Fostering change

Growing up, Estakio Beltran got to be good at surmounting obstacles, both physical and abstract. Not only did he vault his way to a Washington state gymnastics, he also overcame 30 different foster-care placements, as well as transfers to four separate high schools before accepting a scholarship to Gonzaga University and, weeks before graduation, receiving an on-the-spot job offer from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

Several years after taking that job, he has become part of a cadre of people on Capitol Hill who have put foster care policy on the top of their priority list, either out of their own experience in the system or out of respect for what it takes to raise a child.

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That group includes several lawmakers who have long been champions of the foster care system: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and others. And the lawmakers are increasingly relying on a smattering of staffers who are the true experts in the system after having grown up in foster care.

Beltran, 27, now a special assistant for Cardoza, didn’t have early designs on making it to Congress, largely because his survival was what most preoccupied him. 

“I grew up on a Native American reservation in Yakima where, if you were 18, not dead or in jail, you were already an overachiever,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “Plus I was in foster care, and not having been adopted, I didn’t know what the future held for me.”

When Beltran aged out of the foster care system, his first feat was landing a scholarship from the Orphan Foundation of America to attend Gonzaga, solving his problem of finding housing and health insurance. He then seized another opportunity when, weeks before his graduation, he got the chance to meet Cantwell. He had prepared an informal speech on what he thought needed to be changed in the foster care system.

“I was so excited to meet my senator, and after we were done, she was shaking my hand, and we were taking a picture, and she said, ‘So, when are you going to come work for me?’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘Well, I don’t graduate until May,’ and she said, ‘Well, good, I’ll see you in June, then.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ ”

Beltran found his way to Cardoza’s office after hearing the congressman speak at a child-welfare event. Cardoza and his wife have adopted two children from foster care.

Cardoza, Bass and Bachman are part of a new Foster Care Caucus, and they and other lawmakers are coalescing around the Foster Care Mentoring Act, which would use a public awareness campaign to start a mentoring program and offer federal student loan forgiveness to participants.

Landrieu, the legislation’s Senate sponsor, has a former foster care child on staff and has hosted interns with foster care backgrounds through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. 

Chris Boring, a defense fellow for Landrieu, was in and out of foster care “probably six or seven times” until he was 15 years old, he said. He credits several informal mentors and adult figures for helping him get him through that time.

“My grandfather and grandmother were very important; my foster parents who I probably spent the most time with, coming out of junior high and into high school, were very important to me; and a junior ROTC instructor, who I still talk to today, served as that role model that I didn’t have,” he said.

Boring, now 38 and a father, participates as a leader in his son’s Boy Scouts troop because he believes in the power of strong adult figures in children’s lives.

“I think that young people deserve someone sane to talk to,” he said.

Lawmakers are helping expose younger foster care alumni to Congress, too. Marjorie Delgadillo recently arrived in Bass’s office as a CCAI intern. Delgadillo, 27, was taken out of her home at age 13 because of an abusive stepfather. But she found foster parents — whom she calls her “forever family” — and with her foster mother’s help, she started Moving On Up, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping emancipated foster care youth.

“We give a face and a heart to these issues,” she said of her colleagues’ and her work on foster care policy. “It’s very hard to forget personal stories and recollections and memories.”

As for the lawmakers, they come to the issue from different backgrounds and different political parties. Bachmann has taken in 23 foster children, and Bass saw foster children in the making when she worked as a physician assistant in the Los Angeles County Hospital emergency room during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s.

She told The Hill she saw more women beginning to use drugs and more families falling apart, so Bass started a community organization to improve people’s quality of life. Foster care policy was a big part of the mission.

Bass also focused on foster care and child welfare as the Speaker of the California state legislature; upon entering Congress, she was happy to find bipartisan support for what she calls her “No. 1” policy priority.

“Many, if not most, of my colleagues are parents, and I think that if you are a parent, or are involved in raising a child, it’s very easy for you to imagine how difficult it is for a child not to have a family at all,” said Bass, who appeared with Landrieu at a press conference in May to commemorate Foster Care Month. “I think you find common ground on a human level.” 

As for Beltran, he has found a home on Capitol Hill, saying he’s “just getting started” in his work on foster care policy. He was happy to see that the healthcare law passed last year allows for foster care children who age out of the system to be covered under Medicaid until age 26. On a personal level, he mentors foster care children and is training to run a marathon to raise awareness for children in the system.

But more than anything, he hopes to free foster care children from the shame or guilt they might feel — and that he felt — for being in their situation.

“To think of the opportunities I’ve had now,” he said, “I just hope that somehow, somewhere, a foster kid may read about this and get excited about this and get inspired.”

Becki Steinberg contributed to this article.

Dressing the part

This year, as former foster-care youth champion their cause in Congress, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute has launched a new resource for them behind the scenes.

The Sara Start Fund, created by CCAI advisory board member Lindsay Ellenbogen in memory of her grandmother, provides professional attire, career counseling and mentoring services for interns in the CCAI Foster Youth Internship program.

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Through the fund, each intern receives a stipend to help finance new wardrobe pieces, as well as other “intangibles” — such as guidance on writing press releases and memos and meetings with local professionals in different sectors — that they might not otherwise have, according to Ellenbogen, also a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.

“While the foster youth interns are as accomplished as their peers on the Hill, they don’t have the same family or financial support,” Ellenbogen wrote in an email. “Our idea with the Sara Start Fund for Foster Youth is to help level the playing field a bit.”

Individual donations have established the fund, while Macy’s Metro Center provides advice on business attire from the store’s personal shoppers. The Phillips Collection will offer an enrichment opportunity for the interns throughout their summer in Washington, and Bloomingdales Chevy Chase, Under Armour and Matchbox D.C. have also contributed to the cause.

“It’s about being a professional,” Ellenbogen said, adding that the Sara Start Fund aims ‘to ease the interns’ transition into the professional world, as her own grandmother did for her.

“When you’re blessed, you have lots of people in your life to help you,” CCAI Executive Director Kathleen Strottman said. “Somebody helped you through that scary kind of stuff … now the [Foster Youth Interns] have somebody that they can ask those kinds of questions to.”

Though the 2011 Foster Youth Interns are the first class to benefit from the Sara Start Fund, Ellenbogen said she hopes to see the foundation grow. At the same time, she added, if foster youth were being paired with families earlier on, “and if you told me next year that [the Fund] wasn’t necessary, I’d be thrilled.”

Becki Steinberg