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Opinion: I Listen to My Foster Youth Interns. They Deserve to Be Heard

Internships can be much more than answering phone calls and giving Capitol tours

Congressional interns may learn something on the Hill, but they’re also there to teach, Lawrence writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congressional interns may learn something on the Hill, but they’re also there to teach, Lawrence writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As co-chair of the Congressional Foster Youth Caucus, I am passionate about our foster youth — encouraging them, believing in them, and supporting their needs. In Congress, I have joined my colleagues in pushing for more resources and better programs to support one of our nation’s most vulnerable populations: our foster youth.

They deserve our support, they deserve our sincere efforts, and most of all they deserve to be heard.

This is one reason I have been a proponent of creating opportunities for foster youth and former foster youth to serve as interns in my congressional office. Internships on Capitol Hill are an invaluable opportunity to gain exposure to America’s legislative branch and the inner workings of politics, including the role of Congress in shaping our nation’s future.

Internships can be much more than answering phone calls and giving Capitol tours; they can be an opportunity to engage in the legislative process.

I always make time to engage with our interns and hear about their background and their passions. Our foster youth are in a unique position to share first-hand insights about their experiences with foster care and adoption.

For example, one former foster youth intern shared her concern about the inadequate mental health services available to children in care. The trauma associated with constant change, instability and, too frequently, abuse has devastating and lasting impacts on the mental health of children in care.

Children entering foster care undergo required physical health assessments, but there are no assurances that each child receives a mental health screening. While some states already conduct an initial mental health assessment, their timeframes can vary from days to months, if at all.

Researchers have identified mental health as “the greatest unmet health need for children and teens in foster care.” Foster youth are five times more likely to suffer from trauma and PTSD, but may not have access to the proper care or support network they need.

Our discussions served as the catalyst for legislation introduced by my office, “The Timely Mental Health for Foster Youth Act.” This bill would require mental health assessments for all children entering foster care and a comprehensive follow-up assessment if deemed necessary.

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I am deeply committed to supporting our children in care and am fighting in Congress to ensure that every child receives the mental health and academic supports they deserve. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 84 percent of college-aged foster youth report wanting to attend college, but only 20 percent actually attend.

While former foster youth qualify for assistance programs such as Chafee Educational and Training Vouchers or Pell Grants that alleviate the cost of college, many youth are unaware of these resources and are discouraged from pursuing higher education.

One of my former foster youth interns had the opportunity to attend her dream school, but the costs of attending led to her departure after her first year. By chance, she spotted a brochure outlining federal assistance programs enabling her to re-enroll in college.

Listening to her experiences led to the introduction of “The Fostering Academic Information and Resources Act,” which requires foster youth to be presented information on all relevant federal assistance programs for higher education expenses such as housing, books and tuition.

In Congress, I work with colleagues who once started as congressional interns and are now members lending their diverse experiences and expertise to shape legislation and create change through the power of the democratic process. While many interns may view their role as simply something to add to their résumés, or a stepping stone toward larger political ambitions, it is important not to discount the potential opportunities during their internship.

Interns should approach their internships as learning experiences, but also as opportunities to share their ideas and their passions. Their diverse experiences bring fresh insights that could influence the direction our nation takes. In any work environment, diversity of perspective and thought is a strength, and we are all better for it.

I am glad that we have many programs and supportive organizations that work with congressional offices to expose a diverse range of young people to Capitol Hill, enabling them to support and contribute to the work of Congress, including youth who have spent time in foster care. I hope that all interns remember that they are valuable and they too have something great to bring to the table.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Detroit native, is a Democrat representing Michigan’s 14th District. She co-chairs the Congressional Foster Youth Caucus and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption. 

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