Two hours north of San Francisco, in California’s wine country, is the small town of Ukiah, where Jetaine Hart grew up. It’s about the farthest from the nation’s capital one can go heading due west before reaching the Pacific Ocean.
It’s a far cry from Capitol Hill, where Hart lives and works these days.
Traversing the country, wending from a small town to the big city, isn’t the only long journey Hart has made in her life; she’s come a considerable way from a childhood spent first in poverty and then in foster care. Hart, now a social worker, currently works for Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
“We were very poor,” Hart recalled in an interview with NASW News. “My mom was on welfare and there were times when she couldn’t feed us.” Her mother, who was single, often abused Hart and her brother, though Hart insists that her mother wasn’t inherently bad. “She just didn’t know how to be a parent.”
When Hart was 9 years old, her mother attempted suicide and subsequently spent some time in a psychiatric facility. That’s when a social worker placed Hart and her brother with a host family.
She would spend the next nine years of her life going between foster homes, reuniting with her mother for a year before ultimately going back to foster care. Uncertainty and constantly having to acclimate to new environments became a way of life.
Recounting her initial experience in foster care, Hart said: “I remember the first night we ate dinner, the family ate fried chicken with a fork and knife.” Thinking it was peculiar but eager to assimilate, she and her brother began eating fried chicken with a fork and knife.
“The next family we lived with we were laughed at for eating with a fork and knife,” she said. “Each place we went had different rules.”
At an early age, Hart determined she would overcome her circumstances and not live in poverty. She did not want, as she said, to become a teenage mother on welfare, which she feared was her destiny as the product of an impoverished and broken home.
She credits having good mentors, one of whom was a social worker, for showing her the way. “I had some really bad experiences with social workers,” Hart noted. “But then, I had a great social worker that I’m still in touch with to this day. She became my independent living social worker when I was 16. She made sure I did what I needed to do.”
Hart credits that social worker with inspiring her to pursue a career in social work.
“I knew that I wanted to help people,” said Hart, noting that she contemplated studying law before deciding social work was the ideal career for her once she aged out of foster care. “I could help kids, give back to my community — that really motivated me.”
Hart enrolled at La Sierra University in Southern California, where she received a bachelor’s degree in social work with a goal of working in child welfare policy.
“Growing up in foster care, that was the system I knew,” she said. “And I always knew I wanted to do policy. Direct practice is great, but I wanted to help more people than that would allow.”
While earning a master’s degree from California State University at Long Beach, the opportunity came along to intern for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute in Washington, which is where she first met Landrieu, who chairs CCAI’s advisory board and is herself an adoptive parent.
Following Hart’s stint last year at CCAI, Landrieu, who co-chairs the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, hired Hart to help in her office with child welfare issues. Hart had been contributing to the caucus’ development of a set of federal policy options for improving the foster care system.
Those options went public earlier last month. They build off reforms enacted in 2008 as part of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.
It’s been a dream come true for Hart.
“Honestly, to walk the halls of Congress day in and day out, to sit in the committee rooms, it’s breathtaking,” she said. “It’s inspiring and overwhelming for me — someone who comes from such a small town — to have this kind of an impact on a lot of kids. I feel blessed every day to be a part of it.”
Hart is but one of many child welfare advocates who heeded the call to social work.
According to social worker and documentary filmmaker Matt Anderson, who’s working on a film that follows the lives of six youth who’ve aged out of the foster system, people who grow up in foster care make the best advocates for those who follow.
In May, Anderson and some of the youth he profiled participated in a roundtable discussion with the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth and screened the yet-unfinished film, From Place to Place.
“Whether it’s a social worker or someone else who grew up in the foster care system, it always blows me away how much insight they have and how clearly they can speak to the issues at a policy level and at the individual level,” said Anderson, who did not grow up in the system. “People who have lived the experience are truly the experts — they know it the best.”
Florida social worker Elizabeth Edwards, who is a former foster youth, cautions against an assumption that having personal experience in an area like the foster system makes someone more qualified to help others.
“Does having a heart attack make you a better doctor?” she countered. “All you really need is a willingness and a drive to help others.”
Edwards entered foster care around age 5, after her mother went to jail for drug possession, and she eventually aged out. She warns against thinking that people who’ve walked the footsteps of others can be of more help.
She’s had clients with substance abuse issues refuse to work with her because she hasn’t ever had a substance abuse problem of her own. “They thought I couldn’t understand,” she said, insisting that it’s her professional social work training that makes her qualified to help others, not her personal life experiences.
Still, Edwards, who works as a supervisor at Henderson Mental Health Center in South Florida, agrees that social work is a calling. A career test she took in college confirmed Edwards’ passion for social work.
“Don’t do what you think you want to do. Do what you are meant to do,” she said.
Hart believes it takes a special kind of person to be a social worker, and that not all foster youth would make great social workers. “While people who grew up in foster care are better able to connect with other foster youth and understand the unique needs of those in foster care, it’s just as easy to become jaded by the experience as well.”
As was the case with Hart, it was one social worker in particular who inspired Edwards to pursue a social work career.
“I encountered countless social workers growing up,” she said. “The one social worker that made a tremendous impact in my life ... never belittled me, never made me feel like it was the end of the world when there was a problem. She always had positive things to say. I just thought that is exactly who I wanted to be like.”
Edwards added: “I love social services because it gives me that chance to be all that I saw was lacking in the field — genuine compassion for people and the social problems hindering our society.”
Edwards’ and Hart’s success is not exactly typical of the approximately 30,000 youths who age out of foster care each year. One recent study shows that aged-out foster youth fare poorly in comparison to the general population when it comes to such things as postsecondary educational attainment, employment, housing stability, public assistance receipt and criminal justice system involvement.
According to “The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth,” prepared by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, fewer than half of those surveyed were currently employed, and among the employed, most were not earning a living wage.
“Their lack of economic well-being is also reflected in the economic hardship they reported, the food insecurity they had experienced, and the means-tested benefits they had received,” the study found. “In addition, nearly 40 percent of these young people have been homeless or couch surfed since leaving foster care.”
“The system is failing these kids,” Anderson said. He has worked for a program in Billings, Mont., called Tumbleweed, which aims to get foster youth ready for life on their own. “We’ve failed these kids and we have a responsibility to do better by them.”
Anderson is heartened by the work of Hart and the Senate Caucus. “The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 changed how our system operates for the better, but it doesn’t go far enough because what it didn’t do is restructure the federal financing system. It didn’t allow enough flexibility at the state level to use federal financing to improve outcomes.”
Says Hart: “My work is to make the system better, to make it temporary so people really have a permanent family. The system fails kids because it’s not about permanency. There’s a difference between a living situation and a family.”