LOS ANGELES — When she was just 15, Junely Merwin was removed from what she called a “dysfunctional” environment and entered the foster care system in Los Angeles.
But she was not alone.
“I entered the system with my one-month-old baby in my arms at the age of 15. And I raised him throughout the five years of his life until I left the system of foster care (at age 21),” Merwin explained.
“Being a teenage mother in the foster care system was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Navigating a complex system that I didn’t know and struggling, oscillating between being a teenager , a mother and a young adoptive,” she added. “Being in the system with my son, we bounced between different foster homes, [and] I really had a hard time figuring out how to best meet his needs.
More than 60,000 children are in foster care in California and more than 400,000 children nationwide. Merwin used her experiences not only as an adopted child, but also as a teenage mother in the system to advocate for changes to the system. Merwin is a member and ambassador of the Alliance of Moms, and she has done other advocacy work with various organizations such as Public Counsel, United Friends of The Children, Alliance for Children’s Rights, John Burton Foundation, and The Change Reaction.
More recently, Merwin took her message to Capitol Hill, as a member of the National Foster Youth Institute’s annual Congressional Foster Youth Shadow Day.
“The fact that I am here today shows that I can do anything. And I, like many of our other young people who are here, are agents of change, we are making a difference,” Merwin said.
The National Foster Youth Institute was founded ten years ago by Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Committee on Foster Youth. NFYI members range in age from 18 to 30 and receive mentorship and support from staff members and form a community of young adopters to continue advocating for change.
Congressional Youth Adopters Day pairs each of these young leaders with members of Congress to share their experiences and insights on how elected officials can influence and change the youth adoptees system.
“The reality is that when the government takes children away from their parents, then the government becomes their parent,” Bass said in a floor speech on Shadow Day. “Their goal is to leave Congress with a better understanding of the reality facing our country’s youth in care today.”
According to the NFYI, less than 3% of former foster kids graduate from college, and only about half of foster-raised kids end up graduating from high school nationwide. Merwin overcame these obstacles, graduating from California State University, Fullerton. Her experience as a young mother in the foster system, who was also attending college, was something she shared with Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. Takano hosted Merwin for a chat and brought her to a committee hearing while on the Hill.
“I talked about the challenge of getting childcare to be able to do that [graduate college]recalls Merwin. “Childcare has been key to my success, so I’ve been able to focus on higher education and eventually get my degree, and what I’d like to see are teenage parents with family d welcome who have the opportunity to flourish, [and] have a real chance of succeeding. And a lot of my teenage parents in the system are struggling and desperate for support. »
Merwin’s son is now on his way to college in the fall and is nearly as tall as her. She got emotional talking about him, saying he was her motivation.
“It’s so important for my son to see that his mother did everything she could to be a great leader, [and] be a great example. And to show her that it’s so important to care about people, to care about those who have had an experience because her mother went through the foster care system,” Merwin said. “I just hope to influence everyone who comes after me and those around me to advocate for sharing their voice because every one of them matters.”
For more information on the National Foster Youth Institute, click here. For resources for youth in foster care, families and other information, click here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story showed an incorrect percentage of graduates. The error has been corrected. (July 1, 2022)