The purpose of our group was to encourage support from our State Senators and Representatives of House Bill 1131: Creating the Passport to College Promise Program. This Bill proposes additional funding for the educational development of foster youth within Washington State. It is intended to increase the amount of foster youth, ages fourteen to eighteen, in completing their high school education and going on to college. House Bill 1131 focuses on partnership between high school counselors and colleges to address mentorship among foster youth. Further, successful completion of high school would then give foster youth between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six the opportunity to receive financial assistance and additional resources enabling them to work toward a college degree or certificate.
As a group, we each sent our district Senators and Representatives a letter personally expressing our reason for supporting this Bill. To further show our support of this Bill, we rallied more than fifty people to send a letter to each of their Representatives and Senator in their district, this totaled over 150 letters being sent in support of foster youth furthering their education. To better understand what House Bill 1131 signifies we created a fact sheet to provide to individuals who would support our letter campaign and this Bill. To help assist individuals in sending a letter to their legislators, we created a template letter for both legislative sponsors and non-sponsors of House Bill 1131. In addition to supplying individuals with a fact sheet and a letter, we taught them to navigate the Washington State Legislature’s official website. This included showing them how to find what district they lived in as well as whom their Senator and Representatives were. Not only did this gain their support for House Bill 1131, it sparked their interest in learning more about the legislative process. Additionally our group attended a lobby day and met with Senator Mike Carrell, one of our district representatives who is also a member of the Ways and Means Committee.
The first reading of House Bill 1131 was on January 11th, shortly thereafter it moved to Appropriations, and on March 6th the first substitute bill was submitted with 81 yeas! House Bill 1131 is now on the Senate side with a scheduled public hearing in the Senate Committee on March 15th. We believe our letter campaign, communication with our legislators, and our meeting with Senator Carrell, has encouraged the speedy progression of this Bill.
In Washington State there are more than 7,300 children in foster family or group care. Only 34 percent of foster care youth graduate from high school within four years, compare to 70 percent for the general population. Only 20 percent of former foster care youth earn a high school degree and enroll in college, compared to over 60 percent of the general population. We believe the funding provided through House Bill 1131 will likely increase the graduation rates for foster youth as well as encourage them toward higher education.
Through this process we learned that our voice does make a difference. We have the ability to represent a multitude of individuals by sending emails, making phone calls, and having meetings with legislators. Have a Heart for Kids Lobby Day was incredibly empowering as we witnessed people rallying together to bring about change for Washington State children. More importantly we learned how easy it is to create positive change for others. House Bill 1131 did pass and was sent to Governor Gregoire on April 20th, 2007 for her consideration.
During the spring of 2007, I completed a social work practicum at Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), an interfaith organization representing 62 congregations in Metropolitan St. Louis. My primary goal was to work during Missouri’s 2007 legislative session to build MCU’s Health Care Task Force and to advocate for Medicaid reform in the wake of cuts made in 2005 that affected 400,000 Medicaid consumers. I also represented MCU with the First Things First (FTF) campaign, a coalition of 20 advocacy groups working on Medicaid reform. As part of a quick response strategy crafted by the FTF coalition, I influenced the Medicaid debate by writing policy briefs and action alerts, organizing a rally and lobby day, and testifying before a House committee. Through this work, I directly impacted the language of the Medicaid reform bill that is now moving through the state legislature.
My tasks included creating a one-page policy critique of the Missouri Governor’s Medicaid reform proposal, called the MO HealthNet plan, which was sent to 20,000 people as part of an action alert. Once the Governor’s plan was introduced as legislation in the Senate, as SB 577, I organized a rally in opposition to the bill. The rally was attended by over 100 people, and was covered by KMOV (CBS affiliate), a popular radio station, and a local newspaper. I worked with three disabled consumers who had been adversely affected by the 2005 Medicaid cuts but who had never told their story in public, and I helped them prepare personal testimony for the rally. Afterward, 75 participants marched in downtown St. Louis holding signs saying “MO HealthNet is NO HealthNet,” and “MO HealthNet is the Wrong Rx for Missouri.”
At the rally and at church services throughout the city, participants signed prescription slips calling for comprehensive Medicaid reform, which were then placed in mock prescription bottles. During a lobby day the following week, thirty FTF volunteers and I delivered these mock prescriptions and my policy critique to every House Representative. I spoke directly with several legislators, and helped to prepare testimony given by the MCU Task Force chair and a Medicaid consumer during a committee hearing. At the end of the hearing, we presented a large container of prescription bottles to the Committee Chair and to the Governor.
The following week, the Committee released a new draft of the MO HealthNet legislation containing several of our proposed amendments but failing to address our primary concern: eligibility for the 400,000 people who had lost Medicaid coverage or services in 2005. Therefore, a Medicaid recipient and I again went to the Capitol on behalf of the FTF partners to deliver over 10,000 petition signatures to the Committee and to speak at a press conference about the bill. Unexpectedly, the Committee Chair announced that testimony in support of full restoration of cuts would not be allowed that day. With just a few minutes to prepare, I identified a specific line item in the bill to target and proposed new language that reflected the FTF principles. I then presented the 10,000 signatures, in a stack of paper over one foot tall, to the Committee Chair. I received a follow up email from the Chair on May 6 noting that my proposed language had been included in the final Committee version of the bill. The press conference and hearing were covered by several major media outlets in Jefferson City and Kansas City, and I was quoted in the Jefferson City Tribune (see http://www.newstribune.com/articles/2007/05/03/). The Committee version of the bill will be heard in the Missouri House in the week of May 7th.
This practicum experience has taught me several important lessons. First, it is not always possible to plan an advocacy strategy in advance, because the legislative schedule and process are highly fluid. Therefore, it is essential to remain flexible and to be skilled at thinking on your feet when working to influence legislative policy. Second, the press can be a valuable ally in advocacy work, and cultivating relationships with reporters is an essential part of advocacy practice. Third, social workers have a unique opportunity and responsibility to engage personal stories and involve affected consumers in the advocacy process so that those who are most vulnerable can have a direct impact on policymakers’ decisions.