WASHINGTON—United States Senator Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and television/movie star Rosie O'Donnell today highlighted the goals of National Foster Care Month by introducing the Foster Care Mentoring Act of 2009. Sen. Landrieu and O'Donnell, joined by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute (CCAI) and Lifetime Television, unveiled the legislation at a Capitol Hill press conference this morning.
Sponsored in the House by Democratic Congressman Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., this Landrieu legislation would connect children in foster care with responsible, caring adults by authorizing $15 million to establish statewide foster care mentoring programs. The bill would also provide $4 million to begin a national public awareness campaign for mentor recruitment programs and allow up to $20,000 in federal student loan forgiveness for volunteers who mentor a child in care. Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
"Too many foster children in the U.S. are growing up without the support and guidance of a close adult," Congressman Crowley said. "This is unacceptable - children need consistent and stable adult support to navigate through difficult times. Foster children with mentors have better academic performance, fewer behavioral issues, and are less likely to commit crime. The Foster Care Mentoring Act we have introduced today will build a national program to recruit and sustain mentors for foster children across the U.S., including my home state of New York, and raise public awareness on the issue. Mentoring is an enriching experience for both mentor and mentee, and I am proud to work with my friend Senator Landrieu to raise awareness of this critical need."
"The state doesn't do a wonderful job of raising foster kids, so we need to set up systems and opportunities like those mentoring programs proposed by Senator Landrieu," said Rosie O'Donnell. "Part of the issue with getting people to volunteer with foster care youth is that you want to entice the right kind of people with the right kind of motives. Attracting college-educated people to help mentor kids who are in need and at the same time forgive some of their student loans is a wonderful, unique and very clever way to introduce a whole new segment of the population to this at-risk group of kids here in our country."
There are 550,000 children in foster care, and 100,000 of them are waiting to find a home with a permanent, loving family. Mentoring programs can make a significant difference in the lives of children in foster care. Studies show that children who are mentored are 45 percent less likely to use illicit drugs, 59 percent more likely to succeed in school and 73 percent more likely to attain higher life achievement goals.
However, many programs that support mentorship are simply not sufficient and almost non-existent at the state level. Mentor programs that serve foster children are unique and require additional considerations, including specialized training and support necessary to provide for consistent, long term relationships for children in care. Mentor programs are cost effective approaches to decreasing the occurrence of many social ills such as teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration and violence.
The Foster Care Mentoring Act addresses the need for more robust mentoring programs that are tailored specifically for foster care youth. The bill proposes to connect children in foster care with responsible, caring adults by:
· Authorizing $15 million to establish statewide foster care mentoring programs. States would be eligible to receive up to $600,000 to establish or expand a foster care mentoring program. These programs would be specially designed to serve the needs of foster youth and would have a strong emphasis on improving academic achievement.
· Providing $4 million to begin a national public awareness campaign and mentor recruitment program. The bill authorizes the Secretary to establish a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness of the need for foster care mentors and opportunities to get involved.
· Allowing loans up to $20,000 in federal student loan forgiveness for those who volunteer to mentor a child in care. Mentors who participate in a foster care mentor program would be eligible to receive up to $2,000 in federal student loan forgiveness for every 200 hours they serve. A total of $20,000 in student loans incurred by participating college or graduate students would qualify for forgiveness.
"All young people deserve a stable, loving home," said Sen. Bayh, a member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption. "For foster children, in particular, having a caring adult in their lives can mean the difference between becoming a healthy adult and going down the wrong path. Mentors for foster youth wield an enormously positive influence on children under their care, helping them stay in school and on the right track during the most formative years of their lives."
"Foster children are faced with a number of challenges, and often times one of the best resources for guidance are former foster youth who have walked in their shoes and made it through a similar situation," Sen. Lincoln said. "These mentors can play a crucial role in the lives of these children and provide a much-needed support system for both kids and foster families alike."
"Sen. Landrieu's legislation reminds us that there is perhaps no better way to improve the future of this country than to be a mentor to a young person in foster care," said Kathleen Strottman, Executive Director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. "These youth have the potential to be our future leaders -- they just need someone to help guide and support them along the way."
Sen. Landrieu and Rosie O'Donnell participated in a variety of events to promote National Foster Care Month. This afternoon, Sen. Landrieu and O'Donnell hosted a roundtable forum with representatives from the National Foster Care Coalition's (NFCC) National Foster Care Month Campaign. During this meeting, foster and adoptive parents, Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association volunteers, and current and former foster youth shared their unique perspective and recommendations for reform. The meeting is a part of NFCC's three-day advocacy and awareness campaign.
Sen. Landrieu and O'Donnell will later join Lifetime Television and Sony Pictures Television, in partnership with CCAI, to hold a reception and screening of the critically-acclaimed Lifetime Original Movie "America." O'Donnell executive produced, co-wrote and starred in the critically-acclaimed film. Based on E.R. Frank's book of the same name, America takes viewers on the emotional journey of the novel's title character, seventeen-year-old America, as he navigates the United States foster care system. O'Donnell leads the movie's cast as a therapist who gives America the support to deal with his troubled past and find the courage to survive against all odds. America originally appeared on Lifetime on February 28, 2009.
"It is incredibly gratifying when a movie like America not only tells a great story, but also acts as a catalyst for change," said Meredith Wagner, Lifetime' s Executive Vice President, Corporate Communications, Public Affairs & Advocacy. "We are honored to work with Rosie O'Donnell, Larry Sanitsky and Sony Pictures Television on this important project and hope that its impact on our foster care system will be profound and lasting."