Legislators who had a lot of experience in child welfare, early childhood and youth homelessness found they also had a lot to learn when they took part in NCSL’s bipartisan fellows program to study policy in these areas.
“Doing this fellowship was a game changer,” says Louisiana Rep. Jason Hughes (D). “The fellowship showed me that as much as I thought I knew about early childhood, there was so much that I did not know.”
Doing this fellowship was a game changer. —Louisiana Rep. Jason Hughes
Colorado Rep. Tonya Van Beber (R), who discussed the fellowship with Hughes in an NCSL Town Hall on Facebook Live, agrees. Van Beber has been personally involved in some aspects of child welfare as both a foster parent and an adoptee. Becoming an NCSL fellow deepened and broadened her understanding.
“We don’t know what we don’t know until we start receiving all of this information from the experts that come to NCSL and speak to us about child homelessness, about child welfare and about the different things that impact the most vulnerable among us, and that’s our children,” Van Beber says.
The lawmakers were in a group of 60 legislators and six staff from 28 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands who were nominated by their leadership and chosen as 2022 NCSL fellows. They took part in four sessions, two in person, that were jam-packed with information about the issues and best practices across the states.
That national perspective was particularly helpful, the lawmakers say.
“Oftentimes we spend a lot of time scratching our heads trying to figure it out in isolation,” Hughes says. “In Louisiana, we’re doing some things really, really well and some things that we’re still trying to figure out. But every state that was represented at this fellowship is doing something really well. So it’s a reminder—don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”
Van Beber says while she represents a rural district, she values learning about solutions in urban and rural areas across the country. One example of a successful program: Warren Village in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, just blocks from the Colorado Statehouse.
The program provides housing and an array of services such as child care, preschool, mental health care and career counseling in one place to help single parents move from homelessness or housing instability to sustainable living. The program has served more than 8,000 adults since it started in 1974 and is expanding to a third location in Denver as soaring housing costs create more instability for families.
“Out of all of the extraordinary presentations throughout the fellowship, Warren Village, no doubt, touched my heart in an immense and meaningful way,” Hughes says. “What it reminded me is that poverty has to be addressed in a holistic way.”
The program is supported by private businesses, foundations, Denver’s housing stability office and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“When we see a private-public partnership of this quality that has actual outcomes and evidence-based processes, that literally show us this does work, it was a wonderful thing to see,” Van Beber says.
Both legislators, serving in their first terms, noted that the bipartisan nature of the fellows program helped foster understanding that will serve them well to gain broad support on measures going forward.
Van Beber has already gained nearly 100% support from Colorado legislators for bills in 2022, including one to reduce the sometimes yearslong delays in getting foster children adopted and another giving foster children 12 and older a guardian ad litem to represent their interests. Many of her bills incurred no costs.
“That’s a slam dunk, a success for all of us,” Van Beber says, “but most importantly, for our children.”
Kelley Griffin writes and edits for NCSL.