Aug. 28, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
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Adopting a Better Approach for Foster System Youth | Commentary

Something happened on the Hill recently that was pretty unusual for a congressional fair. Fifteen congressional interns presented policy recommendations to a packed room in the Capitol Visitor Center. Even Sens. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., rallied to laud the event. These were no ordinary recommendations, nor were they ordinary people — they were exceptional ideas by exceptional people. So what went down?

It was a policy report, organized by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the findings of which are worth noting for the entire Hill’s consumption.

Whether it is youth being separated from their siblings (sometimes their only system of support), the lack of counseling and support services for the post-traumatic stress disorders that result from being on your own and without a family, the loving homes that are often excluded from the adoption process because they are occupied by lesbian or gay couples, or the data gone missing because there is no central electronic tool that houses a youth’s birth certificate, Social Security card, education records and medical records, there is much to be reformed and it’s up to Congress to do it.

The youth who spoke this week about the changes needed in Congress are, without question, the leaders of tomorrow and inspiring change-makers. They should be held up, and were by Landrieu, Blunt and Bass, as the example of all that is valued in America: surviving and excelling in spite of extreme adversity. Not all youth have that chance, however, as the speakers quickly and compassionately identified. There were people along the way who made the impossible more possible.

Congress can be that for the youth who didn’t make it into that room, who weren’t interns in congressional offices, who didn’t get to present sound policy prescriptions for members of Congress. Whether that is through mentorship, through legislation or through financial support, every little bit counts and every member of Congress should seek an opportunity to help a youth in the foster system. There are too many without a family and even too many without a home. This must change.

This is not a race issue, nor is this (as Landrieu and Blunt exemplified) a partisan issue. The racial demographics of foster care, incidentally, are 38 percent Caucasian, 32 percent African-American and 30 percent other minorities. However, we do need to do better at providing race-sensitive services and must re-examine race in adoption practices (another policy prescription by one of the youth this week).

Going forward, there are countless socio-economic and political hurdles that remain, unnecessarily, for youth struggling to overcome the hurdles life has already given them. Systemwide accountability and standards are critical. Wide gaps remain, and many youth are slipping through the gaps. That has to stop.

Education poses problems, too, given the obstacles that lie in their way when applying for loans or applying for in-state tuition. Beyond tuition vouchers, assistance with tuition waivers must be considered to give foster youth necessary access and mobility. Support services are another issue, since the system tends to think that after 18 years of age, all will be well even if the youth doesn’t have a family.

Much like Landrieu put it at the event, every human wants familial support at every stage of life’s journey — at your wedding day, your son or daughter’s birth, a loss of a loved one, etc. We all need family throughout our entire life, not just through the teen years until we’re legally an adult.

There is so much more we could mention of the meritorious ideas put forth. To find out more about the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s 2013 Foster Youth Internship policy report, go to ccainstitute.org and find out how you can help support these incredible youth and their ideas.

These are the American patriots we should be supporting, and the time to start is now.

Michael Shank, a former congressional staffer, directs the foreign policy program at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. John Fair, a 2013 congressional intern for Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., presented on “Managing Foster Youth Records: Improving Access to Ensure Success” and is studying social work and business in Florida.

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