From Interns to Influencers: Foster Youth Internship Program a Growing Force on Federal Policy



By John Kelly

Tiffany Boyd, a former foster youth from Long Beach, Calif., had been interning in the office of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) all summer. But save a “Hello” here and a “Good morning” there, she hadn’t yet had occasion to speak with her summer employer, who sits on several committees and keeps a hectic travel schedule.

“I wasn’t sure she even knew I existed, to be honest with you,” Boyd laughed, recounting the day that decidedly changed.

During the last week of her time in Harris’ Capitol Hill office, Boyd picked up a call at the front desk from someone who was running late for an appointment with the senator. She went into Harris’ office and found her alone, no aides or staffers around.

“I start walking towards her, and she gets up and comes walking toward me,” Boyd recalled. “She said, ‘I just wanted to let you know I read your report, and I thought it was great. I loved it. It was well written, and I like the topic you chose.’”

Harris thanked her for her work around the office during the summer. “I was having this moment, like, ‘Are you talking to me right now?’” Boyd said.

The report Harris referred to is Boyd’s contribution to the annual policy report done by participants in the Foster Youth Internship Program, a dozen former foster youths who spend a summer interning on Capitol Hill. Each of the interns develops a policy proposal related to child welfare services.

Sen. Harris is hardly the only member of Congress taking the proposals to heart. The FYI Program’s report has emerged as a must-read child welfare policy document on Capitol Hill, and one of the few annual presentations of federal child welfare policy.

Every year, members of Congress are pitched thousands of ideas from lobbyists, activists, advocates and ordinary citizens. Even among the best of those ideas, only a smaller circle of them are ever taken seriously.

An even smaller group finds its way into proposed federal law. But the FYI report has fostered a consistent pipeline of ideas that have to be taken seriously because of their messengers: youth who lived the system, now educated in how the system works.

“I go and hear the young people present their policy papers, but I also take a serious look at their policy,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. “I don’t doubt for one minute that many members of Congress have introduced legislation based on it.”

The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute was founded in 2001 with the purpose of complementing the commitment of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, a bipartisan and bicameral caucus established on Capitol Hill in 1985. CCAI helps the caucus with information and research on foster care, and both domestic and international adoptions.

Two years later, CCAI established the Foster Youth Internship Program as a way to connect Congressional offices directly with youth and young adults who had experienced the foster care system.

In 2008, CCAI began to work with its interns on a policy report that articulated recommendations to Congress for legislative action.

“The idea for the report actually came from the FYI Class of 2008,” said Kathleen Strottman, the executive director of CCAI at the time.“They had been to a number of briefings throughout their summer and were looking for their ideas to have a more lasting impression.”

The first report was entitled “Putting the ‘Foster’ Back Into Foster Care,” and it made a slew of proposals aimed at improving the quality of caseworkers and foster parents, along with improved services for older youth in care.

The first two reports were presented as recommendations approved by all of the FYI participants. They were written in the policy rhetoric of Washington, but sprinkled throughout with short anecdotes and expressions from the interns.

In 2011, CCAI landed on the template that spurred the report’s growing significance in the field: individual policy proposals from each of the FYI participants.

“In the initial years, the FYIs wanted to work in groups that all focused on a certain topic. That approach proved difficult over time because the interns have very different work schedules and expectations from their individual offices,” Strottman said. “Moving to the the individual style allowed people to work on their own pace.”

The report model has since been refined to keep the policy pitches briefer, pegged to specific changes in law, and always accompanied by personal reflections by the interns.

Some FYI recommendations hone in on a very specific piece of law. Demontea Thompson, one of this year’s interns and a graduate of the University of Southern California, called for raising the maximum award under the Chafee Educational Training Voucher, a grant program that helps foster youth attend college. Vaneshia Reed, of 2016’s class of interns and a Harvard graduate, proposed revisions to the federal licensing standards for background checks for kin.

Other interns chose to take on broader issues in the field. Boyd decided to take on an issue in the policy world that’s tougher to nail down: the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to the well-being of foster youth.

In the past 10 years, more advocates and policymakers have argued that well-being is a co-equal prong of the child welfare field, on par with safety and permanency. But while the federal government periodically measures state performance on the stability and permanency of its foster care placements, it does little to ensure the quality of life for youth past those markers.

Boyd proposes the development of national standards, which would then become part of the evaluation when the Department of Health and Human Services conducts its state reviews.

