karen_bass_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

For one young woman, life for several years starting at age 11 was a nightmare of being raped repeatedly by a family member living in her house. She tried desperately to tell her other family members but they did not believe her. She eventually found help in the state’s child welfare system

For a young man, his nightmare began when his mother was arrested when he was 5. He too ended up in the system. He disliked it at first but he, too, found help from it.

They were mentored by people who were determined to see them succeed.

“I ask the individuals, ‘What do you want to do with your life because it is yours now,’” said Kirk Brown, senior vice president of the organization known as HANDY – Helping Abused, Neglected and Disadvantaged Youth — a nonprofit organization.

And, for Dorothy Brown, a grandmother raising a grandchild, help came from another youth-oriented organization, Kids in Distress. It was “the best thing to ever happen to me,” she said.

These stories of children in peril and relatives and foster care programs caring for them were told during a one-day stop on March 30 in Broward and Miami-counties by the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth looking into possible improvements to federal policy to help children in need.

Florida U.S. Reps. Alcee L. Hastings of Miramar and Frederica Wilson of Miami hosted the sessions that included the caucus co-chairwoman U.S. Reps. Karen Bass of California.

In Broward, the national lawmakers visited Childnet in Plantation and in Miami-Dade they stopped at His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens for a forum.

Some people who, as children, benefited from the foster care system talked about their experiences, along with family members. They wanted to tell their success stories while in the system.

Bass said the purpose of the caucus is to determine what improvements can be made at the federal level to make the welfare system better. “Your voice is important,” she said.

Hastings described the initiative as “a collaboration and multi-diplomacy approach in being an advocate.” He said he was board member of many of the programs represented at the meeting and had been with them when they started.

“This was an easy ask for my office to participate in, as I am determined to help Congresswoman Karen Bass in raising the issue of foster care,” Hastings said in an interview. “Broward County has a tremendous model and exemplary best practice models.”

Hastings said in a later statement, “As we shed light on the issues facing our child welfare system, it also gives me great pride to bring attention to the countless members of our community working tirelessly to give foster youth a voice.”

Wilson added, “We must do better to protect foster children just as we would our own and these forums help us gather the necessary input to improve the foster care system.”

The state’s child welfare system was redesigned in 2001 to reflect a community-based care model. It now combines the outsourcing of foster care and related services to private agencies to promote a sense of increased local community involvement in service delivery and design.  Under the initiative, the Florida Department of Children and Families negotiates and contracts with local non-profit agencies to provide services to children who have been abused, neglected and/or abandoned in their community.

All 67 counties participate and operate under this model which is designed to increase accountability, resource development and system performance.

Bass said the South Florida visit has provided the caucus “with an exceptional wealth of knowledge so it is with great hope that the caucus continues to travel throughout the country learning ways we can positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.”

Currently, there are more than 424,000 youth in the nation's foster care system and about 29,500 children age out or otherwise leave the system each year without ever finding a permanent family.

 Youth who transition out of the system without the security of a long-term living situation 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.

This story was supplemented by staff reports.

Photo: Rep. Karen Bass