This story is the first part of a series about former foster youth who are now working to change policy. The second part can be seen here.
Estakio Beltran grew up in foster care, moving between more than a dozen placements, four different high schools, and many different towns in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.
Now he’s trying to add another Washington address to his travels. It’s a couple thousand miles away.
Beltran is the sole Democratic Party-backed congressional candidate in Central Washington, which covers the same area in which he shuttled from home to home. He is currently running against 11 other candidates for the first open seat in the district since 1995.
“I don’t think there’s a better way to practice for this type of situation rather than to have been raised the way I was raised,” Beltran said.
Beltran, now 30, entered the foster care system as a teenager because his family was unable to care for him. Years of instability made it difficult for Beltran to make friends and maintain good grades. But with the help of teachers, mentors and advocates, he was able to graduate Davis High School in 2001 and get accepted to Gonzaga University the following fall.
Attending Gonzaga gave Beltran a new start.
“It was the first time in my life where it didn’t matter,” Beltran said. “No one wanted to know about parents as a freshman, they just wanted to know your dorm number or major and stuff like that.”
His past would come back to visit him during school breaks. While his peers went home to their families, he spent his time sleeping in shelters or his car, and lied to his friends about where he would go.
It wasn’t until his junior year that Beltran came to grips with his foster care experience.
“It took a while for me to come to terms that it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I felt like for years people were telling me that something was broken with me, and that was why I was put into foster care.”
Eventually he began to tell his friends and peers his story. This led to people opening their homes to him for school breaks, and an eventual trip to Washington D.C., where he took the time to meet with his state representatives and talk about issues of foster care.
“Not many people from Washington state, since it’s on the other side of the country, would come to D.C.,” he said. “So probably even less foster youth would go.”
Beltran realized his calling was in politics when he looked deeper into Title IV-E, a federal entitlement program that helps fund state and local foster care systems. This includes funds for daily care and supervision, training of foster care staff and recruitment of foster parents.
“I just saw chapters and chapters of my life,” he said of the federal laws. “Each of those pages was a story. Yet nobody who had written that text knew. The authors were disconnected from the end consumer because of how it was written.”
“Once I saw that, I knew there was a responsibility that I had to really get in there to make a difference.”
In 2005, Beltran began working with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in her D.C. office, and in 2007, he began working with Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-CA). There he worked as a Senior Legislative and Child Welfare Policy Advisor and was a liaison to the Hispanic Caucus.
He even had a part in introducing the first bill that would extend Medicaid up until age 21 for foster youths, though the bill died in the Washington Senate.
“There is a big problem with foster youth who lost health care coverage at midnight when they turned 18,” he said about the issue. “When you go from over-prescribed psychotropic medications to nothing at all, most people will spiral out of control. And this is often the case because the medications are too expensive to afford without Medicaid.”
He remembers a hearing where the speaker staff was talking about extending coverage for people who are under their parents’ plans until they were 26. “I thought, how about those who don’t have parents?”
With that question, some more policy pushing and the work of many other people, Beltran played a small part in the Affordable Care Act’s inclusion of foster youth health care coverage up until 26, which began this year.
Beltran is currently running for a seat in the U.S. Congress where, if elected, he will represent over 650,000 people. His focus will be on research to spur job creation, to improve access to higher education for youth, and to create trade schools and training for those in the predominantly rural areas who are looking to take on more technical careers.
Moving around frequently gave Beltran the opportunity to meet many different people and families in the area. This experience, he feels, gives him the skills to be able to live and work with many different types of people.
“I’m so lucky that I was raised by families all over the district,” Beltran said. “I really got a chance to understand the district I’m running for. I’m in a place where I’m the product of the district I’m running for.”
“I survived foster care,” Beltran added. “Running for congress? This is nothing. I’m running in complete faith over what I believe in. Running with conviction that this is my home and I am the best person to represent it. Once you have that, all the other stuff is nothing.”
His first chance to face his 11 opponents will come soon. The Washington League of Women Voters will host a congressional debate on July 10.
Victor Valle is a reporter at the Chronicle of Social Change.