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Foster Youth Rub Shoulders With Lawmakers, Bring Change

More than 100 come to the Hill for annual congressional shadow day

California Rep. Karen Bass talks with Doniesha Thomas from Los Angeles on the Rayburn subway on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
California Rep. Karen Bass talks with Doniesha Thomas from Los Angeles on the Rayburn subway on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Michael Rogalski spent five years living in foster care. Rep. Karen Bass has been trying to improve the system longer than he has been alive.

So when Rogalski, 27, arrived at Bass’s office Wednesday morning — among more than 100 former foster youth to shadow members of Congress that day — he told her he just wanted to watch and learn.

“I just want to observe you,” he said, adding that he didn’t think he could tell her anything she didn’t already know.

The California Democrat had a ready answer.

“That is absolutely not true,” Bass told him and the two other young adults assigned to her office for the day, Doniesha Thomas, 22, and Leonardo Jimenez, 21. “We create policy based on what we think. You guys are the ones who have the direct experience.”

It was the sixth time that the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth sponsored its annual shadow day, an event that brings young people who have recently left the foster system to Washington to share their stories with policymakers.

Some participants’ stories could make their way into legislation. Examples include a bill introduced last year by Michigan Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence that would require mental health screenings for children in foster placement, or another that passed the House on Tuesday, sponsored by Missouri Republican Ann Wagner, that would require a study of how many foster children become victims of sex trafficking.

The event can also influence lawmakers in more subtle ways. Past participants have landed congressional internships or developed lasting relationships with the members they shadowed, Bass said.

This year, a woman in the program made an appeal to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Monday for paid congressional internships for foster youth. The interaction had made such an impression that McCarthy later brought it up with colleagues, Bass said.  

Rogalski, who lives in Ohio, said he just hopes to serve as a role model. In spite of his own hardships — a father who died when he was an infant, a mother who had mental health problems, and foster placements starting when he was 14 — he had finished high school. Now he’s a graduate student, studying city planning, and works for his city’s child support enforcement agency.

“I wanted to show younger people that they’re not alone,” he said. “They might have to work ten times harder than everybody else to get what they want, but they can do it.”

This year, the day fell during a particularly hectic time in Washington, with a heightened terror threat in London, the expected release of the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the Republican health care overhaul and the never-ending stream of explosive revelations related to the Trump administration or campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.

The shadow day participants, each of whom wore a light blue sash as they hurried through the marble halls of the Capitol building, served as a reminder that the foster system deserves some attention too.  

“It’s a basic principle of community organizing,” Bass said. “You bring in the people who are the most affected to help bring about change.”

Bass was a community organizer working with victims of the crack epidemic before she became a politician. She started the event during her first term.

Bass’s group sat in on her meetings. They learned about the arcane system of bells and special clocks that once reminded members when to appear on the floor.

“We have bells that, I have no idea what they mean,” Bass confessed. “I look at my iPhone.”

They rushed with her from her Rayburn office to the Capitol building, cutting through a parking garage on the way.

“I feel so official,” Jimenez said. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”

Outside the House chamber, they rounded a corner and bumped into House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and his security detail. After introductions, Bass reminded the group that Ryan was the third in line for the presidency and one of the most powerful people in the country.

Bass wanted the group to know that they had power too. She brought photos of Rogalski, Thomas and Jimenez to the House floor, where she gave a speech commending them for their successes — Thomas, she pointed out, grew up in a series of abusive homes and now wants to be a probation officer and open her own group home.

“I’m trying to teach them that they are powerful,” Bass later said. “Don’t rely on people who don’t know the system. They are the experts. These kids spend their entire lives in the system. How would I know more about it than them?”

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