The First Lady was coming to talk with some youths, and the youths had an agenda that was going to shock her.
Hillary Clinton expected them to talk about foster care and adoption. After all, the White House had asked the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center to set up a speech by Mrs. Clinton to celebrate the Adoption and Safe Families Act. The center obliged, but urged that she first meet some youths who had been in foster care. Sure, the White House said.
But when a smiling First Lady sat on a couch in Berkeley, Calif., to chat with seven youths in November 1997, what she got was an earful about pain: the pain of being thrown out of foster care when they “age out,” with no family, no home and no financial support from any adult.
The youths were trained advocates from California Youth Connection (CYC), experienced at lobbying elected officials; they were polite but firm. Alfred Perez, who entered foster care at seven and was left to fend for himself at 18, asked Mrs. Clinton, “Do you think your daughter Chelsea would be able to live on her own without your financial support?”
“No,” Mrs. Clinton said.
“Is it realistic for us?”
“No,” she said.
He gave her a book of essays by foster kids. She thanked him two years later – as she hugged him on a stage at the White House and said, “It’s because of you that we’re here.”
The hug was this past December, when Perez and 11 other former foster kids huddled behind President Clinton as he signed the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 – scrawling each letter with a different pen and handing it to a youth. The gift was earned; more than any federal legislation in recent memory, this “groundbreaking” law (as described by the Annie E. Casey Foundation) stands as a testament to how well-focused youth activism can influence public policy even at the highest level of American government. It is also a lesson in how a bill really becomes a law in Washington.
It is a complex tale of sweat, luck and connections. It involves the untimely death of a senator, a timely newspaper story, relentless ground work by youth workers and congressional staffers, a Disney executive’s brunch with a senator in New York, strange bedfellows pressure from the White House and powerful Republicans, and the opposition of adoption advocates who almost scuttled the whole thing.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of those kids,” stresses Laurie Rubiner, one of the key senate staff in pushing the bill through when it was near collapse. “They made a tremendous difference.”
Current and former foster kids called, wrote and testified to Congress, visited senators to tell of their struggles, took congressmen and staff on tours of independent living programs back home, spoke at White House ceremonies, and bared their life stories to reporters. Terry Harrak of Virginia sat on her bed and told a visiting congressional staffer about how she slept on parking lot benches after being kicked out of her foster home at 18. Two years later she, too, stood on the White House stage, wondering how to permanently display the pen handed to her by the president.
The scene was particularly stunning because just weeks earlier the bill’s primary foe considered it “deader than a doorknob.” It rose from the ashes in a year when, as the Children’s Defense Fund put it, Washington offered “little additional assistance for children and families.”
The act doubles funding for the federal Independent Living Program (to $140 million annually) to help prepare foster kids to live on their own when they age out, and provides housing, medical and education assistance when they do. The bill is designed to help the 20,000 foster kids who age out each year, usually at 18, often to face homelessness, unemployment, incomplete educations and untreated illnesses.
And it catapults independent living (IL) to a new level of recognition in the youth field, IL advocates declared as they gathered at a Capitol Hill hotel to celebrate after the White House ceremony. “Until now, independent living was an extra thing that got funded only with extra money,” said Karoline Gould, executive director of the Independent Living Skills Center, a resource and educational institution in the Bronx. “It’s always been a struggle.”
Meet the First Lady
The story begins with the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. In the fall of that year, Mrs. Clinton “wanted to do a major address about why it [the act] was important,” says one of her policy advisors. Through a series of recommendations, Mrs. Clinton’s staff called the Youth Law Center to ask about setting up a public event at the school of social work at the University of California at Berkeley.
Law Center Executive Director Carole Shauffer agreed to help. But how about sitting down with some foster youth? “We wanted more focus on these older foster youth and the issues of emancipation,” Shauffer says. The White House had a less specific expectation, thinking the youths would “discuss how they viewed the system,” Mrs. Clinton’s advisor says.
Shauffer turned to CYC, which trains current and former foster youth in advocacy and youth leadership. It was also sharing the law center’s office space. CYC members (more than 250 of them, ages 14-to-24) routinely speak before local and state governing bodies, give speeches, and call and visit lawmakers. One of their hottest issues: foster kids being left to survive on their own when they age out of foster care.
