As advocates for children in foster care, there is no greater reward than to hear the youth themselves describe how their determination and courage helped them overcome the adversities that plagued them as children, and threatened their ability to succeed as young adults.
National CASA Deputy CEO M. Carmela Welte participated in recent congressional briefings presented by the 2012 class of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) foster youth interns as part of her public policy advocacy work for National CASA. She shares her thoughts below.
In July, 13 former foster youth conducted a congressional briefing at the US Capitol. The youth shared stories of their challenges while in care and offered policy recommendations to improve outcomes for all youth in care. Sometimes practical, other times visionary, their recommendations brought the authentic voice of youth experiences to the threshold of Congress.
The youth’s ideas cover a broad range of child welfare issues. The following are just a few examples:
- Post-secondary education financing: Maurissa Sorensen, a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, interned for Sen. John Kerry. She explained that it took her 10 years to complete her higher education. She worked her way through school and did not receive any federal financial aid or information about the assistance that does exist for foster youth, such as Chafee Education Training Vouchers ($5,000/year). Maurissa proposed a number of sensible reforms to ensure that foster youth have greater access to higher education and are informed about the financial assistance that is available to them.
- Access to information and resources: Marchelle Roberts, a broadcast journalism student at Temple University, interned with Sen. Mary Landrieu. Marchelle had a CASA volunteer until she was adopted. She described the importance of having a support system to guide youth or connect them with resources that can be helpful after they leave foster care. Marchelle envisions a Foster Youth Information Gateway to connect foster youth to the array of services and support available both locally and nationally, as well as to help youth locate mentors and connect with family members.
- Crossover from foster care to criminal justice system: Harold “R.J.” Sloke is among the thousands of former foster youth who upon learning about the work of CASA advocates, recognize such support could have made a significant difference in his own life in care. He knows that a CASA volunteer would have challenged his inappropriate placement as a foster youth into maximum security group homes—where rooms are magnetically locked, toilet paper is handed out by sheets and school attendance is meted out as a privilege. R.J. credits the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps for helping him to surmount the persecutions he suffered and go on to succeed. Among his many recommendations to Congress and to advocates is to encourage foster youth to enroll in the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program as an alternative to congregate care. T.J. expects to be sworn in as a CASA volunteer in October. He interned for Sen. Roy Blunt.
What a privilege to hear from these young leaders. They bring fresh, innovative ideas to the sometimes pedantic world of “public policy.” I encourage you to review their many innovative ideas in Hear Me Now. Throughout their reports, the significance of mentors, advocates and adult connections in their lives is abundantly clear.
A final recommendation—to Congress, and to all of us—comes from CCAI intern and former CASA youth Dashun Jackson: “Treat foster children as you would your own children.”
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