Move over, oil and gas interests. Take a seat, criminal justice advocates. The most influential lobbyists in Louisiana’s statehouse may be a small group of youths formerly in foster care.

They first came to the Legislature as part of a fledgling internship program through the nonprofit Louisiana Institute for Children in Families. But they are expected to be key players this session, as the Legislature debates extending foster care beyond age 18.

On Tuesday, a special task force will release recommendations about the changes necessary to expand the care, which would carry a roughly $3 million annual price tag for the state.

Gov. John Bel Edwards joined with the Department of Children and Family Services and state Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, to create the task force, urged on by the interns. As the governor wrote in an email, he and his wife, Donna, “had an opportunity to meet the foster-youth interns who worked in the capitol and were even more encouraged that extending the age is the right thing to do.”

Last year, newly elected Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, also came to admire the group of youngsters after he introduced Senate Bill 129, which allowed youth in care to stay in care past 18, until they graduate from high school.

Gatti believes his bill became law solely because of testimony from former foster children. “It would not have passed if they hadn’t have shown up,” he said.

The bill was a tough sell in a tight fiscal year because it required $948,000 of state money annually. But Gatti’s bill made it through Senate committees and landed in the House Appropriations Committee in May.

That morning, the committee’s chair, Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, took one look at the day’s whopping agenda and asked everyone to curtail their testimony.

So Gatti walked to the front table accompanied only by DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters. Foster parents and children had testified for the bill on the Senate side, he told Henry.

“They’re all here today, but they’ve agreed not to testify, because I know we’re in a crunch for time,” Gatti said.

Henry nodded, then said, “Keedy can testify. The girl sitting behind you can testify.”

Gatti did a double take. “OK …” he said.

Henry continued: “She was one of the (Institute for Children in Families) interns last session, correct? C’mon up here.”

Kayana “Keedy” Bradley, an honors student at the University of New Orleans, walked up to the microphone. “Hi, everybody,” she said confidently. “Thank you for letting me talk.”

Bradley boiled things down, citing the state’s own statistics.

“According to the Louisiana legislative task force — your own task force — of youth who age out of foster care, only 50 percent will receive a high school diploma by the age of 19,” she said. “Only 3 percent will earn a college diploma by age 25. Three out of five will be homeless within a year of aging out. Three out of four of these youth will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. And the employment rate for youth who age out is 50 percent.”

After reinforcing the data with examples of why the extension was important for youth across the state and for her personally, Bradley concluded.

Henry nodded. “Perfect. Good to see you again,” he said, asking for votes. “Seeing no objections, Senate Bill 129 is moved favorably,” he said.

Bradley took it in stride. “It just seemed to me that legislators might want to hear the voice of someone who’s impacted by a bill that’s on the table,” she said.

Walters recalls the moment as “a delight.” For her, Henry’s acknowledgment of Bradley was made more poignant because she knew that the committee chair, who had lunched and talked with the interns, was aware that Bradley had had to board a bus in New Orleans at the crack of dawn just to make it there.

Building empathy

National foster care expert Kate Gaughen saw similar groundswells in Georgia and Michigan after youth got involved in legislation there. “I think they really bring a face to it,” she said. “There’s something about having an 18-year-old stand in front of you, especially if you have your 18-year-old at home: ‘This could be my kid.’ It really builds empathy.”

In Louisiana, the Institute for Children in Families debuted its legislative internship program in 2017, based on the much larger Foster Youth Internship Program that’s been operating in Washington, D.C., since 2003.

Though the program has had just seven interns over two years, Walters believes it’s had an impact. “It’s changed the tenor of the conversation,” she said.

Two years ago, the state of Louisiana was done with Breayana “Bree” Bradley, Keedy’s younger sister, then 18. “I was given a blue folder with my Social Security card, birth certificate, some medical records and immunization paperwork,” she said. “Literally, it was, ‘Bye, Bree,’ and that was the last I saw of them.”

Bree Bradley is now enrolled in college, like the rest of the interns, including Keedy, now 22.

Four of seven interns came through a promising program run by New Orleans Court-Appointed Special Advocates, one of the few CASA programs in the nation to offer one-on-one support to foster children as they transition out of state care at 18. To date, 75 percent of the program’s youth are enrolled in school or a job-training program and 100 percent of high-school graduates have moved on to college. Those results far surpass what’s been typical for older foster children.

The interns call themselves “the 3 percenters,” to emphasize the slim proportion of Louisiana youth in foster care who will graduate from college, according to state estimates.

