After careful research, interns with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute convened at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday to present their policy recommendations to members of Congress and their staff — an annual report also released to child welfare advocates across the country.
Over the years, more than 200 foster youth have been sent to Washington to advise lawmakers on pressing, systemic issues. This year’s cohort proposed changes similarly urgent. Informed by their experiences, the interns highlighted the need for greater access to mental and physical health care, educational reforms and stronger support for youth transitioning to independence.
“A system that is built without those who will be impacted isn’t a system worth building,” said Christina Parker, an intern and California native, kicking off Wednesday’s briefing. “Creating legislation that isn’t collaborative with the communities it targets isn’t legislation worth passing.”
Parker, who uses ze/zim pronouns, has a master’s in social work from the University of Michigan. Ze is among the fewer than 1% of college students who’ve spent time in foster care and hold a master’s degree.
Parker urged Congress to make educational support more accessible by reforming eligibility requirements for funding streams like the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and the Education and Training Voucher (ETV).
“Imagine transitioning into college and resources being stopped at pivotal moments — like ETV, which has a five-year limit — when college is no longer a four-year path or a master’s is incoming,” ze told Congress. “Or imagine being in care for your entire life and being disqualified for Chafee because you didn’t enter care at 14.”
Like Parker, Nijeria Peterson researched how to provide more comprehensive financial support for foster youth by considering the limitations of existing funding streams.
Peterson had to wait months to access time-sensitive benefits, like insurance reimbursements and car stipend that should have been available to her within days or weeks. She wants to eliminate the tedious eligibility rules, excessive documentation requirements and bureaucratic delays she encountered.
“The instability it caused me during this time left me feeling discouraged from continuing to try to access the support I genuinely needed from child welfare agencies,” she said.
April Barcus, a congressional intern from California who has multiple chronic illnesses, was 12 when they began experiencing severe chronic pain throughout their body. But that pain was never diagnosed in their 10 years in foster care.
Instead, Barcus was frequently accused of faking or exaggerating their symptoms.
“I started to believe that my pain was normal,” Barcus said. “And I stopped looking for answers until finally I couldn’t ignore that I was disabled.”
Now, in their role as Congressional intern, Barcus is calling on Congress to ensure that all youth in foster care have what they lacked: continuous access to high-quality health care.
They proposed the creation of a central, electronic access point for medical records to ensure that a complete medical history is maintained and accessible to youth and social workers.
“Given the high correlation between child welfare system involvement and complex health and mental health challenges, all children in foster care should have an enhanced medical support system during and after their time in care,” Barcus wrote in the interns’ final report.
Other legislative proposals produced by the interns focused on extending financial supports to foster youth through age 26 and curbing the common pathways from foster care to incarceration and homelessness.
“I implore you to take our policies to your offices and work with us in the future,” said intern Stormy Lukasavage. “I implore you to improve upon our recommendations in new and upcoming legislation.”