By Sen. Chuck Grassley
Ten years ago this month, Sen. Mary Landrieu and I founded the bipartisan Senate Caucus on Foster Youth. We launched this caucus a decade ago to give voice to the thousands of young people in America who deserved a platform to break the silence on the challenges and success stories of foster care. This issue impacts every community in America.
Our caucus not only provides the platform, we encourage foster youth to participate and lead discussions on issues that matter most to them. It’s become a vital network for young people to connect with other youth in foster care and empowers them to share their ideas with researchers, advocates and lawmakers.
When I first got involved in foster care and adoption policy more than 20 years ago, I learned kids in foster care are the last ones to have a say in determining their future. If they are even asked at all. I learned older youth in foster care are brimming with innovative ideas to improve the system. And yet, they rarely had an opportunity to share those ideas with policymakers. When we launched the foster youth caucus in 2009, we made this a specific priority. Our mission was to ensure foster youth had a seat at the table.
Over the years, we’ve hosted discussions to consider barriers facing foster youth, including access to education, pervasive rates of homelessness and juvenile justice involvement, and substance abuse. We heard astounding stories of seemingly impossible success, as well as heartbreaking examples about things that are broken in the foster care system. The caucus invited stakeholders in the foster care system to learn about innovative programs working in communities across the country. We’ve followed up with researchers to understand why. But most importantly, we listened to the real experts on foster care: youth who have firsthand experience.
Listening directly to them has made a big impact on policy development and implementation. Time and again, foster kids tell us they want stability, a safe place to live, and a loving family. Many times, we heard testimonials from foster kids that if someone had just helped their parents, they might have avoided foster care in the first place. These conversations led to enactment of the Family First Prevention Services Act. This federal law reforms the foster care system to focus on what keeps kids safely at home, rather than bringing them into foster care.
One of the challenges facing older teens who age-out of the system without reunification with their biological family or adoption is homelessness. Once again, we heard from foster youth to solve the problem.
In 2013, ACTION Ohio, a group of foster youth and foster care alumni began advocating for changes in housing policy to access federal housing assistance. Although HUD’s Family Unification Vouchers were previously available to youth who “aged out” of care, this group flagged flaws in the program. We collaborated and crafted solutions. These efforts led to the development of HUD’s Foster Youth to Independence Initiative and my introduction in 2017 with Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) of the bicameral Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act. This legislation to make additional improvements to accessible housing for foster youth was reintroduced and is making its way through the 116th Congress.
In its first decade, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth flexed its influence and made a difference. In the 116th Congress, nearly one-third of the Senate is on board with 32 senators from both sides of the aisle. Even in divisive political times, there’s a chord of bipartisanship to help kids in foster care.
All children deserve a safe, permanent, loving home and consistent, caring adults to parent them. Society owes a debt of gratitude for all those who work to achieve this goal. Foster parents, caseworkers, court officials and youth advocates are a lifeline to vulnerable youth. I commend foster kids and teens for speaking up, demanding action, and fervently working to improve a system that in some cases failed them.
As a co-founder and current co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth with Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, I will continue listening and leading the way so foster youth are empowered to pursue their dreams like every child in America.