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It was a typical press conference on the Hill. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) were discussing their proposal to create more mentorship programs for children in foster care.
Reporters shuffled through their notebooks, camera crewmen shifted their weight. It was hot, and Landrieu’s speech was lingering in the realm of dry facts and figures.
Then it was Betty Krupa’s turn to speak. Reading from a prepared statement, the Landrieu staffer was less polished than the politicians who spoke before her, but her words carried more punch.
Krupa told the story of her troubled childhood: her parents’ mental illnesses, the years in foster care and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer who changed her life.
Many Hill staffers have a pet cause, a minor policy issue they adopt to get ahead in their careers and to do some good. But Krupa’s cause is also her mission. As a former foster care child who bounced around the system, she has seen it from the inside.
Her story marks a rare success in a system that often produces more at-risk youth than aspiring lobbyists.
Her birth father suffered from schizophrenia and her mother was bipolar. Krupa lived for the latter half of her childhood in a home where she felt she had to be her mother’s protector, often eating only one or two meals a day.
“I always knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know exactly [what],” Krupa said. “My parents would always tell me, ‘Don’t tell anybody what happened, police are bad, schoolteachers are bad.’”
Around age 10, Krupa hit what she called her all-time low, a period that almost led her to suicide. But when she was 11, a DARE officer visited Krupa’s sixth-grade class in Baltimore and explained the concepts of physical and sexual abuse.
It was then Krupa realized she needed to be removed from her home, and the policewoman, whom she’ll identify only as Officer Phillips, helped her find a temporary foster home and served as a role model and mentor.
“Officer Phillips kept in touch with me during my time in foster care,” Krupa said. “She would take me out shopping, participate in activities that normal parents would do and was always there if I needed something.”
Krupa says she is lucky to have found a comfortable foster family at the age of 14, because families usually look to adopt infants, not neglected teens. But she clicked almost immediately with her new family, sharing with them a love of the same music, traveling and affection for the family dog she had always wanted.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” she said, citing the early stages of their relationship, during which she couldn’t bring herself to hug her adoptive parents. “But we did reach a stage where it’s like a normal relationship.”
She keeps in close contact with her adoptive parents, and she moved out of their home only last year. They’re the ones who pushed her to submit an application to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, which led her to nab one of 15 spots and an internship with the office of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). The application process came at a trying time in Krupa’s life, during which her birth brother went missing and was found to have committed suicide.
“That was another reason I thought, ‘I need to apply and go forth into the community’” and make a difference, she said.
During her time in DeMint’s office, she partnered with another CCAI intern and two other interns and produced an amendment to the reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. After their lobbying efforts, a version of their amendment was passed when the bill was reauthorized in December 2010.
Every CCAI intern class since Krupa’s has participated in the legislative process, working together to create a policy report and present it at a Congressional briefing by the end of the summer. The experience, Krupa said, offered her and her peers a sense of their potential to effect change through the legislative process.
“It was definitely a step up for us [foster care alumni] that we were able to use our voice,” she said. “That the alumni can use our voice and actually make changes is pretty powerful.”
Today, Krupa engages in policy development by advising Tasha Patusky, Landrieu’s legislative aide on children and family issues. She says she is often asked for her personal take on adoption issues, and she uses her connections to other foster care alumni to help inform the Senator about the possible effects of pending legislation.
But she sees herself as always being an advocate for foster care issues because of her personal connection to the system.
“I always said that the government was my parents for a lot of my life,” she said. “So I knew I needed to get back into the community and make a difference and make the lives of others better.”