Column: Eyewitness of foster care opens eyes in Congress
By U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley
WASHINGTON — Internships on Capitol Hill offer a valuable learning experience for young people to get hands-on experience in the workplace. For those interested in public policy and politics, it’s an exceptional way to see how the legislative branch works.
Insight gleaned from these internships goes both ways. For example, lawmakers who are working to improve the nation’s foster care system can learn from those who have lived in it.
Consider a former foster youth who is interning in my Senate office this summer. She is participating in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Youth Intern program.
Her name is Amnoni and she wants to make a difference. She wants to help improve the nation’s foster care system and give other foster care youths hope that they too can overcome adversity and misfortune in their lives to find happiness.
She sat alongside me when I shared her story on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Her compelling story tells about the heartbreak of a child who grew up without stable, unconditional love and a permanent place to call home. At birth, she became a ward of the state of Massachusetts due to her parents’ involvement with drugs and criminal activity.
For her first 10 years, Amnoni lived with a great aunt. A brief reunification with her birth mother lasted two years, after which her mom voluntarily returned Amnoni and her siblings to the state. At an impressionable young age, Amnoni suffered from rejection and trauma.
By age 12, the only certainty Amnoni could count on was living with uncertainty. She was separated from her siblings and placed with foster families until age 18. In her words, Amnoni felt her foster families “seemed more interested in the cash benefits of parenting rather than the human investment.”
When Amnoni turned 18, her sense of stability again was shattered. Even though she had lived for the last three years with the same foster family, she was told by her social worker that she needed to leave immediately. She returned to her foster home and found her belongings packed up in garbage bags at the door.
Amnoni says she felt betrayed by her foster mother and betrayed by the child welfare system. Despite the odds, Amnoni graduated from college this year with a degree in social work and sociology. A church mentor and faith-based program inspired and assisted her through the challenging years that followed her lifetime in the foster care system, making a positive difference. Amnoni is determined to advocate for other foster youths who have experienced similar circumstances.
Amnoni’s story reveals flaws in the foster care system. It also serves as a reminder to policymakers that for all the good work being done around-the-clock by social workers, foster families and child welfare advocates, there are sobering shortcomings that need to be addressed.
For nearly two decades, I have led efforts in Washington to bring improvements to the adoption and foster care systems to help make sure society does right by vulnerable youths who are abused, neglected and removed from their families.
In 2009, I launched the bipartisan Senate Caucus on Foster Youth to raise awareness and serve as a laboratory of ideas. We regularly host forums that bring people together to identify and solve problems confronting foster youths, especially those who age out of the system without a family support system or loving, permanent place to call home. The caucus collaborates with foster care kids, child welfare advocates, court representatives and social workers. It is our mission to help foster youths gain independence and reach their fullest potential. From gaining financial literacy skills to earning post-secondary education and vocational training, we are working to help this vulnerable population bridge the transition from foster care to independence.
Amnoni’s internship on Capitol Hill opens a door to advance her advocacy for foster youths. Her story of resilience offers hope to the 23,400 foster youths who will age out of the system this year without ever finding an adoptive family or permanent place to call home.
Her eyewitness account about life in the nation’s foster care system also opens the eyes of lawmakers. The road to self-sufficiency is even harder for those making the transition from foster care to independence. Raising public awareness, promoting adoption, guardianship or family reunification and holding the foster care system accountable are key objectives for policymakers to help make sure society does right by the 400,000 foster youth currently assigned to state stewardship.