SSA student advocates for change in federal foster care laws, guided by first-hand knowledge

Mary Abowd
News Officer for Arts & HumanitiesUniversity Communications

On a July day in Washington, D.C., Ashley Lepse delivered a freshly bound report to the senators and representatives in the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. A student in the School of Social Service Administration, Lepse offered her research on some of the flaws in foster care laws, and her step-by-step recommendations for fixing them.

Lepse, a second-year SSA student, has been working in the office of Illinois Representative Danny Davis throughout the summer as a foster youth intern, with the goal of educating members of Congress on how they should rethink the law to recruit more foster parents, improve the screening process and retain good parents in the system.

“If there were better laws around these aspects of child welfare, fewer foster children would experience maltreatment,” Lepse said. As overwhelming as these problems may seem, “I want to do something about it now,” she said.

Students from SSA have many ways to take their classroom learning into the broader world during their summer break. Some use their time away from classes for field research, to add to the body of knowledge on effective social work and social work administration. Many serve the community through local or global internships and volunteer work. Others, like Lepse, put their classroom learning to the test by trying to directly change social policies.

Lepse is also drawing on her own life experiences as a ward of the state in the Illinois foster care system. She and her siblings were removed from their mother when she was 3 years old. Their first placement in a foster home was traumatic for these fragile children, and they were removed after nine months for abuse and neglect. After a brief emergency placement, the children moved into their final placement a few months later. That couple adopted Lepse and her siblings.

“Not all children in foster care are as lucky as I am, to feel the love and support that I feel from my family,” she said. By advocating for federal standards, she hopes that the experience of children in foster care can become consistently positive.

A Boost from Faculty Mentorship

To tackle the challenge of writing policy recommendations for the large and often-disjointed child welfare system, Lepse tapped into her first year of training in the SSA, a school with the largest number of faculty members doing child welfare research in the country.

Mark Courtney, who teaches social policy students about the challenges they will face, said he often reminds students that no matter where they practice, they will always need to try to make sense of the policies lawmakers create.

“There is always a difference between forming a policy within the government, and implementing that policy on the ground,” Courtney said. To keep important changes from being lost in the transition, Courtney teaches his students that the first step in recommending a good policy is having a deep understanding of the social problem it is meant to address.

“Abuse in foster care is a serious problem and there are members of Congress who are very concerned about this,” Courtney said. With the money, time and resources that our society spends on the child welfare system, he said, any instance of inadequate care at the hands of the state is troubling.

Gina Samuels, associate professor, also has helped Lepse channel her academic training and her life experiences into workable policy recommendations. “Lawmakers are becoming increasingly open to hearing from foster youth about how their policies are actually lived and experienced,” she said.

Samuels’ career of teaching direct practice in social interventions at SSA has meant that students seek her guidance for years after they graduate. She encouraged Lepse to start with the basic standard for acceptable foster care—a complete end to abuse and neglect—and then to think more broadly about how foster families could promote healing among traumatized children.

For example, Samuels knows foster children who grew up in homes where the refrigerator was locked to keep them from sneaking food, or where parents complained openly about how the state didn’t pay them enough to take care of their foster children. Such things don’t fit the definition of abuse, but also fail the test of providing loving and healing care.

“We can reduce the instances of abuse in the foster care system,” Lepse said. “We need to write and present the message clearly to legislators, and help them understand how to fix it.”

Lepse is hardly cowed by gridlock or inaction on Capitol Hill. She believes the child welfare system can be changed to help vulnerable kids feel loved and supported.

The title of the report to Congress, Hear Us Now, refers to her and her co-authors’ first-hand experiences in foster care. Each of the 13 foster youth interns who wrote the report, supported by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, hopes to speak for children without a voice in Congress.

“The chance to make a demonstrable difference in policy and programming that will benefit people down the line is exactly what I want to do with my training,” she said. Her training continues in the administrative track this fall, when she will begin a field placement at Chicago’s Youth Network Council. She will work with a few community-based agencies that serve young people in crisis, and get more first-hand experiences in yet another area of the child welfare system.