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These Hill interns are bringing their foster youth stories to Congress

How their lived experience is shaping policy, one proposal at a time

Shye Robinson and Erick Alvarez are in Washington for the summer as part of CCAI’s internship program. Above, they sit on the House steps on June 20.
Shye Robinson and Erick Alvarez are in Washington for the summer as part of CCAI’s internship program. Above, they sit on the House steps on June 20. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As a congressional intern this summer, Erick Alvarez has made some incredible memories — meetings with lawmakers, tours of the Capitol, lunch receptions with people who, like him, overcame the odds.

But his earliest memory isn’t so happy, one of “my father abusing me and bashing my head into a glass table because 5-year-old me couldn’t finish a whole Whopper meal.”

Four years later, Alvarez landed in the child welfare system. By then, his father was out of the picture, and his mother was struggling to raise two boys and two girls in Omaha, Neb. 

“She tried her best, but when you have a mom that doesn’t speak English and can’t really get a job because she doesn’t have any papers, it doesn’t really help,” Alvarez said.

The children were placed in foster care for a year. When they were reunited with their mother, “she was checked out as a parent,” Alvarez said. 

She lost custody of her children again when he was 15. This time, his older sister took them in, but she was only 21 herself. Alvarez said he practically dropped out of school and hung out with “the wrong crowd.” 

Everything changed when he got a job at Astute Coffee, a café that hires young adults who’ve spent time in the foster system and mentors them. “I would not be here today without their help,” he said, sitting in the Longworth House Office Building as a sea of suits networked around him over iced lattes. “I’ve been able to be more self-sufficient because of them.”

Astute helped Alvarez finish high school and found him college scholarships. Now a rising senior at the University of Nebraska Omaha and Air Force ROTC cadet, he plans to get his master’s in communications and then commission as an officer.

But first, he’s spending this summer working for his hometown representative, Republican Don Bacon of Nebraska, as one of eight former or current foster youth interning on the Hill through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s fellowship program.

Learning from one another

The institute is a nonprofit formed by leaders of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption in 2001, and the internships started a few years later. The idea was to let lawmakers connect with young people who have “lived this and can really help advocate and shape what future reform and policy should look like,” said Kate McLean, CCAI’s executive director.

The participants come to Washington, D.C., with a wide range of experience with the foster system. Some quickly reunified with their biological families, while others aged out of the system after spending much of their lives in it. Most, McLean said, are first-generation college students. This is often their first experience working in an office, which comes with unspoken rules that can be tough to navigate even if you have all the family support in the world.

So, before they get to Washington, the interns go through a three-month professional development program, and they begin working on their policy reports — recommendations, often centered on their personal experiences, that each intern presents to members of Congress during their summer in D.C.

For Shye Robinson, a CCAI intern for Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., her experience with the foster care system, “one of the most unique ones,” is what informs her advocacy for a model of legal permanency for foster youth known as SOUL Family, or Support, Opportunity, Unity and Legal relationships.

Robinson was placed into the foster system when she was 12. She was initially placed with an aunt, which would mean moving schools again — something she was desperate to avoid. “So, I had advocated to be placed with my neighbors,” Robinson said. She was close friends with their kids, and they were already parent-like figures in her life. They ended up taking in her and her younger sister.

Child welfare agencies usually try to reunite kids with their biological parents, or find someone to adopt them or take on legal guardianship, and for good reason — research shows that stability usually leads to the best outcomes. But that’s not always the case, Robinson said.

“I was in limbo. I didn’t have a permanent reunification plan,” she said. “They really tried to either reunify or get me adopted, and I didn’t want either of those relationships. I respected my biological mother … but I also loved my foster parents.”

Adoption or reunification can also make a child ineligible for certain educational and financial support programs reserved for foster youth who aged out — programs that helped Robinson attend Purdue University, where she recently graduated as student body president. She wants Congress to amend a Department of Health and Human Services grant program to allow state child welfare agencies to develop SOUL options without risking their federal funding.

“Foster youth who are 16 and older get to establish legal relationships with unrelated adults to form [something akin to legal] guardians. But they also get to maintain their biological ties with their family,” Robinson explained. “I wish that there was a SOUL family framework in Indiana that I could have [used], because I kind of did, right?”

Kansas passed the first SOUL law in the U.S. earlier this year, which Robinson hopes will be a model for other states. Child welfare policy is mostly set at the state level, leaving Congress with little it can do to change it besides placing conditions on federal grants or encouraging HHS to publish nonbinding recommendations.

Her time in Davis’ office has been so interesting, Robinson said, that she’s considering a career on the Hill. “I was talking about my policy report with my internship coordinator, and she was giving me so much substantive feedback that actually allowed me to change my policy report last minute to be really reflective of federal law,” Robinson said.

‘Find a better way’

CCAI keeps track of policy reports that have led to legislation, counting more than a dozen bills and amendments in the last few years inspired by their interns. Bacon, a co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, introduced legislation aimed at encouraging agencies to keep siblings together, based in large part on the experience of his 2018 intern, who had been separated from her three siblings while in foster care.

Child welfare services can have trouble finding families willing to take in more than one kid, as Bacon knows from personal experience. His own father fostered six siblings after Bacon joined the Air Force, which helped inspire his own decision to foster.

“I put in for one foster kid. That’s all I was thinking about,” he said.

But the agency asked Bacon if he’d consider taking in two, a brother and a sister. “So, my wife and I went home, we prayed about it, and we ended up doing it,” he said. 

They ended up adopting the kids, who are now successful adults who Bacon talks about with evident pride. 

While the family separation bill stalled, Bacon said he hasn’t given up on it, or other foster care issues, particularly the challenges kids face when they age out of the system. “The biggest thing is the transition side of things,” Bacon said. “We’ve got to find a better way to give them mentors.”  

It’s precisely that kind of mentoring — the kind he got at Astute and feels now as a CCAI intern in Bacon’s office — that Alvarez wants to see expanded. 

“Omaha has so many amazing incredible opportunities for foster youth that are older,” Alvarez said. “But I feel like foster youth in Omaha that are a bit younger, they don’t have the same opportunities that people that have aged out have.”

While Alvarez describes his politics as “left of center,” he had nothing but praise for his boss and his office. So, it makes sense that, in addition to a military career path, Alvarez wants to follow in Bacon’s footsteps in another way.

“I hope I can be successful enough in the Air Force to be a foster parent,” Alvarez said.

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