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Foster Youth Shadow Day Shows Power of Personal Stories

Briana Smith, 19, of Los Angeles, talks with Bass about her experience in three foster care homes. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Karen Bass took to the House floor Wednesday for a one-minute speech, standing next to a picture of a smiling young woman. That same young woman sat in the gallery above as Bass told her story.  

"Briana became an open case with child services at the age of 15 due to abuse by her father," the California Democrat said. "Multiple placements, neglect and instability defined her foster care experience." As Bass spoke, the young woman sat leaning forward in the gallery, chin resting on her fist. "Thank you Briana for your resiliency and commitment to reforming the child welfare system," Bass said. The young woman smiled.  

Briana Smith visited Congress Wednesday along with more than 60 other foster youths as part of the fourth annual "Foster Youth Shadow Day." The 19-year-old Los Angeles native was assigned to shadow Bass for the day, to share her story and experience the legislative process up close.  

A petite woman with bright, curious eyes and hair tied into multiple braids, Smith said she was eager to participate. She learned about the event while pursuing her accounting degree at Dillard University in New Orleans, La.  

“I really want to start speaking up, telling my story to help my peers engage in sharing their story,” Smith said, explaining why she wanted to attend the event.  

So Smith and the other foster youth donned blue graduation stoles and dispersed throughout the congressional offices, many of which are part of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, which Bass founded in 2011.  

Smith's experience included sitting in on three meetings in which she was encouraged to participate and ask questions.  

Bass said she first became involved in foster care issues during the crack cocaine crisis some 25 years ago. She became more aware of the foster care system as she delved into the issue, learning the crisis also involved drug-using mothers neglecting their children, who were then put into foster care or sent to family members.  

Now, years later, she was listening to a young woman describe how her own crack-cocaine-using mother led to a spiral of abuse and neglect.  

Because Smith's mother used drugs, she was taken out of the home and went to live with her father when she was four years old. Over the next 10 years, her father physically and sexually abused her.  

"He would always abuse me, which is something I never really spoke up about because it almost became the norm, it happened so often,” Smith told Bass as they sat in her Cannon office.  

When she was 14, Smith and her father shared a room in a homeless shelter. Her father was battling testicular cancer and had returned from the hospital angry.  

Stretching out her arms, Smith described the room they shared as roughly a third of Bass' office.  

“I would always try to go around the cabinet and sit there when he was mad and stuff. So he held a gun to my head and said, 'You’re never telling the truth to me,'" Smith said. "So that was a rough weekend for me, and I was honestly too scared to go back home."  

She decided to tell her guidance counselor about the situation, which led to police involvement and her being reintroduced to the foster care system. She bounced around several group homes and other placements, all the while feeling abandoned.  

Her father began following her and constantly phoning her social workers and foster parents, so she lost placements when the foster parents did not feel safe.  

At her last placement in Compton, Calif., Smith said she enjoyed the foster home, noting, "I started to find myself and who I was.” But after a dramatic situation with her father showing up to her foster home, Smith was told she had to leave.  

"And I was like, 'Wow, it really hurts. I like it here,'" Smith said, her voice cracking. For the first time in Bass' office, her eyes filled with tears.  

Smith described how she went back to live with her mother, who still uses drugs, two months before she was set to leave for college.  

"It is amazing that you went through the challenges you went through, you graduated high school, you went to college, you finished your first and second year of college in the middle of all that," Bass said. "That’s a heck of an achievement."  

Smith expressed the same wonder at Bass. She asked the lawmaker about her work with African trade agreements and her thoughts on how to reform the foster care system, muttering the occasional, "Wow."  

After the morning of meetings, Smith and Bass joined the shadow day participants for a reception in the Cannon Caucus Room. When one panelist asked who was going to continue being an advocate for foster youth, Smith raised her hand.  

"Every time I come into any session and I hear former foster youth speak, it always makes a difference," Smith said, explaining that hearing other stories encourages her to tell her own. "I would love to encourage other people by telling my story.”  

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