CYC recruited seven current and former members to talk to the First Lady. As usual, they would be organized and prepared: CYC Executive Director Janet Knipe says each youth was to discuss a different aspect of emancipation that they had struggled with, such as finding and paying for a place to live, trying to pay for college on their own, trying to feed themselves, loneliness and “not having anyone to fall back on.” Their ages ranged from teens to early 20s.
They met the First Lady in a room at Berkeley before the speech. Four sat on one couch, and three on another with the First Lady. The mood was warm; staffers stayed in the background while Mrs. Clinton ran the conversation. “She put them at ease right away,” Knipe says.
They had about 45 minutes together. At the White House ceremony in December, Mrs. Clinton would describe what she heard back then: “They told me about being forced out of their homes on their birthdays, about staying in a cold dorm room alone during the holidays because they had nowhere to go, about getting sick and having no insurance to get any medical care.” Particularly striking to her was a young woman who said, “You know, it’s almost Thanksgiving and I have no one to call and ask how to bake a turkey.”
Even before knowing he’d meet Mrs. Clinton, Perez had read her book, “It Takes a Village.” “I told her I was very impressed with her ideas,” he says. “I asked her if our country, our village, was taking responsibility for its foster youth.”
Perez saw enough hope in the First Lady’s reaction that he handed her a book he was reading, “The Heart Knows Something Different: Teenage Voices of the Foster Care System.” The book is an anthology of stories by foster kids for Foster Care Youth United, a New York-based newspaper that is branching out into California. “I wasn’t planning on giving it to her,” Perez says. “It was my only copy.”
Mrs. Clinton was “surprised,” her advisor says, by the youths’ intense focus on the problem of aging out. When the meeting broke up the youths went to the auditorium to hear the First Lady’s speech, unsure of the impact they’d had.
They heard her weave into her talk the stories she’d just heard from each of them, mentioning each by name. The youths were stunned; she hadn’t taken notes. “She really listened,” Perez says.
On the plane back to Washington, says the First Lady’s advisor, “she was so focused on these young people and said we have to find out what’s the real story in terms of what we do to help them succeed.”
Power of the Press
What she found was this: In 1985 Congress created a pilot program for states to set up services to help older foster kids (16 and up) make the transition from foster care to living on their own. In 1993 the Independent Living Program (ILP) was permanently established, funded at $70 million a year. At their most basic, IL programs teach kids skills such as budgeting, cooking and preparing for job interviews. More ambitious programs put the kids in group apartments, where they must pay the utility bills, commute to school or work, and discipline themselves in everything from getting up on time with no one to hound them to keeping things from growing in the refrigerator.
The ILP funds have never increased, while the number of foster kids has. And numerous studies in the 1990s have found that foster kids who age out have a particularly hard time. Among the findings in various samples: 46 percent had dropped out of school, 56 percent were unemployed, 25 percent had been homeless at least once, 32 percent had been on public assistance, and 27 percent of the males had been incarcerated.
For much of the past decade, foster youth advocates have been laboring to bring this issue to the attention of the public and lawmakers. They’ve created IL programs, written books and articles, developed a network of IL supporters, conducted opinion polls and courted the media. They’ve built organizations like the Florida-based National Independent Living Association (NILA) and the National Foster Care Awareness Project, a collaboration of organizations funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and The Casey Family Program (headquartered in Seattle). The Awareness Project’s biggest media achievement was Take This Heart, a one-hour documentary about foster kids that aired on public television stations around the country in January 1998.
Federal funding didn’t budge. But the advocates were laying a groundwork that would enable them to mobilize when Washington’s spotlight found this issue.
The light clicked in early 1998 when the Orphan Foundation of America contacted reporter Barbara Vobejda of The Washington Post to pitch a story about the foundation’s scholarship program for orphans and foster teens. Vobejda didn’t do that story, but the call reminded her of a story idea left over from her coverage of welfare reform: kids who age out of foster care. She called Robin Nixon, director of youth services at the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), to ask about the issue.
