The halls of Congress that Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew traversed last week are a far cry from the abusive foster and groups homes she bounced around throughout her childhood.
The 22-year-old, better known as “T,” entered the California foster system as an infant, suffered through physical and sexual abuse in more than a dozen foster and group homes and survived seven years of sex trafficking by a pimp who had promised to protect her before she was finally able to escape at the age of 17.
After breaking free from the abuse, T vowed to tell her story to those with the power to change the system for the thousands of other children unlucky enough to share her experiences.
Last Thursday, she was able to share her story with some of the most influential people in the country: Members of Congress who have the power to draft and pass laws that could help end the abuse many foster children suffer on a daily basis.
T was part of Shadow Day, a day hosted by the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, which brought 40 current and former foster youths from across the country to Capitol Hill to shadow Members of Congress for the day.
The day also coincided with the introduction of the A PLUS Act, a bill with bipartisan support that aims to improve educational stability for foster youth who are ferried to different homes — and thus different schools — often making it difficult for them to obtain a proper education.
“By working together through the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, we have been able to pinpoint specific reforms that will help provide greater opportunity to these young people,” said Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), a co-chairman of the caucus.
Participants followed their assigned Member of Congress — including co-chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and caucus member Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) — for the day to learn how the legislative process works and share their stories with the Members.
“We wanted to bring as much attention to the [foster care] issue … as possible,” said Bass, who worked at a community organizing group that, among other things, sought to protect foster youth before she came to Congress. “And what I have always believed is that the best spokespeople on the issue are the young people involved.”
T, who was named one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year in 2011, said she was thrilled to be able to talk to Congressional leaders about the plight of foster and domestically trafficked youth and was especially excited to be paired with Bass.
“I begged to shadow Congresswoman Bass,” T said. “She’s passionate about the same things I’m passionate about.”
Bass said the day was special not only for what the foster youth took away from it, but for the effect the foster youth had on the Members.
The day is “about building a broad base of support for foster care issues,” Bass said. “And I know when [Members] come into contact with superstars like T, it changes you. So we got out of it more than they did.”