Op-Ed: We Need to Do Better for Our Nation’s Foster Youth

America’s more than 400,000 foster kids could become a major asset to this country, with a little help from the rest of us.

karen bass at inauguration with foster youth
Karen Bass is represents California's 37th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.

One of the greatest gifts of being an American is the empowerment that comes from an active and engaged citizenry.

Nothing can stop change from taking place when a passionate and committed group of people decide to stand together and demand that things be different.

That ethos has inspired my life’s work, first as a community activist and in recent years as a legislator.

In organizing I found one of the greatest joys of my life is the empowerment that comes when those most locked out and disadvantaged by the status quo learn their power and begin to organize to make things better for those who have walked in their shoes.

So you can imagine my joy when three former foster youth decided to courageously accept my invitation to attend President Obama’s second Inauguration and seize the opportunity to organize members of Congress behind the idea that now is the time for transformative change to America’s foster care system.

This was no easy feat—sitting down for meeting after meeting and sharing very personal stories of everything they had overcome in obtaining what so many of us can take for granted.

But there they were—Sixto Cancel, Daniesha Tobey-Richards and Elbert Belcher—all showing the courage most can only dream about by putting their lives out there for examination, so that those with the power to help them make change could understand what was at stake for the thousands of children growing up in the foster care system.

Despite the turmoil, each of these three foster youth have persevered and are excelling both personally and professionally.

Fifty percent of the nation’s more than 400,000 foster kids won’t graduate from high school under the current system and nearly 94 percent of those who do make it through high school do not finish college.

They are a testament to the perseverance of so many foster youth in America, who when given the tools to succeed can overcome traumatic childhoods and go on to make significant contributions to society.

With the help of advocates like these three youth, the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth is working to lead the way in organizing for the transformative change needed in the foster care system.

This work is taking place both inside and outside of Congress because, as I said earlier, there is no power greater than an organized and engaged citizenry committed to changing the status quo.

The caucus works to protect and promote the welfare of all children in foster care and those who have “aged out” of the system, while providing a forum to discuss the challenges facing all foster youth and develop policy recommendations for improving child welfare outcomes.

A key reform will be pushing changes to help foster youth obtain quality educations.  It’s clear we are failing to adequately educate several foster youth within the current system, leading to a whole host of other problems.

Fifty percent of the nation’s more than 400,000 foster kids won’t graduate from high school under the current system and nearly 94 percent of those who do make it through high school do not finish college.

This leaves foster youth disproportionately susceptible to higher rates of unemployment, early parenthood, long-term dependence on public assistance and increased rates of incarceration and homelessness.  Many also fall victim to human trafficking rings and are forced to endure further physical and emotional abuses.

The courage these three foster youth exhibited will go a long way in addressing these shortcomings and build upon some of the legislative successes the caucus has already seen in removing barriers to providing a good education to America’s foster youth.

What are some things you take for granted that a foster youth does not? And if you are a foster youth, what would you most like to be able to take for granted? Tell it in COMMENTS.

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