Class helps draft foster care bill

Most class projects never leave the classroom, but one class’s effort has traveled 2,600 miles away — to Washington, DC.

School of Social Work Professor Ralph Fertig’s social welfare policy class developed a draft of a resolution for the House of Representatives that addresses the issue of homelessness and the foster care system. The draft made it to Congress, where Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) presented it to the House.

“Our bill concentrates solely on children and describes the plight of homelessness of children,” Waters said.

The resolution was initially developed as part of a class project, to teach Fertig’s students about the legislative process and the importance of social work.

The class split into different groups that looked at statistical information, advocated for support from the community and legislatures, interviewed homeless people and developed a documentary of the whole process.

“Fertig has been working on this draft, and he thought it would be a great learning experience for us to take a draft and then submit it to [Rep.] Maxine Waters,” said Stanley Wipfli, a graduate student studying mental health.

The resolution states that children have a right to have a home and recognizes the effect the recession has had on the number of homeless families and homeless youth. It encourages the government to reprioritize the system so homeless children can be housed with their families instead of being immediately entered into the foster care system.

“You certainly can’t blame children for being homeless,” Fertig said. “There’s nothing more perilous or dangerous [for children] than living on the streets.”

Fertig explained that the current system has a flaw when it comes to housing homeless children.

“Parents have to make a choice: either keep the child with them on the streets or surrender them to foster care,” he said. “But they can’t get the child back unless they get housing, and they can’t get the housing without the children. It’s a catch-22.”

After Fertig and his students drafted the resolution, it was presented in a town hall meeting at LA Southwest College where Waters heard the presentation.

“Maxine Waters, that day when she heard the resolution, she accepted it and said, ‘OK, I’m taking this to Washington,’” Wipfli said. “She finessed it again to make it more sellable as a resolution, and she then presented it to Congress.”

Waters said she does not often see students initiating legislation.

“It seems that USC is helping to direct and train [students] in a combination of community organization and the kind of social work that takes you out from behind the desk,” she said.

Though Fertig said he thought there could be some resistance to the bill, Waters said the resolution likely won’t face obstacles.

“Most members [of Congress] are acutely aware of homelessness and the plight of children,” said Waters. “Whenever there’s a story about homelessness … it captures the heart.”

Fertig said that the resolution could be passed in the fall of 2010.

This is the first time a class in the School of Social Work has presented a resolution to Congress, but Fertig said he intends to continue with this type of project.

Fertig said he and State Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada have agreed to submit a bill addressing other issues of homelessness and the foster care system.

“We will be introducing another bill in January, and the class will be totally involved,” Fertig said.

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