05/24/2012 01:40 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Commemorating National Foster Care Month

Think back to your childhood. Remember the comfort and love you found in your parents, brothers, sisters and friends at school. Now, imagine you are instantly ripped from everything you have come to know and day after day, your entire world is a new, frightening and unfamiliar experience. Due to circumstance beyond your control, you are forced to live with people you have never met, attend a new school and make new friends -- when the only idea you cling to is being reunited with your loved ones in a familiar place. While the large number of us may be unable to fathom being thrust into such unbelievable circumstances, this heartbreaking scenario is the reality for more than 400,000 youth in our nation's foster care system.

Youth in the foster care system don't just face inconceivable obstacles while they are in care. When young people leave the system, many at the age of 18, the security of a long-term living situation vanishes and many are often at a higher risk for unemployment, poor educational outcomes, health issues, early parenthood, long-term dependency on public assistance, increased rates of incarceration and homelessness.

Each May during National Foster Care Month, advocates in the child welfare community use this moment not only as an opportunity to bring awareness to the youth in foster care and the challenges they face, but also to recognize families, volunteers and child welfare professionals, who work tirelessly on behalf of our children. We know that in order to improve and create a system that benefits young people nationwide, we must all work as one cohesive unit to produce the results we desire.

With this sentiment in mind and the support of organizations nationwide, several of my colleagues in Congress decided to do our part and take a legislative approach to addressing many of issues that threaten the welfare of children in foster care. Now, through the newly launched Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, a bipartisan group of Members are discussing and developing policy recommendations to strengthen the child welfare system and improve the overall well-being of youth and families.

This year, Caucus members began traveling around the country to participate in a series of listening and learning tours to gather first-hand knowledge of the best practices of various child welfare agencies. To date, the Caucus has visited Los Angles as well as Miami-Dade and Broward counties, with several more stops planned throughout the year. For the first time ever, federal legislators are taking a nationwide approach to examine issues that should be reviewed universally, including incentivizing proactive approaches to keep families together by addressing the underlying causes of abuse and neglect; providing support services for children in the system until age 21 instead of ending all care as soon as youth turn 18 and finally investigating matters that affect the health and well-being of youth in-care, such as the over-prescribing of mind-altering psychotropic medications.

While a federal team is tackling these issues head-on, there is so much more than can be and needs to be done -- which requires us all to pitch in. With the help of more Americans like you, the lives of these young people will change for the better.

Becoming a foster parent is not the only way to have a positive impact on a child in foster care. There are a myriad of ways you can make a substantial difference -- offering training on essential job skills, tutoring, serving as a mentor and most importantly by being a loving and comforting friend and confidant in a child's time of need.

If we want to make a real transformation, we must do our part and lead the way on this initiative. National Foster Care Month gives us a reason to ensure that everyone in our community is aware of the hardships that many youth in foster care face and how they can make a difference. We must also remind our neighbors that these children are the responsibility of us all. Their health and happiness is in our hands, and together, with assistance from our communities, we can provide the same care that we give to our loved ones. Not because we are required, but because it is the right thing to do.

Karen Bass represents the 33rd Congressional District, which includes Los Angeles, Hollywood and Culver City and was the 67th Speaker of the California Assembly.