Shadow Program brings 100 youth to nation’s capital to shadow members of congress

The fifth annual Congressional Foster Youth Shadow Program brought 100 young adults, all alumni of or youth currently in foster care, to Washington, D.C., to learn how policy and government works, and to spend a day shadowing their congressional representatives. These youth had the opportunity to share stories of their time in foster care and the child welfare system, as well as thoughts on ways to improve the system.

The three-day program — a joint effort by the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, the National Foster Youth Institute, FosterClub, Casey Family Programs, Foster Care Alumni of America, Foster Youth in Action and Youth Villages — gained tremendous momentum during its May 23–25 gathering in the nation’s capital.

Nearly a quarter of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives opened their doors and schedules to these youth for a day, representing strong growth and a more than 40 percent increase over 2015 participation. Most of the young people had never been to Washington, D.C., before, and at least one had never flown on an airplane or traveled out of her home state.

shadow-day_01_capitol2Rep. Karen Bass, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, organized a special town hall for the group at the Capitol Visitors Center. She invited the youth to share perspectives and ask questions. “I happen to believe that the best way you do legislation is by talking to the people who are involved,” she said. “It’s not so much that you come here to ask us — come here and tell us what you need. Tell us what would have worked. Recognize your power and influence.”

Reps. Robin Kelly, Diane Black and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer all welcomed the group and made remarks, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi commended Bass for being a “guardian angel” for youth in foster care. She told the participants, “Your well-being is so important to our nation, and I want you to know that’s how we think about our work in relation to you.”

Reps. Ted Lieu and Tom Marino participated in a panel discussion after a special screening of the ABC Family show, “The Fosters.”

At a special event at the White House, the youth were treated to a panel discussion by members of President Obama’s domestic policy staff, including Rafael Lopez, Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, and Karen Diver, Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs. The staffers informally shared their own paths to working in government, what motivates them and their first work experiences.

During a Shadow Day luncheon, keynote speaker Darryl McDaniels, co-founder of the hip hop group Run-DMC, inspired the guests with his life story and urged each young adult to find his or her inner calling and work around obstacles. McDaniels, who found out as an adult that he was adopted, said he represents what’s possible when youth have opportunities. He said when meeting with policymakers, the discussion often turns to underprivileged youth. “I always tell leaders, if they’re so underprivileged, give them a privilege. They don’t just do well, they excel,” McDaniels said.

Many of the young adults were deeply engaged in the three-day experience. Azia Ruff, a college student in Seattle, spent the day with Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington state’s 1st District. “It was a really rich learning experience for me. I learned about how federal policy is made and how lawmakers work and even about how to manage my own stamina throughout the experience,” Ruff said.

David Hall, a 20-year-old sociology major in Oklahoma City, had in-depth policy discussions while shadowing Rep. Steve Russell of Oklahoma’s 5th District. The two talked about vouchers for juvenile justice preventative services and how less redaction of child welfare records could help alumni like him piece together some of their missing history. “He listened to what I had to say,” Hall recounted. “He asked how my story affects what I believe.”

Like many of the youth who are now Shadow Program alumni, Hall has big goals. “I don’t want to be a congressman, but I want to do a lot statewide — maybe as the head of the Department of Human Services or the governor one day.”