Child Welfare Witness

(This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of SSA Magazine. It is a sidebar of the feature story, Called to Testify.)

Many scholars don’t get an opportunity during their entire career to testify on Capitol Hill. Ashley Lepse has already done so as a Master’s student at SSA.Ashley Lepse

Last summer, as one of 13 students from universities across the country who participated in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship program in Washington, D.C.,

Lepse was placed in the office of Illinois Representative Danny Davis. Each of the students wrote a section for a report on issues around the child welfare system. In July, they presented their findings to the senators and representatives in the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. Lepse’s paper, “Care for Youth in Care: The Need for High-Quality Foster Parents,” was informed not only by her coursework at SSA, but also by her own life. Like all the students in CCAI’s internship program, Lepse herself was in foster care as a child.

Her brief, which outlines the problem of maltreatment by foster parents and options for finding more foster-care families, begins with a harrowing story—a two-year-old boy who drowned in a toilet of the house where he was in foster care. The story has particular resonance for Lepse, because when she was three, she and her two siblings had lived with that same foster care family. In fact, they were removed due to accounts of suspected maltreatment.

“We didn’t experience abuse, but neglect, yes,” says Lepse, who was adopted with her siblings by a foster care family after a brief emergency placement. “Not all children in foster care are as lucky as I am, to feel the love and support that I feel from my family. You can go into a system that’s supposed to protect you and then it doesn’t.”

To start the Congressional briefing in July, the students were scattered among the audience, and each stood in turn, saying, “Hear me now.” After sharing their experiences, they gave a summation of their research, then answered questions from the legislators, representatives from child welfare agencies, legislative staff members and others.

Since that testimony, Lepse has had an opportunity to speak on several webinars on the topic. Her training at SSA has continued in the administrative track, including a field placement at Chicago’s Youth Network Council, where she is working with community-based agencies that serve young people in crisis. After graduation, she says she hopes to work with government to affect change in child welfare policy, although probably not at the federal level.

“I learned a lot working on the Hill and it was a great experience,” she says. “But one thing I learned is that much of what happens around child welfare is at the state level, so I that’s where I want to be.”