Spend 15 minutes with Ashleigh Davenport, and you’ll realize she is much more than a number. But being a number is part of what drives her.
Davenport, a 22-year-old student at Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va., is like many law students. She is full of conviction and passion and wants to change the world. Yet it’s her experiences as a foster child that have her on the fast track to accomplishing just that.
When Davenport was just 4 years old, she was placed in foster care. Two years later she was adopted by her foster parents and grew up in Highlands Ranch. During her senior year at Highlands Ranch High School, she learned she had an 8-year-old sister, Leighanna, also in the foster care system.
“By the time we found out about my sister, it was too late to find out about adopting her because she had already been with her foster family and they were interested in adoption,” Davenport said. “Had they reached out to us sooner, my parents would’ve adopted her instantly, there would’ve been no questions, and she would’ve grown up with her biological sister and my family.”
Even though the sisterly story didn’t take the shape that Davenport wished it would have, she has gotten to know Leighanna quite well and said she and her “mini me” celebrate birthdays together, share texts, email and Snapchat regularly.
And whether she knows it or not, Leighanna has also put her older sister on a career track. It’s because of her that Davenport graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and because of her that she spent this summer in Washington, D.C., as an intern for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness of the needs of children without families.
Writing wrongs, improving lives
While both Leighanna and Davenport were foster success stories, according to the CCAI, there are currently 400,540 children in the U.S. foster care system. Additionally, since 1999, more than 230,000 young people have transitioned out of foster care without having ever made permanent family connections.
One of 16 students — all former foster children — interning with CCAI this summer, Davenport worked out of the office of Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, where she researched foster issues and drummed up an eight-page policy report focused on improving technology through the creation of an innovative case management system that would allow social workers to keep better track of foster children and their families.
This past week, Davenport and the rest of the interns presented brief synopses of each of their policy reports to members of Congress, staffers and child welfare advocates.
“The hope is that we wrote policies that will open Congress’ eyes to some of the issues that we faced in foster care, that need to be fixed,” Davenport said. “We’ve had interns in the past who have proposed policies that have become law.”
While each intern spent time on an issue that was especially personal to them, Davenport homed in on an improvement that she hoped would help prevent future foster siblings from being separated the way she and her sister were.
“If there was more information available on the family, and not just the child, they may have looked at my sister’s case a little differently,” she said. “My parents had an addiction and a dependency on drugs and just couldn’t care for a child. ... My biological mother has not been alive for most of my sister’s life, but our biological father was still on drugs and wasn’t able to keep a steady job and care for her either.”
Davenport said her hope is that if technology is improved, caseworkers could connect stories such as theirs much more quickly, and not only have the parents’ parental rights terminated sooner the second time around, but have the ability to place the siblings together if at all possible.
Different stories fuel the fire
Davenport’s time on Capitol Hill left an impression, not only on herself as she carves out her future and makes plans to return someday as a policy maker, but on others as well, including CCAI Executive Director Kathleen Strottman, who sees individuals like Davenport as having the potential to make a lasting difference.
“Ashleigh came to Washington not only as a foster youth intern, but as a voice of every child in the foster care system,” Strottman said. “Not a day goes by that I am not inspired by the courage and tenacity of these youth. ... They reveal their scars in the hope that others won’t have these same wounds inflicted upon them.”
Getting to know other foster children from around the country and hear their stories is one of the things Davenport will treasure the most about her experience, too.
“It’s been really cool getting to hear their stories and what they think is wrong with the system and to combine that all into a report that’s comprehensive of all our stories and all our ideas,” she said. “It really was just a fabulous experience.”
Davenport said of the other issues that were raised in the collective policy report, aging out of the system and making higher education more obtainable for those who have gone through the system struck the biggest chord with her.
Education has traditionally been a challenge for foster children, and not just higher education. According to a statistic provided by the CCAI only 58 percent of foster children graduate from high school by age 19, compared with 87 percent of all 19-year-olds.
“The foster system gave me my life,” Davenport said. “I was removed from a situation full of drugs and neglect and given a home that gave me love, support, and a future. ... Things could be improved in any system, but this system was successful in my life.”
To learn more about the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, please visit www.ccainstitute.org.