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A National Foster Care Movement

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Congressional "Listening Tour" ignites a healthy, sustainable, youth-led foster care reform movement.

In the years that I have spent chronicling the national movement to improve foster care, I have borne witness to the quiet, consistent progress achieved by a constellation of policy makers, foster youth, practitioners, academics, and advocates fully dedicated to bettering the lives of vulnerable children.

This Child First movement has been punctuated by surges in activity and has scored consistent legislative victories. However, over the span of the past two weeks, from my unique vantage point, I have seen two telling signs that this broad effort is growing and, more importantly, developing the infrastructure for a sustained, youth-driven political movement.

The Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth

It is 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning in Los Angeles, not exactly prime time to pack a large auditorium with 350 or more politically charged people. But today, the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth is holding the first town hall of its national "Listening Tour."

Caucus co-chairs Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) sit alongside Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and the top staff of caucus co-chairs Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), along with a representative from the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Speakers, many of whom are current or former foster youth, cram the aisles, itching to get their chance at the microphone. Kevin Clark, a well-dressed alumnus of care in his early 20s, steps up. "Three years ago I was trying to decide what substances to put in my body," Clark says. "Three days ago I learned I got a full-ride to San Francisco State University."

The crowd erupts in applause as Clark walks to the back of the hall, fighting back tears of pride. A score or more young people rise to the occasion, sharing their stories, successes, and needs.

Rep. Bass, long a stalwart ally of foster youth through her tenure in the California State Assembly, is unabashed in her ambitions for the Listening Tour.

"I believe that in order to really bring about change, we have to get hundreds of thousands of people involved," she says. "The 435 of us in the House and the 100 Senators, we can't bring about the change without all of your involvement. So we really want to create a national movement to help us move along policy on a national level."

The Infrastructure of a Sustained Movement

It is noon on a recent Saturday in Oakland, Calif., not exactly prime time to pack a social service agency drop-in center with current and former foster youth laying out the framework for sustained social change. But today, the advisory board of the California Youth Connection (CYC) is in the final stages of an exhaustive, nine-month strategic planning process, which will increase the impact of the nation's oldest and most powerful foster-youth-led advocacy organization.

A few dozen current and former foster youth from across California are intensely debating CYC's vision and the six pillars of the organization's long-term strategy. They don't argue, but they are passionate. Most are assiduously taking notes, and everyone is comfortable speaking their mind. It is democracy in action, and from my perspective, as someone who didn't wake up to civil action until my late 20s, I am awed by the youth's engagement.

But CYC is not alone. A recent scan conducted by staff at the Annie E. Casey Foundation identified 106 foster-youth-driven advocacy groups across the country, representing thousands of current and former foster youth.

The National Foster Youth Action Network, which was founded in 2008 by former CYC executive director Janet Knipe, is taking the CYC model across the country. Thus far it has signed up six youth-led advocacy organizations from Oregon to Mississippi.

With an estimated 12 million alumni of care and an additional 424,000 children in foster care today, the bodies of the movement that Rep. Bass described are there.

The Listening Tour rolls into Florida next, offering a prime opportunity for folks like me -- on the outside of foster care -- to join those on the inside in this powerful movement to set the system -- and just maybe the country -- right.

Daniel Heimpel is an award-winning journalist and the director of Fostering Media Connections, and he serves on CYC's Board of Directors.