn’t happened before. When that happens, of course, then families fall apart and kids were removed from homes.

That’s when I got involved. I started an organization called Community Coalition. At that time, grandmothers were waking up in the middle of the night to DCFS/CPS (whatever you call it in your state) [saying], “We’ve arrested your daughter and we’re bringing your grandkids over.” And now you have three grandkids and you’re 70 years old on a fixed income with medical issues. We started organizing those grandmothers to fight for resources.

Since that time, how has child welfare continued to play a role in your career?

I don’t necessarily think about it from the career point of view, but the 14 years that I spent as executive director of the Community Coalition, I spent time organizing those grandmothers and fighting for resources for relatives.

When I left being executive director to serve in the [California] state legislature, I wanted to continue working on child welfare, really pushing for resources for relatives and for youth. And in coming to D.C., it was my major interest in continuing that work. So, it’s been more of an evolution for me.

Why did you feel it was important to create the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, and what do you feel the organization has accomplished since it was created?

In D.C., where you have a pretty partisan environment, it is really good to find an issue that Democrats and Republicans can work together on. We have supported each other’s legislation. We have worked to see the formation of the National Foster Youth Institute that now is an outside separate organization that puts on events and does listening tours around the country, taking members of Congress to different Congressional districts to look at the child welfare system. Out of that, different pieces of legislation have been generated.

The signature event that the National Foster Youth Institute puts on, that we [the Congressional Caucus] work on in conjunction with them, is the National Shadow Day. Just a few weeks ago we had over 100 foster youth here shadowing their member of Congress and a week after they left, we were able to pass five bills off the floor.

The biggest issue around child welfare is not it being a partisan issue, but a lack of awareness. When you raise the awareness of members of Congress, when you bring it to their attention, then they are very much supportive of it. That’s the role of the Congressional Caucus and we’re happy there are outside organizations like the National Foster Youth Institute that helps us raise the level of awareness in the House of Representatives about the foster care system.

How has Foster Youth Shadow Day impacted you and helped craft legislation?
When you have 100 foster youth here and when members of Congress hear from them, it really does raise their level of interest.

Let me give you a very specific example: Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader. I asked him to come and meet the youth, and we had a town hall meeting where all the youth were there. One of the youth very passionately got up and said to McCarthy: “You guys always push for us to be interns and volunteer, but we’re foster youth without family support and we need money.”

He was so moved by what she said that he is allowing members of Congress to use our federal allotment we each get to set up our offices … to hire foster youth to pay for their internships. Now that’s not legislation, but that’s huge. When you have a lot of foster youth being interns on the Hill, then they have an opportunity to build a relationship with the staff and the member, raise the awareness … those are all stepping stones to getting legislation and improving the system.

What is the most important thing the federal government needs to do now when it comes to child welfare policy?

The most important thing is to deal with flexibility in terms of IV-E waivers. IV-E waivers are fine, but the problem is that … I do believe that they run out in 2019, and what are we going to do about it?

So, finance reform, I believe, is the most important thing we can do right now to allow for prevention and upfront services to be available to cities, states and counties around the country. And I say that also very much in the context of the opioid epidemic, where we know that substance abuse is the number one reason why kids are removed from homes. If government entities, local entities are able to put parents and families along with their kids into treatment, then we’d be in a much better position.

What is your opinion of the Family First Prevention Services Act?
Families First was a great start. It has lingered in the Senate. I don’t know that it has legs anymore this session.

Families First I thought was a good step forward, but I do think there needed to be Families Second and maybe Families Third. So, the part of Families First [that has been renamed Family First Prevention Services Act] that I thought was most promising was the flexibility. Some of the challenges in Families First is that it allows for services for 12 months when I know — because I certainly have a background in substance abuse — people do not get sober based on a calendar.

What are some important highlights of the five bills spurred by Family First that are moving forward this session?
The bill that I had allows the Chaffee grants to be used until the age of 23. Now, that’s not what I’d like ultimately, but it was a good step forward because right now it ends at 21. If you know anything about child welfare, you know a very small percentage of foster youth are prepared to go to college right after aging out. If they don’t get it together before they’re 21, they lose their Chaffee. This at least gives them two more years.

The other bill makes for more flexibility by removing barriers in foster care licensing for relatives.

The other one allows for drug treatment programs. When you have a drug treatment program that is willing to allow a kid to stay with the parent, then the drug treatment program can bill for that child.

The bills passed off the floor but now we have to make sure there’s action in the Senate.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
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