When Kellie Henderson worked with Washington policymakers this summer (2014) to improve the nation’s foster care system, she brought a perspective that extended beyond her master’s degree in social work from the University of Kansas.
Henderson, a Wichita native who currently resides in Phillipsburg, offered her own experiences as a foster youth.
“The biggest obstacle I faced in college was the absence of parents to talk about challenges such as peer pressure, career choices, life in general and, essentially, about my fears and anxiety once I leave the academic realm,” she said.
Henderson was one of 12 current and former foster youth from across the nation who spent the summer on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as a part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship program. This summerlong assignment provides individuals who have spent time in the foster care system with an opportunity to intern in a congressional office and share their experiences, opinions and unique perspectives with policymakers in Congress. Henderson was an intern for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch.
As part of their assignment, the Foster Youth Internship Program participants research issues affecting children in foster care, then compile their findings and recommendations into a policy report. This document is presented at a congressional briefing and shared with child welfare advocates across the country. In past years, these reports have generated both local and national attention to the critical issues facing more than 400,000 children currently in the foster care system.
Henderson's proposal included that each state should be obligated to develop an informative curriculum to better prepare youth for the foster care system. That curriculum would provide information to youth on their specific rights in addition to detailing the role of professionals they may come into contact with.
Since 1999, more than 230,000 young people have transitioned from foster care without permanent family connections. Only 58 percent will graduate high school by age 19, compared with 87 percent of all 19-year-olds. While 70 percent of all foster care youth have the desire to attend college, less than 20 percent actually pursue higher education, and less than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25.
“Foster youths often consider post-secondary education unattainable or undesirable due to circumstances they faced in their childhood or foster homes,” Henderson said. “In my opinion, the child welfare system does not do enough to prepare foster youths for the possibility of a college education, and neither does the high school they attend. There is a need for a sincere, concerted effort across all systems to support foster youths to make an informed decision about their educational future.”
Kellie was one of twenty students who began KU master’s classes the summer of 2013 with the launch of KU’s new western Kansas-based M.S.W. “I’m so excited,” said Henderson, a 2013 Fort Hays graduate who wanted to begin her graduate program immediately and stay in her home community. “This will open up so many opportunities for me. I hope to be a school social worker. Kids need mentors who can help them stay in school and set goals.”