Next week, The Chronicle of Social Change will launch a series of analyses examining the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who completed congressional internships.
“The 12 of us are not here on behalf of the so-called ‘successful’ foster youth. We are here to represent how foster youth can and ought to be when people look at them as more than what statistics will predict,” said Tori Wichman, one of twelve Foster Youth Interns, while addressing the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s (CCAI) Powerful Voices briefing July 12, 2016.
Every year, CCAI’s Foster Youth Internship Program provides Congressional internship opportunities to former foster care youth from around the nation. They research child welfare-related policy and issues that they are passionate about. The internships provide them an opportunity to learn about what Congress is doing to improve the foster care system and empowers them to share their personal insights and experiences with members of Congress and their staff to help shape policy agendas to reform and strengthen the system.
At Tuesday’s briefing, the interns discussed a wide range of issues that affect children in foster care, including kinship care, parental substance abuse, adoption subsidy fraud, foster care reimbursement rates, extended foster care, crossover youth, secure attachment, runaway prevention, LGBTQ placement stability, psychotropic over-medication, permanency, and harmful labels. The interns gave personal accounts of how current child welfare policies, or lack thereof, have shaped their opportunities to succeed.
They told stories like Ivy-Marie Washington’s account of how her older brother transitioned in and out of foster homes, juvenile detention centers, and shelters, because of misconduct, without receiving the support he needed. He eventually ran away. Though he was still legally a minor, the system deemed him close-enough to being an “adult” under law that he was not tracked down and given another opportunity.
Ivy-Marie pointed out that had someone “cared enough” to give him the support he needed earlier in his life, his trajectory, as well as hers, could have been much different. To prevent these runaway situations, she advised Congress to amend the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014to tighten licensing standards so that the licenses of foster homes with multiple instances of youth runaways are not as frequently renewed. She said that if policies are changed to improve the quality of foster home care, less foster youth would run away and more would find permanency.
A common thread through the interns’ stories was the need for permanency and stability. Vaneshia Reed, a Harvard graduate from California, talked about the gaps in the protection and support of kinship (or relative) care placements and the need to keep youth in family settings whenever possible.
Princess Harmon, a Michigan State University graduate from Michigan, asked Congress to require that states set foster care reimbursement standards to meet the cost of raising a child in a middle-income family and to change the rate annually in accordance with inflation. Harmon said the financial resources made available to her by her foster parent were a major contributor to her development, leadership, and ability to form stable friendships. She said Congress should change the reimbursement rate so more foster homes can become available and more youth can receive the stability and care they need.
Extending the age eligibility of foster care could also give youth a pathway to stability, according to Kristopher Wannquist, a Washington State University student from Washington. He advocated for extending foster care to age 21 across the nation. He said he and many others who have been given the chance to receive support until 21 have experienced much better outcomes than his peers who were discharged from the system at 18. He emphasized that extension of foster care policies should also include provisions that ensure that all foster youth are aware of the option to stay in the system until 21, so that they can make the most informed decision about their status when they turn 18.
The need for greater stability was also highlighted by Jennifer Rhodes, who suggests that when youth are moved from one home to another, they should be given notice at least 14 to 30 days in advance to help them prepare for the transition. The Middle Tennessee State University student from Tennessee also suggested that Congress should implement an in-home foster placement preservation program in order to help youth better adjust to their new environment.
Over the last few years, Congress has drafted and introduced legislation that address many of the issues presented by the Foster Youth Interns. While some garnered a fair amount of support, not enough of them have been given the attention that is needed. It is paramount that Congress uses the stories of these remarkable interns, and take into account the interns’ recommendations, when drafting or supporting foster care legislation.
Tuesday’s briefing provided members of Congress and their staff a real-life snapshot of the way the foster care system is impacting the lives of youth. The interns should be commended for sharing their personal stories. They are hopeful for change, and they believe that Congress has the power to help thousands of others who face similar situations. Supporting strong policies that increase stability and permanency build a stronger foster care system, reforms that are much needed to improve the future of our children.
Mattilyn Karst is a summer policy intern at First Focus studying public policy and sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.