For the past five years, I have worked closely with Washington policymakers to further the protection of and attention given to foster children in the U.S. and around the world. Children Uniting Nations is one of the premier nonprofit organizations working with at-risk and foster youth.
[IMGCAP(1)]Pioneered in Los Angeles, Children Uniting Nations has become the model program for the rest of the country. CUN provides advocacy and funding and produces large-scale recruitment events. Children Uniting Nations is dedicated to providing children in the foster care system with highly trained mentors who are compassionate, steadfast and have an unconditional desire to give of themselves in order to make a positive difference in the lives of the nation's most vulnerable children.
Our mission is to provide legislators and political leaders with critical science-based research to support effective federal policies and to create awareness within Congress, the administration, foundations, academic institutions, major corporations, and the media on the key issues related to improving social mobility for at-risk youth and their families. We also educate and inform the public on the opportunities and challenges of pursuing systemic policy change in the education, health and well-being of our children.
There are about 550,000 children in foster care today in America, and 100,000 of them are waiting to find a home with a permanent, loving family. Mentoring programs can make a significant difference in the lives of children in foster care. Studies show that children who are mentored are 45 percent less likely to use illicit drugs, 59 percent more likely to succeed in school and 73 percent more likely to attain higher life-achievement goals.
However, many programs that support mentorship are simply not sufficient and almost nonexistent at the state level. Mentor programs that serve foster children are unique and require additional considerations, including specialized training and support necessary to provide for consistent, long-term relationships for children in care. Mentor programs are cost-effective approaches to decreasing the occurrence of many social ills, such as teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration and violence.
Both Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) have been great mentors of mine on the journey to establishing an agenda for change in the U.S. Initially it was Landrieu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who supported actions to make effective strides in the support of at-risk foster children by ensuring they too have the chance to pursue education and receive emotional stability through dedicated mentor relationships. Both women have pursued an aggressive agenda aimed at meeting the needs of children in foster care by connecting them with responsible, caring mentors and by reforming the foster care financing system.
It was Landrieu who introduced the Foster Care Mentoring Act of 2009, legislation that provides student loan forgiveness for individuals who volunteer to serve as role models for a child in care. The bill has also authorized $15 million to establish statewide foster care mentoring programs and $4 million to begin a national public awareness campaign and mentor recruitment program. This legislation builds on a Landrieu amendment to the Serve America Act, which added programs for mentoring foster youth to the list of national service programs eligible for assistance. Landrieu also authored an amendment that was adopted as part of 2010 budget legislation that would allow for reforming the foster care financing system to shift resources to promote safe, stable and permanent homes for foster children.
Sometimes, unfortunately, placing a child with a loving family can take up to five or 10 years. That is why in the meantime, strong mentoring programs, like those being promoted by Children Uniting Nations, are so essential. I have seen firsthand the benefits of connecting foster youths with caring, nurturing adults who can provide academic assistance or just a relationship-building opportunity. The Congressional Coalition on Adoption, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that serves as a resource on adoption issues, runs an internship program for former foster youth. These remarkable young people come to Washington, D.C., to intern with members of the House and Senate. Not only do we get to know them individually as people, but these young adults get to tell their stories and become powerful advocates for mentorship programs — and to perhaps present many ideas to President Barack Obama, who is interested in a more service-oriented nation.
All of the 100 million children in America are our children. Most of these children have somebody in their life, a parent or another role model, who can help care for and nurture them. This is not always the case for children in foster care. These children are truly our children because as a government and as a society we are responsible for them. We must continue to work together to improve their lives. Connecting them with responsible mentors is one way to achieve that important goal.
Daphna Ziman is founder and chairman of Children Uniting Nations.