Coronavirus Makes for Unique Congressional Internship for Foster Youth

The 2020 foster youth internship program class. Photo courtesy of Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

The coronavirus pandemic has added urgency to the work of this year’s class of congressional interns with expertise in foster care – the history of their own lives. The fallout of COVID-19 has hit more than 400,000 children and youth in foster care like few other groups of Americans as yet another trauma in their lives, and none more so than young people approaching independence.

So this year’s dozen former foster youth paired with policymakers by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute had some legislative proposals they say are desperately needed: amending the Higher Education Act, establishing grant funding for technology needs and creating a trust fund for young adults raised by the government.

Since its founding in 2003, participants in the institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program have spent their summer on Capitol Hill, where they are assigned either to a member of the House or Senate or to one of the committees that handle child welfare issues. Interns also work on writing and presenting a policy proposal that contributes to the program’s final annual report on child welfare. Here’s a look at last year’s report.

Amid the global pandemic, the 2020 cohort has adapted to meeting not on the Hill as before, but in a virtual space where they function as the COVID-19 Pandemic Working Group. If all goes as planned, the 2020 interns will return next year to complete their internships in Washington, D.C.

This year’s report is a special edition dedicated to exploring the impact of COVID-19 on foster youth and families.  

The interns developed federal legislative recommendations based on their research and lived experiences in the foster care system. Their findings address both the individual needs of foster youth and families as well as structural and systemic reforms.

In a virtual webinar this week, the program interns presented their research online to up to 350 experts in child welfare across the nation, where they covered topics including safety and stability, technology improvements and the child welfare workforce. 

The report revealed how the pandemic has worsened the instability foster youth have always experienced in education, housing, employment, access to technology and more. The closure of college dorms has added to the difficulty.

“For youth who depend on colleges for stable housing, dorms closing can lead to homelessness. I cannot imagine being forced out of my dorm or couch-surfing during a pandemic,” said Tashia Roberson-Wing, a Foster Youth Intern and Masters of Social Work student at The Ohio State University. “The sad reality is that for some foster youth and homeless students, this is their experience.”

According to the report, housing instability is associated with increased dropout rates and greater likelihood of poor academic achievement.

To address this, Roberson-Wing proposed amending the Higher Education Act to award grants to states in order to provide housing, and mental health and academic resources to current and former foster youth and homeless students.

The expansion of remote learning brought on by the pandemic has made access to technology all the more vital for academic achievement. Yet even before COVID-19 appeared, children and youth in foster care have been among the most technologically underserved populations. Only 5% of rural foster youth and 21% of urban foster youth have consistent access to a computer in their homes, the annual report stated.

Cortez Carey, an intern and graduate student at Howard University, recommended that Congress establish a grant program to ensure foster youth have access to the technology and online support they need, during the pandemic and after it is over, to create more equitable learning opportunities.

But the need for technology extends beyond education. It has become a lifeline to several support services, like connecting with caseworkers and mental health professionals, said Hailey D’Elia, a program intern from New Jersey.

“It’s clear the internet can no longer be considered a luxury item, but an absolute necessity for all Americans,” intern Alan Abutin said, “especially foster and adoptive families who need support now more than ever.”

With the ongoing pandemic, many young adults in foster care are also experiencing heightened financial insecurity, with more than half of those recently surveyed saying they did not receive a stimulus check from the government. Those youth could benefit from a government trust fund for additional support.

The report also drew attention to the need to prepare for the possibility of an influx of new child welfare cases left uninvestigated, if there are fewer teachers in classrooms making mandated reports about suspected abuse and neglect. And with many home visits taking place virtually, signs of trouble are more difficult for caseworkers to detect, said Laila-Rose Hudson, a program intern and law student in Ohio. She proposed that Congress provide funding through the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to help state child welfare systems create disaster preparedness plans and increase workforce training to ensure the safety of children and youth. 

“I’ve been in homes that were abusive in a variety of ways,” Hudson said. “The thought of having to shelter in place with them with perhaps no viable or safe way for a social worker or even a teacher to ensure my well being makes me fear for today’s youth.”

Farrah Mina is an Emma Bowen fellow and summer reporting intern for The Imprint. She is a journalism and global studies student at the University of Minnesota where she reports for her campus newspaper.

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