2005 Al-Star Lupe Ortiz-Tovar testified Before House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support in February, 2008. Here is what she told them..
First, let me say thank you to Chairman McDermott, Representative Weller, and the members of the subcommittee for inviting me here today. Thanks also to FosterClub, the Kids are Waiting Campaign, and the National Foster Care Coalition for making it possible for me to get here. I am honored to have this opportunity to share my story and to be the voice of truth for the half-million children and youth in foster care today. All children and youth deserve a loving family. I know. I spent virtually my entire life - 20 years - in foster care. In twenty years, I moved more than eleven times, enrolled in eleven different schools, and lived with more than 35 foster brothers and sisters.
Through all those placements and people, and after two decades in foster care, I lost contact with my birth family, including my 6 brothers and sisters, and never found a family to call my own. I did most of my moving during my high school years. I remember that this was the time when I realized what it really meant to be in Foster Care. Unfortunately for me, being a teen in foster care, well, that’s not a good thing. Most families are looking to take in younger youth. I kept bouncing around from place to place while the organization that was trying to find me a family looked for one that wanted to have a teenager. When a foster parent I was living with made a personal choice to move across the country, the staff in my life made a choice to send me to a lock down facility in another state while they looked for yet another home for me. Keep in mind, I was only 15 years old and was told that I would only be in this other facility for four weeks while a family foster home was found for me. This temporary four-week placement turned into a year and a half of my life. This year and a half had a tremendous effect on my education, my sense of identity, and my sense of permanency. As if being in foster care wasn’t bad enough, this placement took me far away from anything, any place and anyone that I knew.
Having to change placements and change schools makes it so difficult for us to succeed. So many young people who have the same hopes and dreams as your children lose their hope because foster care is so unstable and it becomes so difficult to successfully complete their education. Sometimes staying connected with your teachers and your friends at school is the only anchor that you have in foster care. We all agree that keeping kids out of foster care, or finding a family for them as soon as possible if they can’t return to their birth family, are the best options. At the same time, we need to do more to make sure that foster youth have the chance to stay in the same school when placements change, so that they can stay connected to the community and people that they know, and so that they have a better chance of success. We need to make sure that more than half of foster youth graduate from high school, and more than 2% graduate from college—the current education outcomes.
Today, I have a great job and great friends, and I travel around the country speaking about my experiences in foster care and why I think that the system has to change. However, I still long for a family. Growing up, it was really hard knowing that there was no one to turn to if I had problems, needed advice, or even wanted to just sit and talk with someone about dreams and aspirations I might have. My successes have always seemed bittersweet, because few people understand how hard I have had to work to accomplish the goals I set for myself. They don’t know how frustrating it was to move every year, how challenging it was to change schools constantly and to adjust to different houses, different rules, different foster parents, brothers and sisters. All of the moving around – especially in high school - made it difficult to keep friends, and I lost my identity. I loved being involved in school activities like theater, church groups, sports, and diversity clubs. These gave me glimpses of a life lived by my classmates and their families that I only dreamed of. These glimpses of “normal” family life were also reminders of siblings I was never able to know, the brothers and sisters that foster care took away from me. My sister Val, is a driving force for me; she was the only sibling I was able to stay connected to in care. It was so hard to have to do things like monitored visits, timed visits, timed calls, begging, fighting, and breaking down so that we could spend limited time together. This just weighed my heart down, and made me feel like all the hurt was my fault, like I chose to be born into the family that I was, like I chose for the foster families to not like both of us, like I was the one who neglected, abused, and hurt my family. Why did my love for my sister have to come at this expense, when all we both needed was our connection? As for my other 5 siblings, I never even had any chance to stay connected to them.
Because of my experiences in foster care, I’ve had to redefine what family means to me. I finally found my family in supportive people and groups who believe in my voice and potential, and who are my network of support and love and encouragement. These people that I have met and worked with along the way share the trials in life I have experienced and the triumphs I know I will achieve.
More than half a million children and young people are now in foster care, and 12 million people who have been in foster care are out there in the world.
I have accomplished a lot, but it is in spite of all of the uncertainty I experienced in foster care – not because of it. I want something better for the youth who are currently in the foster care system. I want them to have families to love and protect them and homes they know they can always return to. I want them to leave foster care to live with a family, a relative – someone who will be permanent in their lives. I do not want the youth currently in foster care to age-out of foster care with no family and no one to turn to for help or support. For those youth who do remain in foster care until they become adults, I believe they should have the care and support of the foster care system until they are truly prepared to live on their own, and have more opportunities to connect to adults who care about them. Foster care supports and services should stay in place at the very least until they turn 21 years old. This would also ensure that they had access to health care while they are learning to support themselves. When I aged out of foster care, I did not have any health insurance. I was told that I needed to apply to Arizona’s state health care program while I was attending college. I applied, got rejected, re-applied, and got rejected, re-applied, was told yet again that I had too much income, and have no dependents, therefore I did not qualify. It was not until my anxiety got so severe, or I had medical scares, and that my voice strengthened, and I was able to ask with confidence for a basic need to be met, of medical insurance. The one semester in college, that I had medical insurance, I did not miss classes due to having an anxiety attacks, or because my flu turned into bronchitis, because I did not have or know the right way to treat my illness…it was so helpful not to have to worry about my health for that short time.
In spite of this, I am strong and successful. In 2000, I graduated from high school with my class despite attending 5 different high schools. I went on to receive a BA in Psychology from Arizona State University in May 2006. All these accomplishments came and went with little or no time to celebrate, as I had to remain focused on making sure that I had a place to live and a way to support myself. I was very motivated, too, by the belief that no one believe that I could do it…that I could succeed. I only wanted my sister to be by my side as I fought through school and working. The toughest accomplishments are those where there is no one to celebrate with. My College graduation was the most meaningful accomplishment, because my sister was there, my best college friends were there, and a FosterClub All-Star Sis was there. Also, I have a mentor, a mentor to support me and to tell me what they thought about the work I put into school. My success would have been sweeter if I would have had a family to share it with, and if I hadn’t had such worries about my health and about having no support.
Our government has the power to ensure that children in foster care have better outcomes, and that young people leaving foster care receive the support they need to succeed. If Congress simply changed the way the federal government pays for foster care services, it would prevent the need for some children to enter foster care and move others to safe, permanent families more quickly. It would make an enormous difference in the lives of so many children who have already been through so much and would save others from having to uproot their lives three, four, ten times as I did. Changes that would increase school stability, ensure good health care, and extend support to 18-21 year olds would make such a big difference in the lives of these children and youth that we all care about so much.
Hundreds of thousands of children are waiting for help, waiting for families, waiting for things to be better. Congress has the power to do something, and I ask you on behalf of all of my brothers and sisters who cannot be sitting here with me to do something now. Thank you.