“Higher education is definitely a big deal,” Bree Bradley said. “But how do we get to higher education when the fundamentals are not even there? It’s a miracle that any of us make it out of college.”

Nationally, the proportion of college graduates from foster children is likely in the single digits, though data are unreliable.

That’s especially true in the 24 states that have not extended care beyond 18 or high school. In those states, no state agency even knows which college students are former foster children. But the number is small.

“Without extended care, only the most exceptional students make it through post-secondary education,” Gaughen said. “Sometimes kids are able to enroll, but their graduation rates are abysmal.”

Research from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall found that when foster children are allowed to stay in care beyond age 18, they are twice as likely to attend college.

In some ways, Bree Bradley was a long shot to make it to college: She had 20 different foster placements, making it hard for her to keep up with academics or athletics. “For the longest, I did not think I was going to college,” she said. “I worked and I strived for it. But did I really see that in my future? No.”

The Bradley sisters’ mother suffered a stroke, leaving her unable to care for them, when the girls were in their early teens.

The two sisters are inseparable and protective of one another. With the help of some caring adults, they made it to college — but many equally talented kids don’t, they say.

All of the interns interviewed for this story feel that reality tug at them.

“Yes, the success stories could grow more if Louisiana extends care, because kids can live for the future instead of living day-to-day,” said Ian Marx, who attends the University of Notre Dame on a Posse Scholarship. “But the stories we have are so lucky, they’re not replicable. The fact that I’m here at Notre Dame is an anomaly.”

Bree Bradley also won an all-tuition Posse Scholarship but can’t afford the room and board at Tulane University, where she is majoring in anthropology.

So Bradley pays rent to live with a friend’s family an hour’s bus ride away. When she’s on campus, she often hears classmates asking their parents for help with anything from a meal-plan card to a paid tutor.

“Foster kids don’t have that,” she said. “The decisions we face every day are: How do we pay our bills? How do we put food on our tables? How do we keep this roof over our heads? These are difficult questions to answer when you have no one to guide you or family to support you.”

Years ago, DCFS supplied some services for youth who had aged out of foster care. Christy Tate, child welfare manager over youth programs, remembers surveying youth back then about what they needed most.

“We thought we’d hear that kids needed a house, a car or money,” Tate said. “Overwhelmingly, the answer was: ‘I need someone to call in my darkest hours that won’t turn me away.' They just wanted a person.”

No longer invisible

A decade ago, Jarvis Spearman tried to tell his caseworker that he was being beaten and starved. Other foster children at that home also reported abuse. But the worker assigned to investigate found no fault with the caretakers.

“You probably deserved it,” she told the children, according to Spearman.

Now 24, Spearman is studying for a master’s in social work at Grambling State University, raising his 17-year-old brother, and working two jobs to stay afloat.

He usually stays mum about being mistreated. But in mid-2017, he took a rare day off, drove to the Capitol and told legislators all about it.

“I was wanting to commit suicide and I felt worthless and I just felt that I had no purpose,” Spearman testified, flanked by the two Bradley sisters and the fourth intern for that year, Taylor Fletcher.

The original idea behind the Louisiana Institute’s internships was to inform policy. “You wouldn’t try to fight a fire and not ask firefighters what they thought about that,” said institute founding board member Madeleine Landrieu. Landrieu, now the dean of Loyola University’s College of Law, became heavily involved in children’s issues during 16 years as a judge.

Landrieu also realized the children and families she saw needed to be heard beyond her courtroom. “What kids in our system need is people in big places who have voices, because our kids can’t scream loud enough to be heard,” she said.

Spearman did his best to be heard, telling legislators that foster care should be extended to age 21. “I realize that this would be a huge shift in state law, but no child deserves to have a destiny sealed by circumstances beyond their control,” he said.

Though that expansion didn’t happen during that session, something did change for Spearman on the day that he testified, he said.

As he looked toward the dais, he saw that Barrow, the committee chair, was weeping.

Barrow had grown up in a large extended family, and she always had someone to turn to. When she heard the youths’ testimony, she felt a deep pang about how it must feel to be 18 and absolutely alone.

Teary-eyed, she gave all the young people her cell number and told them their testimony had changed her life.

“Truly, this is going to change the course of Louisiana for children who age out of foster care,” she said. “This has just changed it. It’s made the difference.”

Spearman still thinks of that day. It changed him too. “Finally, I felt seen,” he said.

This story is also being published by Youth Today. This yearlong reporting project is made possible in part by The New York Foundling, which works with underserved children, families and adults with developmental disabilities. Throughout this project, Youth Today will maintain editorial independence.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.