“Every single resource that you pour into your child needs to be poured into us.”
That’s what Racquell Perry would say to Congress if given an audience with all 535 lawmakers. She didn’t get that Tuesday, but at least she came close. Perry, 29, was one of more than 100 former and current foster youth following members of Congress, making their presence known in the halls of the Capitol with bright blue sashes and an urgent mission.
“We gotta blow up this whole idea of what foster care, what a foster child is, because outsiders have gotten to define it,” Perry says. “And that grinds my gears.”
It was the eighth time the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth has hosted its annual shadow day, but this year is pivotal, advocates say. The Trump administration is considering rolling back Obama-era nondiscrimination rules that cut federal funding for agencies that refuse to let gay parents adopt — a move that could leave even more kids in foster care.
As those changes loom, the people who know the child welfare system best are telling their stories. Some foster kids face harrowing neglect or physical and sexual abuse. Others are simply made to feel they don’t matter, and that feeling can be hard to shake.
“You do not succumb to the label that they place on you. You live and you get to grow up and be whoever you want to be,” Perry says. “But I also understand that if you’re not hearing that, and it’s not being reinforced to you, you’re not really thinking about it that way.”
More than 75 members of Congress took part in this year’s shadow day. Perry followed Rep. Karen Bass, who serves as co-chair of the foster youth caucus.
Also joining Bass was Toni Reynolds Criner, who used to work in Bass’ office and now owns an at-risk youth mentoring and consulting company. She isn’t the only former foster kid who landed a job on the Hill. Andrew Salazar, 23, is a shadow alum currently interning in Rep. Deb Haaland’s office.
“I came from nothing,” Salazar says. “A lot of the challenges on the Hill that most interns deal with, it’s not that hard for me because I’ve navigated through a lot of different systems before.”
These former foster kids consider themselves among the lucky ones. They’ve seen children in the system run away, become victims of sex trafficking, or reach adulthood unprepared to care for themselves. Less than 3 percent of people who age out of foster care will earn a college degree, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.
After meeting in Bass’ office, the delegates moved on to lunch, where they got recognition from Marcus Scribner, star of the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” and several lawmakers, including Bass and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“You are not lucky to be here. You belong here,” the Bronx congresswoman told the youth in the audience.
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t hold back when it came to the adoption rule changes the Trump administration is eyeing, which could make it harder for LGBT parents to adopt.
“Not only does this deprive so many from the incredibly beautiful experience of being parents, but it deprives so many children of the ability to be connected with a parent who so deeply wants them and wants to love them,” she said. “It’s terrible … it’s just bigotry and it’s discriminatory and it shouldn’t be us.”
Bass says she plans to introduce a bill to “prohibit discrimination, because that’s what that is — discriminating against gay parents.”