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At U.S. Capitol, a Homecoming for a CU Student and D.C. Foster Kid

August 22, 2013

(Photo credit: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Thomas McRae Jr., 19, a Cheyney University student, D.C. native and foster child who went through 22 homes before being adopted, is interning on Capitol Hill for Sen. Ben Cardin as part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Foster Youth Internship program.

(Photo credit: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) Thomas McRae Jr., 19, a Cheyney University student, D.C. native and foster child who went through 22 homes before being adopted, is interning on Capitol Hill for Sen. Ben Cardin as part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Foster Youth Internship program.

 

By Trishula Patel, Published

Thomas McRae wore the summer intern’s uniform — khaki blazer and bright blue bow tie — as he sat hunched over a computer screen in Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin’s office, typing a policy memo.

What set the rising junior at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania apart from the legions of overachieving interns on Capitol Hill this summer were the deficits he had overcome to get there, and where he overcame them — four miles east of the Capitol on the other side of the Anacostia River in the District’s struggling Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

He can recite the dates he entered and left each of 22 homes growing up after he was abandoned by his mother. In one, he suffered a gunshot wound. In another, his foster mother told him that he was lazy and “would never make it.”

She was wrong. McRae, 20, has excelled in a program that brings youths who grew up in foster or adoptive homes together with members of Congress. The goal of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s program is to encourage interns to help formulate policy and to educate others on where they’ve come from.

McRae chose to pursue an issue more identified with combat veterans than foster children: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But as a veteran foster child, it’s something he’s intimately familiar with.

“Sometimes I look in the mirror and reflect on everything I’ve gone through, and this all just feels like a dream to me,” he said.

McRae’s mother abandoned him as a month-old infant and left him with a man she called his father, who was fighting colon cancer. Because of his illness, he put McRae in the homes of acquaintances, 11 in all. Once, in 2004, when McRae was 10, he called his father and asked to be removed from a home because he was afraid he would be shot.

The next day, as he lay on the sofa in the living room, the 14-year-old grandson of his caretaker accidentally discharged a shotgun in a bedroom. Pellets burst through the wall and struck McRae in the shoulder and back.

He recalled that he made his way off the couch, but he couldn’t move his right shoulder. He crawled toward the nearest person, grabbing the leg of a woman he called Grandma at the time. He said she told one of her grandsons to put him back on the couch and act as if nothing happened. If it weren’t for neighbors who came over when they heard the shot, McRae said, he might not have been taken to the hospital.

A search for stability

The shooting got him placed in the District’s foster-care system. But his struggles were far from over.

His biological mother was contacted and offered custody of her son. She declined. A DNA test also revealed that the man who McRae thought was his father was in fact no relation. The revelation ended their relationship. “I never saw him again,” McRae said.

Two years later, McRae’s attorney told him that the man had died of cancer.

“My dad was my best friend,” he said. “He tried to raise me the best way he could.”

After beginning therapy in foster care, McRae was given a diagnosis of PTSD, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He attributes his PTSD to the night he was hit by the shotgun pellets and still has dreams in which he’s shot.

A few words about the Boys' Town group home in which McRae '..felt as if he was living in a real home.... 'The Geters (teaching-parents) are my mother and father figure,' he said. 'I would give up my life for them.'"

This group home (the Teaching-Family Model) was developed based on research supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) of NIH as part of a program initiative to provide effective, humane, cost-efficient community-based care for problem behavior and troubled children and youth. It has been successfully adapted for autistic children and youth, the developmentally challenged, emotionally disturbed children and youth and adults with serious, chronic mental illnesses, mostly schizophrenia.

The Teaching-Family model is unique in that It has a comprehensive evaluation system through which certification is earned annually based on performance, as reflected in observations of the teaching-parents interacting with the youth in their home and "consumer ratings" by the youths, teachers, social services and boards of directors.

In the early 80s D.C. almost made the Teaching-Family model the model for group care of children and youth in the District. What a wonderful advance that would have been -- bringing the best of loving and science to D.C. children and youth. That advance is still a possibility today. What's required is to put the welfare of children first and to that end bring the best of caring, science and evaluation group home programming to the young people. They deserve nothing less.