A supporter reflects on Hillary Clinton’s history of child welfare reform in light of the presidential hopeful’s inclusion of a former foster youth speaker in this week’s Democratic National Convention.
Magazine mogul Malcom Forbes once said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those that can do nothing for him.”
By this standard, Hillary Rodham Clinton is a woman of great character.
I know this to be true because for the past twenty years, I have had the privilege of seeing her work in child welfare from behind the scenes. In this time I have personally witnessed countless examples of her passion, kindness, tenacity and commitment to being a voice for the voiceless.
Jelani Freeman, a longtime child advocate and an alumnus of foster care, will take the stage at the Democratic National Convention tonight and tell the nation why he is with Hillary. This will not be the first time Jelani will speak about his twenty-plus-year relationship with the presidential hopeful, which began when he was a foster youth intern with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). He was also featured in a campaign video this past February. In it, he gives voice to how Clinton’s taking the time to brag about him, when he was just an intern, made a big difference in his life.
Jelani’s experience is not unique. It reminded me of a time when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton volunteered to hold a special early morning breakfast so that she could personally honor the winners of the Angels in Adoption Award. Angels in Adoption are everyday heroes selected by their Member of Congress to receive special recognition for their service to children without families. For many, this would be their first visit to D.C. and Secretary Clinton wanted to be sure it would be one they would remember.
Days before the reception, her staff asked for the biographical information on the award winners. Thinking wrongly that, like most people in D.C., she was only interested in the headliners, we sent over the names of the three national award winners.
But that’s not what she was asking for. She wanted the bios on all 125 local award winners in attendance. At the reception she walked around shaking hands, kneeling down to meet children at eye level and recalled facts from each bio. I could not help but note how the awardees responded to someone of her stature highlighting something uniquely special about them.
Even if you are not a Washington insider or a child advocate you’ve likely heard of the significant role First Lady Hillary Clinton played in the passage of the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act. This bill has provided critical post-care support to hundreds of thousands of youth.
But what you may not know is that her partner in crime on the bill, John Chafee, a Republican Senator from Rhode Island, passed away from congestive heart failure about two months before the bill became law. And the reason that the bill bears his name is because Hillary made him a promise she would see it become law.
While in the Senate, Clinton sponsored legislation that proposed to provide foster youth with individual development accounts, mentors, job opportunities and greater access to Americorps. Bills like the Kinship Caregiver Support Act paved the way for Congress to provide greater support and services to grandparents and other family members raising children. And her continued advocacy for the improvement of adoption, particularly for those children the system labeled “unadoptable,” has led to thousands of children finding their forever homes.
When people ask Clinton why she chose to be a voice for orphans and vulnerable children, she often cites her mother’s personal story as her inspiration.
About a week after her mother passed away, Clinton kept her promise to be the keynote speaker at a CCAI event focused on orphans in Africa. Flanked by Pastor Rick Warren, she spoke movingly about how when she sees a child alone in an orphanage, wanting nothing but to belong, it makes her think of how much her mother did to overcome such loss in her own life. I will never be able to measure the impact that speech had on consequent efforts to promote families over orphanages for children in Africa, but if the emotional reaction of the government leaders in the room was any indication, it was key.
As a former Senate staff, I know the political sacrifice that comes with focusing on issues whose beneficiaries do not vote. I also know that much of the progress that has been made on behalf of our world’s most vulnerable children is because leaders like Hillary Clinton choose to make these issues a priority.
That’s why I am with Hillary.
If I know Jelani, his speech tonight is going to be one of the best of the convention, and I will once again be grateful to have a front row seat to history.
Kathleen Strottman is a former executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. She previously served as legislative director for Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.