• November 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 8

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Youth Voice Can Influence Policy

Written by Nancy Kay Blackwell, executive director, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, Washington, DC

As we continue to face the daily challenges of a global pandemic, our fight to uplift the voices of vulnerable children, youth, and families is more important than ever. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government, state leaders, and communities have worked tirelessly over the past several years to push preventive measures to protect families and ensure they can and should stay together. There are over 400,000 children and youth in the U.S. foster care system, and approximately 122,000 children and youth are eligible for adoption and in need for a forever family.

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson launched the ALL-IN Foster Adoption Challenge to rally states, nonprofits, businesses, faith partners, and communities to help find forever homes for every waiting child. The All-IN challenge is just the boost the child welfare community needs to improve outcomes and find permanency for children and youth in the U.S. foster care system. A key piece of the ALL-IN challenge is uplifting the voices of youth formerly in foster care and adoptees to inform the child welfare system and communities that we need improvement.

We know that bringing these voices to the table is the key to success in changing the system and building strong families. Our work at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) strives to bring these direct voices to lawmakers to influence policy. Founded by Congress in 2001, CCAI is a mission-driven organization that (1) brings awareness to the need for permanent, safe, and loving families for children; (2) works to eliminate the barriers to permanency; and (3) serves as a resource for members of Congress and their staffs.

CCAI has built a significant program around the infusion of recommendations of youth with lived experience and advocacy. In 2003, CCAI launched the Foster Youth Internship Program to give youth with lived experience an opportunity to engage with federal policymakers about the needs and unique perspectives of children and youth in foster care. During the program, youth in foster care are placed in internships in Congressional offices. While participating in a congressional office summer internship, the youth interns spend time researching policy issues affecting children and youth in the U.S. foster care system to create a policy report that is presented to members of Congress and their staffs and released to child welfare advocates across the country. Some of these policy recommendations have inspired and transformed into law.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, CCAI prepared for the 2020 Foster Youth Internship Program. CCAI received notification that several congressional offices canceled their summer internship programs entirely, and several others postponed their internships until further notice. Due to the challenges of health and safety to travel to Washington, DC, from around the country, CCAI made the tough decision to take the program to a virtual environment. CCAI created a modified program, the Foster Youth Intern COVID-19 Pandemic Working Group, to explore the impact of COVID-19 on youth in foster care, families, and the foster care system. The Foster Youth Intern program developed policy reports in the following focus areas: safety and stability, aging out and well-being, higher education, permanency, and the child welfare workforce.

As they presented their policy recommendations to Congress, the Administration, and the White House, the need for their voices only grew as the summer came to an end. In August, U.S. Representatives Danny Davis (D-IL) and Jackie Walorski (R-IN) introduced the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act (H.R. 7947) to provide additional support for older youth in foster care, grandparents, and other kinship families; home visiting for at-risk pregnant and parenting families; foster care prevention services; and other child welfare services. This legislation included several direct and indirect implementations of the policy recommendations made during the summer 2020 Foster Youth Internship Program , which included additional support for kinship care providers, improvements that would allow for higher levels of postsecondary access and success for youth in foster care during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, and an increase in John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood dollars and funds to the Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools, tribal colleges, and universities. The Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act provisions were included in the recently updated Heroes Act that passed through the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

Now more than ever, we need to work together to bring these youth voices to the table. We join Assistant Secretary Johnson and the ALL-IN challenge in elevating these voices because we believe that every child deserves a safe, loving, and permanent family.





 

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