Sometimes Patience Is Your Most Powerful Advocacy Tool

Education

Guest post by Melissa Rock, Child Welfare Policy Director, Advocates for Children and Youth (Maryland).

Knowledge, commitment, and persistence are great attributes of a strong advocate. However, it never surprises me how patience is just as important.

Let me explain.

This year, we checked the “win” column more than once for foster youth. One stand-out victory was the passage of the tuition waiver bill. Advocates for Children and Youth and partners were successful in changing the way funds were applied to a foster student’s college tuition account. Previously, Maryland law waived tuition at state colleges and universities for foster youth. However, this waiver was only activated after the students’ scholarships and grants were applied towards tuition. Long story short; it was not much of a tuition waiver at all. This meant foster youth had little-to-no money for books, room or board. Some students resorted to living in their cars while attending school. Yes, the law was in place; however, it was not of much benefit to the population it was designed to help.

In response Advocates for Children and Youth—along with some of our partners—drafted legislation which stipulated that the tuition waiver covers the entire cost of classes. Grants and scholarships could then be applied toward housing, books, and other important living expenses. In addition, tuition waivers would now include state-run vocational programs—which is a preferable route for some of Maryland’s foster youth. The legislation also extended tuition benefits to youth who exit care after age 13 to guardianship since youth adopted in the same age range were already eligible. Guardianship is a form of final custody that closes a young person’s child welfare case but does not terminate parental rights. It is often used by relatives who assume permanent custody of a child. This last provision was the source of our angst because it could be a sticking point among some legislators.

We were nervous about the benefit extension as it could significantly increase the number of eligible youth. While we didn’t have the break down by age, there were over 650 children and youth who left the system to guardianship in the last year alone. It meant that thousands more students could access the tuition waiver as opposed to 50 the year before.

If the legislators knew the number of eligible youth and the immediate cost to the state, we were worried the bill would not be able to pass with the provision. However, we knew that we had to give college-ready former foster youth an opportunity to succeed and so we started to strategize. We could present two bills—one with the provision and one without it. Instead, we decided to make no sudden moves. We would wait for the draft of the fiscal note. Good thing we did.

When the fiscal note was drafted, there was no attempt to quantify the additional number of eligible youth. Not a single legislator brought up the coverage of additional youth. We did not anticipate that the inclusion of additional youth would be overlooked. The bill passed without issue.

I have learned that sometimes you have to allow things to play out. Have your advocacy strategy in hand and include the tactic of waiting. As an advocate, waiting can be a challenging thing to do because it seems counterintuitive. I have discovered that it is a stronger tool than we know.