March 2, 2016

Ex-Foster Youth Turned Lawmaker Prioritizes Spending for Foster Care Reform

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WASHINGTON — In a community center decked with streamers and balloons, Georgia state Rep. Erica Thomas urged a small crowd of teenagers to the center of the room for a rap contest last Friday.

“Somebody might get discovered tonight! I may have a record deal for you!” she joked, opening her arms wide in welcome amid the clamor of a communal birthday party for teenagers and young adults who are dealing with homelessness, abuse and neglect, or other troubles.

They inched their way to Thomas, then grew more confident as she introduced each one, eventually eager to show off what they could do as she called out their favorite beats to the deejay.

Just hours before, Thomas, 28, had been on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives, where she represents District 39. She counts improving the lives of foster care youth among her top priorities.

There, she wants to make the case to her fellow lawmakers about the importance of improving the foster care system. But she also constantly looks for ways to improve the lives of foster youth and disconnected youth with her personal engagement. As a former foster youth, she knows firsthand the importance of encouragement and support.

[Related: Breaking the Cycle, One Young Person at a Time]

“You just never know what you may say to that child to change their life,” she said.

IMG_3484The birthday party at Covenant House Washington, which provides housing, education and employment assistance, and other services to teens and young adults, was one way to build those kinds of connections. Thomas has helped hold similar parties at Covenant House’s Atlanta location and was thrilled when volunteers in Washington picked up on the idea, which she hopes will spread nationwide.

“It makes me feel like it’s my birthday every time. I feel like for two hours, these kids forget they’re homeless,” she said. “The feeling that you get just seeing kids have fun makes it worth it.”

Thomas, who bounced among several foster homes beginning at age 15, said young people — especially foster youth — need to know that their perspectives matter.

“No matter what’s going on, you have to use your voice. That’s the story of Erica Thomas: I had nothing but my mouth,” she said.

Since graduating from Oakwood University in Alabama, Thomas started a nonprofit called Speak Out Loud that runs events and raises money for foster youth, and was elected to the state legislature in 2014.

Thomas, a Democrat, said she’s pleased with the direction Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, and the Republican-led legislature are moving in to improve foster care. But she  said she will push for more funding to improve the system.

She sits on a commission that is reviewing foster care workers’ caseloads and believes the research the group is doing will help make her case.

“Once we show the data, and that the data doesn’t lie, I think that we’ll be able to move in the right direction to swaying the hearts of the majority to see these kids really need the money in the budget,” she said.

Roger Newton contributed to this story.