As if graduating from Harvard isn’t impressive enough, former CCAI Foster Youth Intern (FYI) Maurissa Sorensen has yet another impressive accolade to add to her portfolio: Legislative Change Agent.
Each year the FYIs produce a legislative report in which they share their personal experiences with the child welfare system and present policy recommendations to address and improve adoption and foster care issues. In past years, these reports have generated both local and national attention to the critical issues facing the 408,000 children currently in the United States foster care system.
This summer, as part of her Foster Youth Internship report, Maurissa researched and provided concrete recommendations on how Congress could help make higher education more accessible to foster youth. As Maurissa explained in her report, “when I started community college, I was asked to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which included checking a box stating that I was a foster youth. I now understand that the purpose of this box is to separate out youth who will not be able to comply with the sections of the form that address parental income. I spent more than seven years in community college and filled out the FAFSA form each year. Unfortunately, during this time, no one from the federal government ever used this information that I was a foster youth to bring attention to the U.S. Department of Education that I was a student who may need additional resources and supports.”
To address this, Maurissa proposed:
Congress should amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), to allow foster youth to receive information about the existence of Chafee and ETV funds as federal grant programs. Currently the HEA only allows foster youth to check “yes” to question 52 on the FAFSA form in order to avoid having to provide the income of their parents. However, it could serve the critical role of alerting the youth that they may be eligible for Chafee and ETV funds.
Fast forward four months later to this afternoon when Senator John Kerry introduced the Foster Youth Higher Education Opportunities Act. Here is an excerpt from Senator Kerry’s floor speech about the bill, which would ensure that FAFSA is used as a tool to notify foster youth when they are eligible for education assistance programs:
I am greatly concerned that too many of our nation’s foster youth are unable to appropriately access critical federal programs that provide assistance to help increase their educational opportunities. Higher education can hold the key to a future of stability and it is unacceptable that many foster youth who are eligible for higher education funds, such as Education and Training Vouchers (ETV) and support through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, are never told about these programs.
This is why I have worked with my colleagues to introduce a bipartisan bill to direct the Department of Education to fully utilize the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a tool to notify foster youth of all federal funds which may be available to support their pursuit of higher education, and include information specifically for foster youth on their agency website. The Foster Youth Higher Education Opportunities Act will automate the notification to foster youth of their potential eligibility for programs that serve as a lifeline to a better future.
According to CCAI Executive Director Kathleen Strottman, “It has been my experience that the voices of foster care alumni are the ones we should be listening to more than any others. When they speak, things actually stand a chance of getting better. Not because their stories remind us of how far we have yet to go, but because their ingenuity and passion for making a difference show us just how far we can reach.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
Click here to read Maurissa’s full report: http://bit.ly/OrS96H