Nixon recommended that Vobejda visit Cincinnati’s nonprofit Lighthouse Youth Services, which runs one of the country’s oldest and most respected ILPs. At any given time it has 50 kids living in IL apartments. IL advocates were thrilled that the Post was visiting Lighthouse. “That represented the best that could be done” in independent living programs, says Gould of the Living Skills Center in the Bronx.
The result was a front page story in July 1998, in one of the nation’s most influential newspapers, headlined, “At 18, It’s Sink or Swim: For Ex-Foster Children, Transition is Difficult.” Among those reading was Nicholis Gwyn, senior Democratic staffer on the House human resources subcommittee. Gwyn had worked on the Adoption Act, which has helped to boost adoptions but did not deal with issues such as kinship care and IL. “We knew we were going to come back” and deal with those matters, Gwyn says.
“It was in the back of my mind,” he says. “When the Post story came out, it kick started my thinking.”
Timing is everything; Capitol Hill was primed to move on independent living, thanks in part to the fact that Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.) was running for governor.
Meet the Kids
Kennelly was on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, but her (ultimately unsuccessful) gubernatorial run last fall meant she wouldn’t run to keep her House seat. Such an exit sets off a domino effect in Congress: members scramble to fill their former colleague’s committee seats, which leaves other seats vacant, which sets off more scrambling. When the dust settled, Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was ranking minority member of the human resources subcommittee; Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) became chairman.
Johnson’s support of independent living programs goes back to the early 1990s; she visited life skills programs for foster kids in her home district and was “instrumental” in getting the ILP made permanent, says Bill Pinto, youth development director for the state’s Department of Children and Family Services.
Although their posts would not take effect until January 1999, Cardin and Johnson started planning their agendas months before. When Gwyn began working on IL legislation, he found that Cardin’s staff was already drafting a measure. Soon Johnson’s and Cardin’s offices were crafting one bill.
It was a bill for which staffers would go the extra mile. Over at CWLA, where staff are usually the ones calling Congress to suggest legislation, Nixon got a surprise call from Gwyn: he wanted to know “what you would want to see in a bill” to boost the ILP, she recalls. He and other House staffers visited IL programs in Virginia and Maryland. Nixon took Gywn to the nonprofit Residential Youth Services IL program in Annandale, Va. Among the kids they met was Harrak, who was sharing an IL apartment with three girls. “I didn’t even know they were coming,” she says.
The two adults sat on chairs while the petite girl plopped down on the blue comforter on her bed and told her story: abandoned by her father at 15 when he remarried, her mother was in a nursing home blind and stricken with multiple sclerosis. The girl was put in with a foster mother, but at 18 was told she had to leave because the checks stopped. Within weeks Harrak was brushing her teeth in fast food bathrooms, and sleeping in subway station parking lots and a hospital emergency room.
“If I could write a story about why kids shouldn’t be emancipated at 18, I would have written that,” Nixon says.
“It was just a clear illustration of how difficult it is for these kids to make it without any real assistance,” Gwyn says.
Foster youth advocacy organizations around the country were soon organizing current and former foster kids to write letters and make phone calls to congressional offices. The Florida-based NILA used its website to keep members informed of developments on the bill and to track which of its members had contacted which congressional offices. In Missouri, former foster youth Percy Bailey – now a 24-year-old St. Louis police officer – accompanied Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) on visits to independent living sites, including the Epworth Children & Family Services in Webster Groves, which had helped Bailey get on his feet after he aged out. Those visits generated local press coverage of the IL bill and helped cement Bond’s active support.
Republican support would be crucial to what might seem like a Democratic cause. While Democrats saw the bill as promoting positive youth development, Republican backers saw it as promoting self-sufficiency. Both were correct, and supporters such as Nixon made sure to stress the appropriate theme to whomever they were addressing. Gwyn explains: “It was easier, especially when the more moderate Republicans were trying to pitch this to more conservative Republicans, [to show] that it was in the tradition of their welfare reform in trying to move people from a public program to self-sufficiency.”
