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Having their say

Mellifera(Handout)

Lifestyle

Having their say

During November, National Adoption Month, we also recognize the hard lives of children in foster care—but now, some who have come out of that experience get their say on Capitol Hill

When Michael Teresa Mellifera was 7 and her brother was 9, Ohio child welfare caseworkers removed them from their home. It wasn’t the children’s fault that their father was abusive and jailed for selling drugs and women. Or that police charged their mother with child endangerment and drug-related offenses.

Sometime during the next 10 foster care placements, Mellifera became separated from her brother. He “resorted to delinquency” and ended up in the criminal justice system. Mellifera speaks matter-of-factly about her childhood and how she and her brother were put on separate paths to adulthood. She still thinks he could have been saved if he’d entered a diversion program as a juvenile rather than jail.

Jameelah Love rarely saw her siblings after she turned 14. That’s when caseworkers from Lutheran Social Services removed her and two of her four siblings from their home and placed them in foster care. During Love’s time in foster care, she doesn’t remember anyone telling her she had rights—to an allowance, to speak for herself in court, or to visit her siblings. When she was 21 and working for a Milwaukee foster child advocacy program, she discovered that Wisconsin law mandated visits between siblings in foster care. She and her colleagues met one judge who was aware of the law—but most judges were not. The discovery left Love feeling “cheated, bamboozled.”

“I felt like things were, almost, taken from me,” she told me.

Children caught up in the foster care system rarely have any say in the course their lives will take. Like Jameelah Love and Michael Teresa Mellifera, they are buffeted by forces beyond their control. Adults talk over them, about them, and sometimes for them—but they almost never get to speak for themselves.

That’s one thing the Foster Youth Internship Program tries to change. Since 2003, it has brought to Washington, D.C., 270 college students who had spent time in the foster system. They work with policy professionals and members of Congress to propose legislation to help children such as they once were.

Handout

Love (Handout)

They arrive with policy ideas. Love proposed a federal Foster Care Bill of Rights that included rights to sibling visitation, involvement in school and community extracurricular activities, and obtaining a driver’s license. (Many youth age out of the system with no means of transportation to work or school.)

Mellifera wanted states to identify former foster children who had become nonviolent offenders and divert them from jail to community-based centers where they could receive mental health and education services. She says judges should offer nonviolent youthful offenders the opportunity to pay restitution while also seeking to address the reasons for their criminal behavior.

Although most of the proposals never become law—since 2008 only three have—the program has had an impact. In 2012 intern Maurissa Sorensen realized that privacy laws were keeping the Department of Education (DOE), which administers the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, from communicating with Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers Education and Training Voucher funds. The problem: Answers on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid qualified former foster children for $5,000 a year in college financial assistance. But privacy laws kept DOE from telling HHS about these students.

Handout

Foster Youth Internship Program interns in the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill (Handout)

Sorensen’s proposal: Tweak the privacy law. Her recommendation came to the attention of her congressional sponsor, former Sen. John Kerry, and he included it in legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2012.

Kathleen Strottman served for many years as executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the parent organization of the Foster Youth Internship Program. She says its real influence has been at the agency level, especially within the Education Department, where administrators have become more sensitive to the unique needs of former foster youth seeking a college education.

She tries to keep track of former interns and dotes on their accomplishments. Many are married and “amazing” parents. They have become lawyers, work in investment banking, or work for the FBI. Some still “work to improve the system that raised them.” And many have returned to the Hill as congressional staffers—just as Love hopes to do.

Telling their stories to people in Washington can be redemptive. Mellifera is now 21 and a student at the Catholic University of America. She called her internship experience “cathartic” and is trying to see God’s providence in her story: “I felt like I came to terms with my childhood and could make a negative experience something more positive, something that’s transformative, something that would help other people.”

Comments

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 11/01/2017 02:09 pm

    As a former foster care caseworker, I believe that another good change would be to make family court hearings less adversarial.  Attorneys are too focused on winning for their clients.  They ask only the questions that will get only the information that they need in order to win.  Courtroom etiquette needs to allow for a more conversational approach involving all parties, moderated by the judge.  These are not criminal cases, and should not be treated as such.

  • Katie
    Posted: Thu, 11/02/2017 11:28 am

    I love this! We are a foster family and know there is so much that could be improved about the system. Its shortcomings are staggering. We must do better for our children!

  • RENEE WENDT
    Posted: Sun, 12/10/2017 07:53 pm

    The state of Wisconsin implemented the Prudent Parenting Program in 2016. This addressed many of the limitations on older foster youth and opened opportunities for after school jobs, extra-curricular activities and drivers licenses.  The federal government may may have only change law on 3 items but individual states are stepping forward and working to many things.  As a foster parent, it is exciting and depressing to be involved in such great needs for children and their struggling parents.