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Landrieu Fosters A Love of Children

Correction Appended

When Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was 15, she came across a young child sleeping under a park bench in her hometown of New Orleans. She learned that the boy was in the custody of a sickly grandmother whose inability to properly care for him made him “basically homeless,— she said.

With her mother’s help, Landrieu worked to get the boy into foster care. Since that day, she’s retained a fervent interest in foster children. In fact, Landrieu has made herself into one of Congress’ most outspoken voices on the issue.

“She has been a champion in youth and foster care for a long time,— said Nicole Dobbins, executive director of Voice for Adoption.

A recent day on Capitol Hill is a perfect example. The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute sponsors an annual internship program that brings promising foster youths to Washington. Those interns recently presented a summer’s worth of policy prescriptions to a crowded room in the Russell Senate Office Building. Landrieu, who serves as an adviser for the CCAI, sat in the front row.

The statistics the CCAI interns offered are staggering: There are fewer than three foster homes for every 10 foster children, only 3 percent of foster youths will graduate from college and 20 percent will be homeless at least once after the age of 18. One of the interns at the presentation said he attended 13 different high schools.

For people who grow up in stable homes, the approximately 130,000 children in foster care who are awaiting adoption can be all but invisible. But the deprivation faced by these wards of the state, who are marginalized by insufficient support and often unable to find adoptive families, has consumed Landrieu’s interest since before she entered into public life, she said.

“I think that people just assume that we have a generally high-quality foster care system in America, and nothing could be farther from the truth,— Landrieu said.

Landrieu was the oldest of nine siblings, and her proximity to a gaggle of cousins meant she grew up “basically in a clan of 19 children.— Her formative years were spent in a New Orleans neighborhood that she characterized as comprising two-parent “solid, middle-class— homes, and she said it was not until later in life that she realized such households were “the exception to the rule.—

“One of the big influences in my life was my own family, which was so nurturing and loving and just a fun family to grow up in,— she said. “Nothing, really, in my view — nothing — is a greater gift.—

Much of the emphasis on foster youth advocacy is on finding adoptive parents for foster children or on ensuring that foster youth can transition successfully into becoming independent after they “age out— of the system. Landrieu said adoption is usually the best option for both the adoptive parents and the child, and is “very rewarding— for both.

“If we spend all our time fixing the foster care system, then we lose our focus on setting up a seamless opportunity for children who are in a desperate situation.—

As for the foster care system, Landrieu spoke of an “immediate emphasis— on expanding the number of foster families and of imposing serious penalties for separating siblings. Seventy-five percent of siblings are split up when they enter the state’s custody, something Landrieu said is “just inappropriate.—

“Just because they need to be separated for their own safety from their parents doesn’t mean that they need to be separated from their siblings, or from their entire extended family,— she said.

Landrieu is more than just a proponent of adoption for others: She adopted both of her children when they were infants, something she said “was a very natural choice— for her and her husband, who was adopted from an orphanage at the age of 5. She said many young couples considering adoption are apprehensive about what type of relationship they would have with an adopted child.

“The question on the minds of would-be or adoptive parents is, Will I love this child as much as I would love a biological child?’ and the answer from me and from every adoptive parent I know is unequivocally yes,’— she said. “But it’s a barrier that adults have to get over because they can’t quite believe it.—

Landrieu has also become personally involved in CCAI. In fact, one graduate of the program is now a staffer in her office. That staffer, Landrieu said, is a “constant source of inspiration.—

Landrieu said that although the CCAI internship program was founded with the goal of providing opportunities for ambitious foster youth, it has evolved into an effective channel for exposing Congress to foster youth issues.

“You could argue that the No. 1 benefit has been to educate Members of Congress in a way that is not only meaningful but motivating to urge them to change the system,— Landrieu said.

“Many of [the CCAI interns] are finding their voice here in Washington and are redoubling and committing, maybe sometimes for the first time, to being a voice for the foster care system.—

Correction: Aug. 3, 2009

The article misstated the number of children in the American foster care system. There are approximately 510,000 youth in foster care, with 130,000 of those children awaiting adoption.