Also helping: Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the House majority whip, who has two foster kids. He got behind the bill immediately, testifying before the House subcommittee in May and the Senate subcommittee on health care in October. Says Gwyn: “It’s helpful for someone who was considered one of the more [conservative] if not the most conservative members of the body to say this is a good idea.”
“They invited me to speak at the White House.”
Harrak smiles in amazement as she recalls the invitation to an East Room ceremony in January 1999. There Mrs. Clinton announced that the president’s proposed Fiscal Year 2000 budget would boost federal ILP funds by 50 percent and make former foster kids eligible for Medicaid until they’re 21. Several current and former foster kids were on hand to share the spotlight and trumpet the cause, including CYC members Perez and Joy Warren. Mrs. Clinton recounted her meeting with CYC members more than a year earlier, then turned to someone who has a story that “should be heard by everyone. … It is my great honor to introduce Terry Harrak.”
By this time the White House and Congress had each discovered that the other was working on the IL issue. The staffs began helping each other, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Serivces providing critical research to both to back up the tragic stories told by the youths.
Why two tracks? For various budget and political reasons, getting the ILP funding passed as a law rather than a budget item would put it on more solid ground. For one thing, advocates wouldn’t have to fight in Congress for their money every year.
From a tactical standpoint, says the First Lady’s advisor, the Clinton budget proposal was intended to help lay the groundwork for the legislation. “The budget we present has a lot of weight,” she says. “It shaped the legislative process.”
Johnson’s subcommittee held hearings on the bill in March and May. Among those testifying: Nixon, Pinto, Mark Kroner, director of self-sufficiency at Lighthouse, Ruth Massinga, CEO of the Casey Family Program, and former foster kids who’d been in IL programs in Virginia, Maryland and Connecticut. The bill passed in June, 380-6.
“The bill itself was not particularly controversial,” says Gwyn. “Members understood. They have their own children that age. At 18, they’re certainly not self-sufficient.
“The big stumbling block was how to pay for it.” That stumbling block became a mountain in the Senate.
Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), a veteran moderate respected on both sides of the aisle, sponsored a Senate version, along with Sen. Bond and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). The legislation seemed to be blessed: one day Clare Faulkner, executive director of United Friends of the Children Bridges to Independence program in Los Angeles, got a call from a member of her board, an executive with Disney. The executive had just brunched in New York with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and had pitched the IL legislation . The message, Faulkner recalls: “Call Sen. Boxer’s office. She wants to co-sponsor the bill.”
But the bill had been assigned to the Finance Committee, which was to craft its own version and forward it to the full Senate for a vote. “Getting it through the finance committee was a hassle,” Nixon says.
At first the bill suffered mostly from “disinterest” because it was not a big ticket item, says Rubiner, who was legislative assistant to Sen. Chafee. It was a year of gridlock on Capitol Hill: pre-election year politics and post-impeachment rifts between Democrats and Republicans left the two parties in such an uncompromising mood that legislative proposals withered like crops in a drought.
Given that atmosphere, it wouldn’t take much opposition to stall the bill. Ironically, the opposition came from other youth advocates.
For Maureen Hogan, “The whole idea of independent living programs is very troubling. It is an admission of abject failure on the part of the system.”
Hogan, the mother of three foster teens, is a congressional lobbyist specializing in social and family issues. Her clients include the Catholic Alliance, a Christian-values organization headed by former Boston mayor Raymond Flynn, the Atlanta-based National Association of Foster Care Reviewers, and the Adopt America Network, a Toledo, Ohio-based nonprofit that works to get hard-to-adopt kids adopted. Like Hogan, the network sees more ILP funding as giving up on getting older foster kids adopted. “We come from a position that is solidly permanency for children,” says Executive Director Brit Eaton.
Eaton opposed the House version of the IL bill, but federal law restricts how much lobbying tax-exempt nonprofits can do in Congress. So his network turns to Adopt America Advocates, a D.C.-based organization [a 401(C)(4), in IRS lingo] that Eaton’s agency financially supports and Hogan directs. Hogan went to work on the IL bill in the Senate, focusing on the staff of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the finance committee, whom she had lobbied on adoption issues in the past. [Ironically, Hogan’s clients also include Family Advocacy Services, an IL program in Baltimore.]
