A Letter Home: Reform vital in foster care

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 3, 2002


Every year more than 25,000 young teen-agers are released from the foster care system to make their way in the world. Only half graduate from high school, only 13 percent make it to college and 60 percent of the young women become pregnant.

Jaki-Lyn Taylor, an orphan from Missoula, Mont., who was moved in and out of 40 different foster care facilities over the course of 12 years, is among the small percentage of foster children who have defeated those odds.

While May was National Foster Care Month, every month should recognize the children being raised in the foster care system. In this spirit, I wanted to highlight a story that, while difficult, leaves everyone who hears it amazed and hopeful.

In spite of a life of roller-coaster moves from town to town and painful relationships with often-distant foster parents or overwhelmed orphanage staff, Jaki-Lyn’s love for reading and sports kept her spirit alive. She wrote for the high school newspaper and played varsity tennis, which led to a college scholarship from the Orphan Foundation of America.

At 17, Jaki-Lyn became a representative for the foundation and began speaking at local events. In 2000, she was invited to speak about foster care issues in Washington D.C. as part of her scholarship. It was there that I met Jaki-Lyn, specifically at a congressional meeting on foster care and adoption issues.

“After you turn 18,” she explained at the meeting, “the state stops paying. I would like to help educate people about having a program that helps with that transition. It’s not fair to dump people back on the streets. They’re 18. They’re still teen-agers and still need support.” I was taken with Jaki-Lyn’s courage and offered her an internship, and then later, a job as a legislative correspondent working on foster care issues.

Today, in addition to her job on Capitol Hill, Jaki-Lyn attends college in Washington and is planning a career as an advocate for orphans. She is learning about Louisiana’s foster care system and using her real-life experience as a microscope with which to view it. In the meantime, she continues to help other orphans from around the nation and frequently advises emancipated teens.

Building a bridge between foster care and independent living is a tall, sometimes elusive goal for public policy. Since joining my office, Jaki-Lyn has assisted in drafting legislation to help others in foster care either connect with loving families or make a smooth transition into the real world. The Safe and Stable Families Program, a major child welfare law which I co-sponsored, puts one such policy in practice. This program provides services to help keep families together and counseling for those who have recently adopted a new child. In addition, it provides mentoring for youth whose parents are imprisoned and education vouchers for children like Jaki-Lyn, who “age out” of foster care.

Jaki-Lyn is one example of success against odds that she and other foster care orphans should not have to face. Our system needs to do more to reduce the odds, if not eliminate them. We need to secure every opportunity for success, starting with policies, such as the Safe and Stable Families Act, that remove barriers to children finding permanent homes and put in place systems that connect children with loving families in a timely manner.

MARY LANDRIEU serves Louisiana in the United States Senate.