There is nothing that gives you more drive and passion to undertake a critical advocacy effort than being personally affected by it. We are all federal legislative staffers who were placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect. Although our stories herald from different parts of the country (Michigan, New York, Washington) our experiences seem to be more similar than different. All three of us chose school as the venue to cope with the aftermath of placement moves and family losses. All three of us had schools where we received positive affirmations and support at the K-12 and higher education levels, with A+ mentors within the schools we attended. Here are our stories:
I was removed from my home in 1991, at age 11, due to neglect related to my mother’s severe and persistent mental and physical health care issues. I was homeless for a time before I was removed, which qualified me for services under the McKinney Vento Act. This ensured my ability to stay in my school of origin during that academic year. School stability was critical to my mental well-being and social emotional success during this stressful transition period. I was able to have weekly visits with my school social worker and had access to a teacher who took a special interest in me. Contact with stable and caring adults, like my gymnastics coach, continued during my transition to middle school and beyond. Having access to this collection of formal and informal supports was critical to my ability to successfully graduate from high school and enroll in college, where I was awarded work study and found a placement in the office of the director of the school of social work. It allowed me to spend valuable time with the program director, and build a relationship with yet another teacher who mentored me not only through my undergraduate program, but also through my master’s and PhD work across three different university systems. I’m now on the Hill working with Representative Danny K. Davis of Illinois, advocating for trauma-trained, designated points of contact at institutions of higher education to ensure that all foster youth have access to reliable, caring adults to help them navigate the education system—just like I did.
I was removed from my home at the age of five due to my parents’ substance abuse issues. After a brief time of instability, I was placed in kinship care with my aunt and uncle who remained my legal guardians up until I attended college. Throughout my time in the Brentwood school district of Long Island, NY, I give credit to the administration, my elementary school guidance counselor, my 10th grade biology teacher and my educational-vocational specialist from my foster care agency. These professionals created a stable learning environment for me and took an interest in ensuring that I remained on track with my studies through dealing with family issues. It was because the administration communicated with my foster care agency and vice versa, I believe that I had a positive educational experience. The staff members at my school were aware of my family circumstances and made sure that my personal life did not affect my academics. This form of communication between school districts and agencies is not always the case for some children in care, given that not all foster care agencies have education specialists. I believe that if children do not have a stable home life, their academic life should become the safety net to fall back on. I am now a legislative correspondent for Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and work part time as a young adult consultant for the Capacity Building Center for States, which is part of the Children’s Bureau. I am using my position as a staffer on Capitol Hill to increase awareness and drive education initiatives to create better outcomes for youth in care.
I was taken away from my mother for the first time at two months old. I spent my younger years under the eye of Child Protective Services, living in and out of women’s shelters and avoiding the abusive boyfriends of my alcoholic and drug-addicted mother. Many members of my family fell prey to the same vices, and the path before me appeared similar until my grandmother intervened, gaining custody of me when I was 12. Like many foster youth, I found it difficult to cope with the isolation and shame that accompanied years of trauma and neglect, but I chose to use education to better my life. In high school, I formed relationships with positive adult mentors including my softball coach and language arts teacher. I was also a part of a youth mentoring program called the Service Board, which provided me the stability, validation and community I lacked. In college, I was recruited to be a member of a privately sponsored university program dedicated to supporting foster care youth and alumni, where I bonded with the retention specialist, Melissa Raap, over our shared involvement in the Service Board. My relationship with Melissa and participation in the alumni program on-campus were essential to my success in college, helping me navigate systems such as financial aid, filing taxes and applying for internships. I am now a scheduler and legislative correspondent for Representative Adam Smith of Washington. I remain dedicated to advocating for the positive effects adult mentorship and community building has on the success and empowerment of foster youth.
We know that our experiences aren’t emblematic of what everyone encounters in foster care. The statistics speak for themselves—only around seven percent of us graduate a four-year college. That is unacceptable and we know that our country can do better.
That is why we’re devoting ourselves to utilizing legislative efforts to address this disparity. There are opportunities through the Higher Education Act reauthorization process and through child welfare policy reform efforts to improve the educational well-being of foster youth. These include training teachers and other school personnel to work more effectively with traumatized students, and increasing student services at colleges and universities—such as the appointment of a designated point of contact (consistent caring adult who can assist foster youth in navigating both the child welfare and higher education systems) and targeted financial aid resources–to ensure that all schools are positioned to be a support hub for foster youth who have or are aging out of foster care.
We invite child welfare advocates across America to join our efforts and contact their elected officials and encourage them to support legislation that fosters the educational well-being of foster youth.
Published on May 19, 2017 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.