Hogan and Eaton weren’t the only adoption advocates who bristled over the IL proposal. Another was Susan Badeau, a former project manager at the National Adoption Network in Philadelphia (which works to get kids adopted) who was serving a one-year public policy fellowship with the office of Sen. Rockefeller. She also has 20 adopted kids.
In Badeau’s view, the proposed legislation created a “disincentive” for people to adopt older foster kids, because the adoption would make those youths ineligible for the IL-funded services. [Eight of her kids were 15 or older when she adopted them.] So she wrote a provision dedicating some of the ILP funding to recruit and support adoptive parents of older kids. For instance, 16-year-olds who get adopted would still have access to IL-funded services and to Medicaid coverage.
She found allies in Grassley’s staff, who also wanted to establish uniform review boards in every state to judge the effectiveness of the IL programs. [Various forms of such review boards exist in most states.]
The proposals set off a bitter feud between foster care and adoption advocates. Hogan argued that IL programs “don’t work. … In a significant number of cases these programs are just a big rip-off.” The money, she argued, should be used to get the kids adopted.
Foster kid advocates were pulling out their hair. Some kids, Pinto argued, will never be adopted. About one-fifth of the more than 500,000 kids in foster care at any given time are cleared for adoption, and each year about one-fifth of those are adopted. Pinto recalls a telephone argument he had trying to sway someone from Grassley’s staff. “If it had been in person,” he says with a laugh, “it would have come to blows.” IL supporters saw Grassley’s proposals as “poison pill” measures designed to create a stalemate and kill the bill.
Hogan and Badeau say they were stunned by the ferocious reaction from IL supporters, especially to the suggestion of reporting requirements to help review boards judge program effectiveness. Grassley argued that he just wanted accountability for IL programs and saw no need to rush the legislation through by the end of the year.
Besides, a congressional and White House dispute over federal milk price supports had threatened to stop almost all legislation. The IL bill “was not going anywhere in the finance committee,” says a Republican Senate staffer who asked not to be named.
“We started to have real problems here,” says Rubiner.
Chafee had made the bill a crusade. His office had arranged meetings on Capitol Hill between senators, staff and more than a half dozen current and former foster youths who talked about aging out and being left on their own. Rubiner recalls the meeting with senators: “Seven [senators] sat through the entire hour and listened to these children. That is very unusual. That lit a spark.” Chafee wasn’t there; he was ill.
It was one more example of the key role youths played in advancing the legislation. “They were not just props,” Rubiner says.
Chafee also held a lunch meeting in his office with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), James Jeffords (R-Vt.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), where he pitched the bill, calling Rubiner into the room to explain the details.
On Oct. 22 the First Lady called Sen. Chafee to wish him a happy birthday (his 77th) and to discuss what could be done to boost the foster care bill, “which had hit a few roadblocks in the Senate,” as she later recalled in a speech. After that conversation, Chafee told his staff “to set up appointments with senators who could sway the bill,” Mrs. Clinton recalled.
Two days later, Sen. Chafee died of congestive heart failure.
Along with the pall that Chafee’s death cast over Capitol Hill, many IL supporters figured that their bill died with him. Pinto says he got a call from Rep. Johnson saying the measure was a lost cause for now, but they could try again in 2000.
“The bill was deader than a doorknail in October,”
At the very same time a light bulb went off over several heads on the Hill. It was an inspiration that could be seen as both moving and cunning, a ploy to use sincere emotion for tactical gain.
Staffers decided to name the bill after John Chafee. The once-small potatoes legislation was now a movement to create the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. Among Republicans especially, its passage became what a staffer for Sen. Collins called “a living tribute to Senator Chafee.”
“Sen. Collins was very good friends with Sen. Chafee; he was a mentor to her,” says Feilcia Knight, Collins’ spokeswoman. “It meant a great deal to her that this bill be acted upon this session.”
“Everyone in the Senate was aware of what Sen. Chaffee wanted,” says a Republican House staffer who asked not to be named. “This was a big priority of his. That resonated with Sen. Lott.”
