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Sept. 17, 2014

Robert Parsons: Fostering Change

Sept. 17, 2014

Robert Parsons is a senior from Redford, Michigan, who is studying political science and pre-law. This summer, he was selected for an internship in Washington, D.C. as a Foster Youth Intern through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

I was born in Detroit in March of 1994 to a biological mother who was a drug addict; she didn’t know she was pregnant, but simply complained of stomach pains. Within 12 hours of giving birth to me, she left the hospital and left me and to this day I have never met her or any member of my biological family. So there I was, born with drugs in my system and born into foster care.

To make matters worse I was born two months premature, with my lungs not fully developed. However, the foster care agency that had my case saw that I was placed with a family. Little did I know at that time, I had found a forever family. My placement was quite unique as I was an African-American baby and placed with an all-white family. But this family loved me like their own, having adopted three children prior to me.

On April 30, 1996, my adoption was finalized, and I had officially found my family. Growing up we lived in the cities of Taylor and Redford, Michigan, and it was a normal childhood, I would even say privileged. Luckily, while I was growing up, my family had the funds to send me and my other adoptive siblings to private schools, but I know that these experiences are not common for most children in foster care. While I was growing up, my parents continued to foster children, and I have seen the trauma they have endured.

Fast forward to 2012, and I was 18 years old and an incoming student at MSU—a sophomore by credits. Originally I had been a pre-med student and a Drew Science Scholar. It was here that I really began to think I could make a change. Being a part of Drew, we had to take the Freshman Seminar and, in the seminar, we focused on social justice. Having been a foster kid and seeing my parents take them in, I asked myself where is their justice?

When I switched my major to political science in the spring of 2013, and became a Political Science Scholar in 2014, I began to see some tangible ways that the foster care system can be changed through politics and law.

That summer of 2013 I did tons of research on some of the laws that dictate the foster care system in the United States like the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the Fostering Connections Act. But, that was as far as it went, until December of 2013 when my stepmom (my adoptive mother died in 2005, and my dad has since remarried) handed me an application for the Foster Youth Internship through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

CCAI is a program that selects, through a very competitive application and interview process, the best and brightest former foster youths from across the country that have completed at least four semesters of higher learning. They then place them in congressional offices to provide recommendations on changing the foster care system. There is also a writing component to the program; each FYI must write a research-based policy report. The summer internship culminates in a policy briefing before Congress in which each Foster Youth Intern has the chance to talk about their recommendations.

So I applied, thinking there was no way I would make it. To my astonishment, I was accepted. I was placed and have spent the last month and a half interning for the Committee on Ways and Means and the Subcommittee on Human Resources in the House of Representatives, one of the most powerful committees in all of Congress.

Being a part of CCAI, means that I am also a part of the Sara Start Fund, a program that helps former foster youths transition into the real world. They paired us up with mentors for the summer to help us during our time in D.C. SSF also arranges and pays for various activities that teach skills that foster youths may not have gotten the chance to develop growing up. Some of the things we’re doing are building a resume, learning how to grocery shop and cook on a budget, and dress for the professional world. My mentor, in fact, was a past FYI and I have learned so much from him since I’ve landed in D.C.

The topic I will be briefing Congress on is the stability and permanency for infants in the foster care system to help decrease the negative impacts it has on the brain. This topic is near and dear to my heart because I was lucky. I had a permanent family from my first placement. However, my family lost two foster children who we were planning to adopt after they had lived with us for two years. I know that my experience is not common, but I believe that every child in the foster care system deserves a stable loving family.

CCAI has really opened my eyes to the true problems in foster care and has exposed me to other wonderful people who care about the foster care system. The other FYI’s are amazing and their unique perspectives have been a true blessing to me—sharing our stories and discussing our recommendations has only made me become more passionate about foster care.

After being with CCAI I have decided that I would like to attend law school and focus on child welfare laws and family law issues. This summer experience has been the best summer of my life. Though the foster care system has a long way to go to being where it needs to be, CCAI is doing a lot to help and I plan to dedicate my life to fixing the system that has made me the person I am today.

If there is one thing I could say to the children in foster care today is this quote from Nido Quebien: “Your current circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.”