LOS ANGELES — When she was just 15 years old, Junely Merwin was removed from what she called a “dysfunctional” environment and entered into the foster care system in Los Angeles.
But she wasn’t alone.
“I entered the system with my month-old baby in my arms at the age of 15. And I raised him throughout the five years of his life until I exited the foster care system (at age 21),” explained Merwin.
“Being a teen mom in the foster care system was honestly one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Navigating a complex system I didn’t know and just struggling, bouncing between being a teenager, a mother and foster youth,” she added. “Being in the system with my son, we bounced between different foster homes, [and] I really struggled a lot in figuring out how to meet his needs best.”
More than 60,000 children are in foster care in California, and more than 400,000 children are nationwide. Merwin has been using her experiences not only as a foster child but also as a teen mother in the system to advocate for changes to the system. Merwin is a member and ambassador for Alliance of Moms, and she’s done other advocate 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.
Most 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 is telling that I could do anything. And I, as many of our other youth that are here, are changemakers, we’re making a difference,” Merwin said.
The National Foster Youth Institute was founded a decade ago by Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. NFYI members are anywhere between 18 and 30 years old, and receive mentorship and support from staffers and form a community of fellow foster youth to continue advocating for change.
The Congressional Foster Youth Day pairs each of these young leaders with members of congress to share their experiences and ideas about how elected officials can impact and change the foster youth system.
“The reality is, when the government removes children from their parents, then the government becomes their parent,” said Bass in a floor speech during the shadow day. “Their goal is to leave Congress with a better understanding of the reality faced today by our nation’s youth in care.”
According to the NFYI, less than 3% of former foster youth graduate from college, and only about half of youth raised in foster care end up finishing high school across the country. Merwin overcame those odds, 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 conversation and brought her to a committee hearing during her time on the hill.
“I talked about the challenge of obtaining childcare so that I could be able to do that [graduate college],” Merwin recalled. “Childcare was key to my success so that I was able to focus on higher education and ultimately graduate, and what I would love to see is teen parents in foster care having opportunities to thrive, [and] having a real chance to succeed. And many of my teen parents in the system are struggling and are desperate for support.”
Merwin’s son is now on his way to middle school come fall and is nearly as tall as her. She became emotional talking about him, saying he is her motivation.
“It’s so important for my son to see that his mom did everything she could to be a great leader, [and] to be a great example. And to show him that it’s so important to care about people, to care about those who have lived experience because his mom went through the foster care system,” Merwin said. “I just hope to influence everybody who comes after me and those who are around me to advocate to share their voice because each and every one of them matters.”