That would be Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose strong support surprised some IL advocates. Aside from Chafee’s memory, Lott appears to have been influenced by Rep. DeLay, the foster parent who had testified for the bill before the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee on health care.
Now it was time for Hogan and company to pull out their hair. House and Senate staffers who backed the House version were creating a virtual tsnuami to get the bill passed before the end of the session, less than two months away. Why? “There’s always a risk in waiting,” says the First Lady’s advisor. Anything could happen when Congress reconvened in January 2000, the start of an election year, when posturing and party politics make compromise especially difficult. “It’s questionable what can get done in a heated election cycle. This was probably our best chance of getting something done.”
Mrs. Clinton called senators, her policy advisor says. Senators called each other. Rep. Johnson “met with Sen. Grassley about five times within 24 hours” to push for action by year’s end, says the anonymous Republican House staffer. The National Council on Adoption and the Orphan Foundation issued a joint statement supporting the House version. Says Gwyn in understatement, “There was a lot of push behind this bill.”
Two late developments appear to have provided the final shove.
One came from the office of the late Sen. Chafee, whose son, Lincoln, had been appointed by Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond (R) to fill his father’s vacant seat. He inherited his father’s staff. “When I saw this legislation falling apart,” says Rubiner, “I called someone I know in [Sen.] Don Nickles [R-Okla.] and said, ‘We would be willing to make some compromises on the Senate legislation.'” They key was Medicaid. The House bill said the states could cover aged-out foster kids with Medicaid funds. The Senate version said they had to. Rubiner said Senate supporters could live with the House version in exchange for some changes on minor details.
Nickles’ staff worked with Lott’s office. With the session’s end just days away in November, says the anonymous Republican Senate staffer, the majority leader’s office made it clear to Grassley’s staff that “this was a priority of the leadership.” Even Sen. Rockefeller, whose office had reached an agreement with Grassley’s staff on an IL bill to be taken up in the next session, decided that he would go along with the new compromise that was speeding toward a vote. The Orphan Foundation and the National Council on Adoption issued a joint statement supporting the fast-track bill.
The Finance Committee didn’t even sit down to vote. Committee Chair Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) moved the bill to the Senate floor through a measure called “unanimous consent.” Essentially, the committee leadership calls committee members’ offices and says, “We’re going to move this. You have a problem with that?”
The bill passed the full Senate by unanimous consent as well, with no role call vote, on the last day of the session, Nov. 19. This is a common tactic at the end of a session to push through bills. Grassley raised some objections but did not try to block it. This was not an issue over which he would wage war with his leadership.
Weeks later, Hogan was still spitting nails. “Once Senator Chafee died, it was over,” she says. “His staff ran around and really laid it on thick: ‘This was the last thing Sen. Chafee worked on before he died, let’s name the program after him.’ I think we could have won if that had not happened. … How pathetic that you would reduce Sen. Chafee’s career to this little program.”
The bill passed, she says, because of “personal relationships” between staffers on the Hill. Staffers on both sides of the issue acknowledge as much, and say that’s how Congress works: friendships and alliances between staffers and congressmen, along with pitches from respected and powerful figures on the Hill and at the White House, move some items along while others languish.
“It is relationship driven,” says the Senate staffer who asked not to be named, with no bitterness. “That’s so much a part of what happens in this place.”
All that was left was the party, and a few final surprises.
The president would sign the bill on Dec. 14 in the Old Executive Office Building, which sits on the White House grounds a short walk from the Oval Office. It was about as joyful a scene as one could imagine for the signing of legislation. By late afternoon the room – a sort of mini-theater with a stage and a dozen tiered rows of cushioned theater seats – was abuzz with smiling, hugging adults and kids: Nixon, Pinto, Kroner, Lighthouse Executive Director Bob Mecum, Faulkner of Bridges to Independence, CWLA public policy director Karabelle Pizzigati, advocacy director Susan Weiss of the Casey Family Program, NILA Executive Director James D. Clark, House members, Senators and staffers. Flashbulbs went off as people took souvenir pictures while excitedly waiting for the First Couple to arrive. The celebrants and press grew momentarily silent when 10 elderly Filipino men wearing military campaign hats walked in and sat in a reserved row of seats. No one explained why they were there.
