Eleven former foster youth gathered virtually on Tuesday to share with members of the U.S. Congress their ideas for improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children who grow up in foster care and adoptive homes — an annual event producing cutting-edge policy ideas from those with lived experience.
Donning suits and strings of pearls as though they were presenting live at the Capitol instead of Zooming from their homes, the congressional interns highlighted a wide range of challenges in need of legislative response. This year’s annual report calls on U.S. lawmakers to address local government grabs of Social Security Income benefits, and the foster care system’s treatment of Black girls like Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old fatally shot by police in April outside her Ohio foster home. The interns also want more support for Native American families and foster youth who are pregnant or raising a child.
Among the presenters working with the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute was Laila-Rose Hudson, who interned this summer for Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D). “Through our firsthand accounts, you will hear 11 carefully researched opportunities for change,” she said Tuesday, “11 ways to cure some of the inequities that we have witnessed and experienced personally.”
Several members of the House and Senate joined the webinar, including Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) and Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids (D), who shared that nine members of her own family grew up in the foster care system. Sarah Gesiriech, U.S. Government Special Advisor on Children at the U.S. Agency for International Development also attended, along with several state child welfare directors and commissioners.
The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute formed in 2001 with the goal of equipping lawmakers with the necessary research and data to make informed child welfare policy decisions. The Foster Youth Internship Program launched two years later to include the voices and experience of those who grew up in the child welfare system.
Under ordinary circumstances, the foster youth would have spent a single summer interning on Capitol Hill and presenting their recommendations to lawmakers in person, but a live appearance was prevented by the ongoing pandemic. Instead, this cohort worked virtually for two years, learning the federal legislative process and collaborating with senior members of Congress on policy development.
Their recommendations go beyond simply educating lawmakers on issues impacting foster youth; they offer specific and actionable policy changes to accomplish the reforms they envision.
Autumn Adams, of Washington, and Shanell Lavallie, of Arizona, focused on better serving Indigenous youth and strengthening the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, which protects the rights of Native American children to be raised within their families and tribes. Its 1978 passage came after decades of U.S. child welfare authorities decimating Indigenous communities, by forcing their children to attend boarding schools where they were robbed of their cultural connections and family ties.
Adams credits the federal law for keeping her in a tribal foster home, where she was able to build and strengthen community ties, heal generational trauma to break cycles and advocate for herself at age 19 to gain custody of her siblings.
“Without a doubt, my siblings and I would not be together today without ICWA,” Adams wrote in the report. But, she added, the law is under attack in some federal courts. Adams called on Congress to incorporate key tenets of ICWA into the law dictating child welfare funding, so that states continue to uphold tribal protections if they want federal help paying for foster care.
Multiple recommendations proposed by the interns aimed to protect vital sibling connections that are too-often severed by foster care and adoption. Alan Abutin, of Connecticut — who interned in Blumenthal’s office — called on Congress to introduce legislation mirroring a California law that requires adoptions to include plans for contact and visits with siblings. Cortez Carey of Pennsylvania, who interned with Illinois Rep. Danny K. Davis, outlined a pathway to fund housing support for kin and foster families allowing sibling groups to stay together.
Other interns such as Tashia Roberson-Wing from Indiana, Hailey D’Elia of New Jersey and Alabama native Laila-Rose Hudson made recommendations centered around greater tracking and accountability of the child welfare system. D’Elia advocated for a congressional mandate requiring qualitative data on healing and trauma support for youth who age out of foster care. Roberson-Wing called for data to be collected specifically on the treatment of Black girls and women in foster care, citing a host of concerns unique to this population. Hudson called for better tracking and reporting of abuse and neglect occuring in foster homes, which she said is vastly underreported.
Ian Marx, of Louisiana, wants limitations on how much of a youth’s Social Security income a child welfare or foster care agency can withhold from the intended recipients, following an investigative report revealing that agencies across the country take tens of thousands of dollars in Social Security benefits from foster youth and use it to fund their care.
The remaining recommendations focus on services for pregnant and parenting foster youth, trauma-informed training for educators and school professionals, and improved access to advanced degrees. The Imprint will take a more in-depth look at each of these proposals and the authors behind them in a forthcoming series rolling out next week.
Russ Sullivan, a board member with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, said Tuesday that the internship role has become “one of the most respected and coveted positions on Capitol Hill.”
Blumenthal, whose office hosted Abutin, said that for he and his colleagues in Congress, the interns “have opened our eyes and given us a new understanding and perspective about what they’ve been through.”
After sharing their policy suggestions and answering questions, the interns spoke Tuesday about the lessons they’d learned. After working with the coalition and California Rep. Karen Bass (D), Roberson-Wing said she feels equipped with a powerful new skillset to address policy change through an empathetic lens.
Cortez Carey expressed gratitude for the opportunity to present his ideas to federal lawmakers, but urged them to recognize that 11 impressive interns aren’t necessarily representative of the swaths of young people impacted by the child welfare system.
“I challenge you to think of the other millions of foster youth who were not as fortunate as we are to have access to resources that helped us create the lives that we live today,” Cortez said. “Then think about whose lives could be changed with our suggested reform.”