Finding a home: Foster care youth learn advocacy, politics as congressional interns

Alixes Rosado had a hard time envisioning a career on Capitol Hill when he was a child. He was more focused on staying alive.

At 6 years old, he split his time between his mother’s home and foster care. By 11, his mother, a substance abuser, threw him out and he lived in nearby parks. He moved on to a group home at 16.

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But somehow Rosado survived. Now 20, he is an intern on the minority staff of the Senate Finance Committee.

 “I honestly didn’t see myself living past 18, never mind finishing high school, going to college and working on the Hill,” Rosado said. “So to be here, I just pat myself on the back.”

On Thursday, Rosado will help present a legislative report on how to improve foster care to lawmakers and their aides with 14 other members of this summer’s Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program.

The report exemplifies the steps the program has taken since its inception in 2003. Foster Youth interns first organized a briefing in 2005 to share their experiences with all congressional offices. It was successful, but only a few offices showed up. So last year’s interns decided to up the ante. They wrote a legislative report.

“They said, ‘We want to leave a bigger mark,’ ” said Kathleen Strottman, the executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, which oversees the FYI program. “ ‘We’ve learned something from the last nine weeks, we’ve learned the power of legislation, and we are not going to just ask you to solve our problems, we’re going to tell you what we think you could do, and think creatively and hand you some of the solutions.’ ”

Members of Congress are listening. Last week, Keshia Morall, a Foster Youth intern in Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) office, proposed language addressing foster children’s hospital rights that is now part of draft healthcare legislation being crafted by the Senate Finance Committee.

Morall’s sister was incapacitated and could not speak when she was admitted to a Boston hospital last fall. But the two have different last names, and her sister’s parental rights had been eliminated once she left the foster care system, so the staff would not let Morall make any decisions regarding medical treatment or life support.

Morall explained her situation to Mary Tarr, Kerry’s office manager, who urged Morall to write a proposal that would allow proxies to have a voice in those situations.

“She’s got a piece of legislation,” Tarr said. “I think that exceeds what the program even thought that it set out to do.”

Support from congressional staff has helped the program gain credibility. Kerry’s office has employed at least one Foster Youth intern each summer since 2006. This summer Kerry’s office has two.

And some stay on. Shardé Armstrong, who interned in Kerry’s office during the summer of 2006, is now a staff assistant for the senator.

“I think one of the biggest things about the program is that it is mutually beneficial,” Armstrong said. “It’s beneficial for the student because they learn more about the legislative process, and it is beneficial for the office because they learn more about what the actual experience of foster care is.”

This summer, Foster Youth interns are working in the offices of Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kerry; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Aaron Schock (R-Ill.); and the House Ways and Means Committee, Senate Finance Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

“They are everywhere you would want to be to make a difference,” Strottman said. “I think that’s really a testament to the kids that have come before. They’ve been exceptional at their jobs.”

Over the years, the program has evolved to help each intern get more out of the experience. Interns go on a four-day retreat to a bed-and-breakfast in Danville, Pa., at the start of the program, and meet for Tuesday dinners throughout the nine weeks they are in Washington. They take etiquette classes and listen to guest speakers. And Landrieu, who helped start the program, invites them to a lunch at her home.

More than 200 eligible foster youth filled out the 10-page application for one of the 15 spots this past year (Landrieu has expressed interest in expanding the program, but funding and a desire to keep the group small have curtailed those plans for now). According to Strottman, the program has become a reason for many potential participants to remain focused on a goal.

“How these kids are not bitter and enraged, I don’t know. I know I would be,” Landrieu said. “But they have learned to manage their anger, taper it and direct it to a more positive end, which is advocating for themselves and — more importantly, they would say — for all the 500,000 kids who are still stuck in a broken system.”

Over the years, the program has battled those who wanted to turn it into a standard professional development program. But Strottman maintains that the uniqueness and importance of the program rests in its advocacy focus.

“Knowledge is power,” Strottman said. “If you are able to give members of Congress the knowledge they need to use the power they have on issues such as foster care and adoption, they’ll do it.”

The strongest advocates often come from the most unlikely places, like a park bench in New Britain, Conn. After Rosado turned his life around with a renewed focus on school and a desire to be a forensic scientist, he became an outspoken member of foster-youth boards and groups.

At Thursday’s congressional briefing, he’ll channel his past experiences and everything he has learned this summer to get his message across. Will he be nervous? Not a chance.

“This is what we come here for,” said Rosado, sporting a big smile. “If that means I have to stand in front of a room of senators or congressmen, I have no problem with that. I’m fighting for all the kids back in Connecticut and across the country.”

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