While the nation bemoans a “gridlocked” Congress and Comedy Central’s Messrs. Stewart and Colbert aptly ridicule both Presidential candidates for a disregard of specificity on one hand and hubris on the other, I have borne witness to a very different vision of our elected leadership.
Instead of obstruction and partisanship, at least around one issue – foster care – I have seen members of Congress from both houses and sides of the aisle move at notable speed to introduce important, thoughtful legislation; respectfulness between ideologically disparate leaders; and an ability to transform the recommendations of experts in child welfare and foster youth themselves into cogent policy.
This story begins in Miami on March 31, during the second stop of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth’s National Listening Tour. Caucus co-founder Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) sits aside Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) at an enormous rectangle of tables peopled with Florida’s child welfare leaders. Mary Cagle, Director of Children’s Legal Services for Florida’s Department of Children and Family Services, describes how the Family Educational Records and Privacy Act (FERPA) – intended to protect against disclosure of student records to parties other than school officials or biological parents – creates difficulties for foster children, who are no longer in the custody of their biological parents.
Amending FERPA would allow social workers access to student records, she says, helping them make critical decisions in how to best mitigate foster children’s educational challenges and celebrate their successes.
“Education is one of the biggest indicators for the happiness of our kids, so we really want the federal government to take a look at the tension in this law,” Cagle says to the assembled members of Congress.
Two short months later, on the last day of May, National Foster Care Awareness Month, Rep. Bass and Foster Youth Caucus Co-Founders Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.) introduced a bill that would eliminate that tension by allowing child welfare agencies direct access to the records of students in foster care, and allow for aggregate data to be used in studies intended on improving educational outcomes for students in foster care.
“This was an issue waiting to be resolved,” Rep. Bass said in an interview on the eve of the bill’s introduction, which would eventually take the name of the Uninterrupted Scholars Act. “The thought had already been put in, all we did was take advantage of the thinking and the work that was in place.”
Through the summer, foster care advocates and hill staff worked behind the scenes to elevate the issue and make sure it carried momentum through an increasingly static legislative season. As is so often the case with child welfare issues, it was a combination of expert analysis and foster youth perspective that moved the Uninterrupted Scholars Act into the Senate, increasing the likelihood it will become law before the end of this Congress.
On July 20, R.J. Sloke sat down with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to tell the lawmaker his story of growing up in foster care. It was the last day of Sloke’s internship through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship (FYI) Program, which places foster youth in the offices of Members of Congress.
“It felt really good,” Sloke said after a briefing in the Senate Visitor’s Center where he and 12 other of this year’s Foster Youth Interns released a report entitled “Hear Me Now” filled with their policy recommendations. “I told him about my high school situation and how the bill [Uninterrupted Scholars] would have helped me.”
According to the report he contributed to “Hear Me Now,” Sloke lived in 25 foster care placements in the five years he was care before his 18th birthday. All the bouncing through foster homes and group homes resulted in his attending a dozen different high schools.
“My caseworkers and schools failed to communicate with each other as I would transfer schools resulting in my not receiving credits to go on to the next grade,” he wrote in the report. Despite taking ninth grade three times, Sloke managed to graduate at 19.
Sloke’s story touched Blunt, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the Uninterrupted Scholars Act. On August 2nd, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mark Begich (D-Ala.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the law into the Senate.
In an interview just minutes before the bill was run to the Senate floor, Sen. Landrieu, Co-Founder of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, described just how important hearing from youth like Sloke is to legislators.
“This kid, even after having to go through ninth grade three times, not because he couldn’t do the work but because the system had lost his records, now he’s gone on to graduate…. He will be a phenomenal leader in our nation but you know this is just way beyond what should be required. That is R.J.’s situation and there are thousands of other cases like it.”
Much like the House bill, Uninterrupted Scholars will: give child welfare agencies access to foster student records; allow for the use of educational records in studies related to promoting the educational success and stability of foster youth; and eliminate the need for duplicative, time-consuming notice when transferring records.
On August 3rd, the day before Congress took its summer recess, I had a chance to sit with Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth co-chair Michele Bachmann. After explaining her experience as a foster mother to 23 foster children and five “biologicals,” Bachmann took a moment to explain the significance of having caucuses on Foster Youth in both houses.
“A lot of people think we can never talk about anything in Congress, that everything is gridlock and everything is partisan, and it isn’t at all. So both Congresswoman Bass and myself have come together. We created the Foster Youth Caucus, a bi-partisan caucus to elevate the issue of the problems and challenges that families deal with, with foster care, because we want solutions. That’s what we are about. Positive solutions to actually help the life situations for families in challenging situations.”
While Bachmann — like Landrieu had the day before — repeatedly referenced the goal of finding “forever families,” she noted the importance of Uninterrupted Scholars.
“We filed our bill in the House, now we see the Senate’s followed suit. We do have time yet in the remainder of this year to advance the cause of children in challenging circumstances that is what we are here to be about…. Our goal is to place children in forever families, but along the way, along the path of that journey we want them to have the best possible educational [opportunities], because if there is anything I learned personally as a foster mother its that our foster children needed a leg up.”
Congress will reconvene in early September, just as hundreds of thousands of American students start a new school year. If momentum carries Uninterrupted Scholars through, students in foster care may have that much needed leg up on the road to educational success.
Daniel Heimpel is the Executive Director of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.