Says Boyd, in her policy proposal: “I am considered to be the lucky one for having a loving grandmother to provide for me … Unfortunately, at this point in my life, I cannot agree. I do not believe that it is OK … nor appropriate to consider me to be lucky or an exception for having someone in my corner who loved me. This should be the standard.”

Boyd, who is 29 now, had the opportunity to intern on Capitol Hill before. But she helps support a number of family members, and until recently did not have an opportunity to take the financial hit that comes with intern wages.

But she had also rejected the notion of getting involved in politics, as an elected official or otherwise.

“For me, I was raised to believe that people that want higher levels of leadership want it for wrong reasons,” Boyd said. “Since I was very small, people have told me you should run for office one day, but I’ve been so turned off of that most of my life.”

Her view has changed because of two people. One was Sen. Harris, who she would end up getting placed with for the summer.

“Seeing the Senator, I thought maybe there’s room for people like me. I didn’t think there was room for honesty, truth and standing up to people,” said Boyd. “Maybe I can go to D.C., I’ll see.”

The other motivation was President Donald Trump.

“He opened floodgates,” Boyd said. “Crazy as it was, that’s inspiring. I got a little kick out of it. There’s an opening to run DCFS [the Los Angeles child welfare system]. If Trump can be president, I can be director of DCFS.”

Boyd returned to California with her first political role locked up. She was appointed by the Los Angeles City Council to a citizen’s oversight committee overseeing the city’s voter-approved Homelessness Reduction and Prevention, Housing, and Facilities Bond.

Each year, CCAI selects 12 FYI participants.

They are all assigned either to a member of the House or Senate, or to one of the committees with child welfare jurisdiction.

The interns report to those offices Monday through Thursday, and do all of the tasks every other intern is responsible for; namely, office admin work and taking phone calls from constituents.

CCAI’s staff keeps the interns plugged into various briefings and other Capitol Hill events they can attend, as long as the Congressional office clears it.

“They’re very flexible,” Boyd said of her bosses in Harris’ office. “The only thing they’re mandatory and strict about is front office duties. As long as there’s two people up there.”

On Fridays, the interns report to the CCAI office to work on their policy proposals. There are two weekend retreats written into the summer schedule (one before the program begins), and a networking luncheon at famous Capitol Hill steakhouse The Monocle.

It is not a cheap operation. One summer of FYI costs approximately $300,000, according to CCAI Executive Director Becky Weichhand. Most of that is direct expenses related to travel to D.C., and for housing at George Washington University. All of the FYI participants are paid a weekly stipend of $325, noteworthy in a city rife with unpaid internships.

CCAI shifted the funding of FYI three years ago toward a sponsor strategy, with donors committed to the cost of one or more interns, breaking the program’s price tag into $25,000 increments. Among the recent sponsors: Jockey International, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, a California foundation that sponsored Boyd.

“I think companies, individuals and families love the sponsorship model because with the report it doesn’t just invest in one person, it’s larger reform of the system,”Weichhand said.

Each intern is assigned a volunteer policy advisor to help them research and develop their ideas. The Center for Adoption Support and Education provides free access to mental health providers if any of the interns need one.

Will Congress take Boyd up on tracking states on well-being? It might be a long-term prospect, but she can take credit for starting the conversation.

One of Boyd’s FYI colleagues, Jameshia Shepherd, might see her proposal incorporated into law this year. Despite repeatedly telling her caseworkers that she wanted to attend college, she was never made aware of any scholarships or aid due to her status as a foster youth.

“After the years I spent in the foster care system and all the case planning meetings, I was in disbelief that I was unaware of the education resources that were available to me,” Shepherd said in her proposal.

In the FYI report, she proposed adding federal requirements that guarantee older foster youth are meeting with education experts and case planning for college. A few weeks later, during Shepherd’s internship, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) introduced the Fostering Academic Information and Resources Act, which updates the federal requirements on case planning to require that every foster youth age 14 or older must receive “… information on all government programs under which the child may be eligible for assistance for expenses relating to higher education, including associated housing expenses, tuition assistance programs, and other fees related to cost of attendance.”

“It’s rare that the report and policy recommendations work that fast,” Weichhand said.

Shepherd is the most recent of several FYI who have seen their proposals put directly into legislation.

“I find it very valuable,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has hosted several interns over the years. “We’ve good suggestions come out of that. It’s valuable, and we’ll continue to do it.”

Article originally posted on The Chronicle of Social Change.

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