Minutes later 12 young people strolled out on the stage to stand or sit near the podium. They were former foster kids who had worked for the legislation. Among them: Terry Harrak, Alfred Perez and Percy Bailey. Perez and Kristi Jo Frazier, a 19-year-old in the Lighthouse program, got to speak, telling their stories and touting importance of IL programs. Perez had the honor of being introduced by the First Lady, while Frazier had the honor of introducing the president, which she did with a smile that was as big as her face would allow. Mr. Clinton hugged her before he spoke.
He thanked everyone from the kids and the advocates to the late Senator Chafee and Mrs. Clinton (“she put a lot of herself into getting this passed”). He urged the advocates to help the states “design good programs, to implement them so the money will be spent with maximum impact.” And he tried to explain those Filipino men.
“When we get to the end of the session sometimes we have to combine a bunch of things in bills, just to get all our work done,” he said. The IL bill includes a provision providing financial assistance to “veterans from foreign lands who fought with and as part of the United States armed forces during World War II.” Among them were the Filipino veterans on hand, who stood at the president’s request while the audience applauded.
Few of those applauding knew that, although the president said the provision “is unrelated to young people aging out of foster care,” it was crucial to passing the bill.
That’s because when lawmakers introduce a bill that costs money they must provide a way to pay for it through new government income or through “offsets,” i.e., savings elsewhere in the budget. The IL bill’s $70 million came from three offsets: a cut in federal funds for child support collection to some states (which some congressmen felt were getting more than their share); savings via a crackdown in fraud in the Supplemental Security Income program; and the foreign veterans’ benefits.
The latter offset works like this: because the veterans became U.S. citizens and live here, they collect federal veterans’ benefits. Many would like to return to their homelands, but they would lose benefits. The new provision sets up a benefit under Social Security that allows them to keep 75 percent of their benefits if they return to their homelands. Thus the federal government saves money.
These were among numerous cost-saving plans floating around Capitol Hill waiting to latch onto a bill like barnacles on a boat. “If we hadn’t used some of these” for the IL bill, says Mrs. Clinton’s advisor, “they probably would have been used by someone else” for another bill.
Pop the Cork
An hour after the ceremony, Perez sits at a small reception of pasta, finger food and soft drinks in a Holiday Inn a few blocks from the Capitol, recounting the stunning ride to victory and trying to keep it in perspective.
“I don’t know how much impact I had,” says the University of Michigan graduate student. “I’d like to think I had some, but I probably didn’t.”
No one can precisely know how much any one factor contributes to the passage of a bill through the congressional/White House sausage factory. Nixon gives special credit to congressional staff, “who were honest to God committed to this issue.” Pinto credits “a cadre of crazy individuals who latched onto this issue and didn’t give up.”
He is referring to youth advocates who’ve been working on the issue for years, and he is sitting with a half -dozen of them in the lounge of the Hyatt Regency near Capitol Hill. Nixon, Kroner and Faulkner, et al, have walked across the street from the Holiday Inn to the more upscale venue for more celebrating. Pinto asks the waitress for the champagne list. He looks it over for a few seconds and says, “We’ll have the Dom.”
That’s Dom Perigon, listed at $125 a bottle. Eyebrows pop up around the table. “Hey,” Pinto says with a shrug, “we don’t get to do this very often.”
The champagne arrives with strawberries; some suggest their taste will be dulled by the cigars being passed out. There are words of caution among the smoke and smiles. Nixon points out that $70 million is not much of a raise, especially since the IL funding had never been increased. Kroner talks about the challenge of making sure, as the president said, that the money is used well; he envisions a flurry of new contractors applying for funds to run IL programs. And if anyone needed a reminder of how conditions are for foster kids, just a week earlier a legal advocacy group in Seattle threatened to sue the state for keeping foster kids in juvenile detention centers due to a lack of foster homes.
But now was a time for basking. What can never change, Pinto says, is how this legislation demonstrated the value of empowering kids, of helping them learn how to advocate for themselves in adult systems.
“They saw the potential to be leaders,” he says. “They’re survivors. They can speak for themselve