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APSU student Mary Lee: Changing foster care from the inside out

More than 542,000 children are in foster care right now.

Just a few years ago, APSU social work major Mary Lee was one of those children. Placed in foster care at 12, she remained in the system until her case manager, Scott Lee, and his family adopted her a week before her 18th birthday.

Today, she is working to change the foster care system. Its a mission shes been on since she was 15 and still a foster child herself.
More than 542,000 children are in foster care right now.

Just a few years ago, APSU social work major Mary Lee was one of those children. Placed in foster care at 12, she remained in the system until her case manager, Scott Lee, and his family adopted her a week before her 18th birthday.

Today, she is working to change the foster care system. It's a mission she's been on since she was 15 and still a foster child herself.

However, now she'll be working on a national level as president of the National Foster Youth Advisory Council (NFYAC), a group established by the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). The organization of 24 current and former foster youths from 14 states is providing a voice for foster children and changing perceptions of youth in care.

In addition, The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption invited Lee to share her foster care and adoption story Nov. 5 at the Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge at Lake Las Vegas Resort. The challenge, which features pro golfers from the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours, is a fundraiser for adoption. This year's focus was promoting awareness of older adoption.

“I believe that the general public has a misconception about foster youth. They tend to think that they are bad kids, and that it's their fault that they are in care,” says Lee. “This is so not true, since most kids in care are there because of something their parents did, not them.”

Lee became involved with The Dave Thomas Foundation last summer, when she was chosen for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) Foster Youth Intern Program, which the foundation sponsors. The internship gives college students who are former foster youths the opportunity to work in a congressional office for the summer and offer their experiential knowledge of the system to members of Congress.

During her internship in the office of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Lee met Rita Soronen, executive director of The Dave Thomas Foundation. “I shared my story about my adoption and told her how I felt it was important for older youth to be adopted,” says Lee.

She also shared her story with members of the CCAI, which included Lee's testimonial, as well as those of three other interns, on a DVD raising awareness of foster care issues, such as concerns about youth staying in the system for too long.

“CCAI is using my story on the DVD to promote awareness about the need for older youth to be adopted, since people automatically assume that teenagers don't want to be adopted, and to spotlight some of the issues around foster care,” says Lee. “And it's also being used to give people the opportunity to hear the real-life stories of youth from the foster care system.”

She adds, “I feel that by sharing my story, I can impact the lives of others. I have been told by several people that, because of hearing my story, they decided to become foster parents or to adopt an older child.”

Lee's work has included service as a member of the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council, Tennessee Foster Youth CARE and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. She also teaches PATH (Parents As Tender Healers) classes, which prospective foster and adoptive parents must complete before being approved by the state Department of Children's Services.

“I use my personal experience to teach the parents what it is like for the child growing up in foster care and how to deal with the issues that these children face,” says Lee. “I feel that I am an expert, because I lived it.”

So, how does she think the foster care system could be improved? Lee says the state should pay case managers more in order to reduce turnover, recruit and train more foster and adoptive homes (as well as support them with resources and services) and offer programs, resources and services to help youth transition out of foster care.

She also says there's a need for more community involvement, quoting Sen. Hillary Clinton's statement, “It takes a village to raise a child,” as well as more intervention and prevention services to support families.

While Lee is fighting to change the system, she also is conscious of being a positive role model for younger foster youth. “I try to show them that you can be successful if you want to be,” says Lee. “I feel that my accomplishments and actions speak to other youth.”

Although Lee is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work this December, she is still weighing her options for the future. “I took the LSAT in October, and I am planning on applying to law school to be a child advocate and lawyer,” says Lee. “But if I don't get into the schools I want, then I am probably going to get my master's in social work. Regardless, I am planning on being a child advocate and to work with programs related to foster care and adoption.”

She adds, “I want to make changes, and what better way than with a social work degree?”

Glenn Carter, director of the Social Work Program, adds, "We're very proud of Mary and her accomplishments. Mary is going to make a real difference in the field of child welfare, and we anticipate she will continue to make nationwide contributions."
—Rebecca Mackey