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Brianna Lennon, Dominique Mallard, Giselle Bernhardt and Devonisha Bugarin practice their testimony ahead of a hearing on the Foster Youth Sibling Bill of Rights. The young women are part of a generation of former foster youth who are making their voices heard in politics. (Jennifer Brown, Colorado Sun)

The longer Davion Bugarin talked, his tears turning into gasping sobs, the more lawmakers began to cry. Someone found a box of tissues so the legislators on the House human services committee could wipe their eyes while Bugarin explained how he lost his sisters in foster care.

“Separating siblings shouldn’t happen,” the 23-year-old said. “They are our support systems. They drive us to be better. I feel like if I was able to be with my sisters, we could have had the same opportunities. We could all be living a beautiful life together.”

Bugarin went into foster care at age 2, and while he lived with a Denver family, his sisters were sent to Colorado Springs and Louisville. His older sister, Devonisha Bugarin, 24, who joined him at the Capitol, spent years in residential treatment centers and group homes while Davion lived in foster homes. They’ve reconnected with their other sister, but don’t see her often.

“Going through the system without my sister was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Davion said. “She’s my older sister, and I’ve watched her go through abuse. I’ve watched her go through heartbreak. I’ve watched her go from place to place to place just to try to fit in, just to try to find somebody to love her.”

“So, I’m for the bill,” Davion said bluntly, wrapping up three minutes of heart-wrenching testimony that devastated the room.

The bill is called the “Foster Youth Sibling Bill of Rights,” and would require child welfare caseworkers and foster parents to help kids stay in contact with their siblings when they are placed in different homes. The proposal was brought to lawmakers by Project Foster Power, a group of former foster kids who aged out of the system and hope to change policies to improve it for those coming after them.

Devonisha Bugarin and her brother, Davion, pose for a photo after testifying at the Capitol in support of the Foster Youth Siblings Bill of Rights. They spent their childhood living in different foster placements. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

The legislation — along with another bill that would make it easier for teenagers in foster care to get driver’s licenses — is the product of a generation of former foster youth who are louder than any other before them.

“They are loud. I love it,” said Ned Breslin, CEO of Tennyson Center for Children, which has a 24-bed residential center for children with mental health and behavioral issues and provides in-home therapy to hundreds more children. “You’ve got all of these people who are now in their early 20s and they went through the system and now they have a voice. They are starting to say very simply, ‘We don’t have a shot if you don’t try to normalize our path.’”

They’re connected through social media and through programs including the national Foster Youth in Action. “It’s this generation,” Breslin said. “They have found a way to help each other. Ten years ago, 20 years ago, you got out of the system and had no idea who else did, too.”

Project Foster Power, which formed last year and is run by several youth who were never adopted and instead aged out of the system, traveled the state asking foster children and teens what they most want to change. Two of the most often mentioned wishes were reconnecting with siblings and having the ability to get a driver’s license “like a normal teenager.”

Of the 2,500 children in foster placements last month who have siblings, 586 were not placed with any of their brothers or sisters, according to March data released by the state child welfare department following a Colorado Sun request.

Of those 2,500 children, 1,432 were with all of their siblings and 482 were with some — but not all — of their siblings.

State law says “efforts should be made to place siblings together,” but caseworkers often cannot find foster homes that can take an entire sibling group. A recent change in state law, amended to follow federal guidelines, allows foster parents to take up to six children instead of just four.

Colorado law, though, says little about what happens after siblings are separated. The proposed Foster Youth Sibling Bill of Rights, House Bill 1288, says children in foster care have the right to receive contact information, including telephone numbers and email addresses, for their siblings in other foster placements. They also would have the right to receive photos of their brothers and sisters “regularly by mail or email,” and to attend meetings about their siblings’ foster care placements or potential adoption.

Foster youth would have the right, the bill states, to see their brothers and sisters on birthdays and holidays, and to live in foster homes that are near each other — not counties apart.

And — in a section of the bill especially important to 28-year-old Dominique Mallard — foster children would have the right to receive notification if one of their siblings changed placements or was adopted.

Mallard, a leader at Project Foster Power, hasn’t seen her little brother in 11 years.

A dozen years ago, she used to put headphones on him to distract him while their parents were fighting. In foster care, they went to different homes but saw each other weekly. When it was time to leave, he would cry and start to have a tantrum. “I would say I needed him to be my Spiderman, because that was his favorite superhero,” Mallard said. She told him she would see him next week.

But then, “next week” never came. Her brother was adopted and his new family did not want him to have contact with his old one. Mallard didn’t find out for months. “I asked my caseworker why she failed to tell me this and her excuse was that they were worried about how I would respond,” she said at the state Capitol, crying. “I was not the goodest child in the world, but I loved my little brother.”

“It grows harder and harder every day,” she said. “If someone would give me a picture of my little brother today you have no idea how much relief that would bring me.”

Brianna Lennon, 24, and Dominique Mallard, 28, wait for a House human services committee hearing to begin at the state Capitol. The women grew up in the foster care system and are now activists for Project Foster Power. (Jennifer Brown, Colorado Sun)

The legislation, which passed its second hearing in the House on Wednesday, will “refocus attention” on the sibling connection, said Mimi Scheuermann, director of child welfare and adult protection for Denver County. “Our No. 1 priority is to keep that sibling group together,” she said. “What this bill speaks to is when they can’t be placed together, how do we keep that connection going.”

Scheuermann said she hopes county child welfare departments are able to work with nonprofits willing to help transport foster children to see their siblings and host events to keep them connected.

Former foster youth who are speaking out are pushing “us even harder to think of things from the child’s perspective rather than from the adult’s perspective,” she said. “It’s something that our system really has to work on. We’re adults that like to rescue kids. All of our intentions are good, but they are not always best.”

In Denver, 59 percent of children were placed with all of their siblings, while about 15 percent were placed with some and 18 percent were placed alone. The remaining kids with siblings in foster care were placed in institutions or listed as runaways, according to last month’s data.

A 2016 internal report that examined the reasons siblings were not placed together found the top reason was that the sibling group was too large for one home. That accounted for 25 percent of cases.

Other top reasons included that siblings required a different level of care, meaning one needed residential treatment while another could live in a home. Also, siblings were separated because foster homes had restrictions on age or gender of children, or because one sibling was adopted.

Members of Project Foster Power, a group created last year by former foster youth, practice their testimony ahead of a hearing on the Foster Youth Sibling Bill of Rights. They asked lawmakers to pass legislation intended to keep siblings in contact even when they are living in different foster homes. (Jennifer Brown, Colorado Sun)

The Sibling Bill of Rights also would serve to educate foster parents and caseworkers who use visits with brothers and sisters as rewards, canceling planned visits when a child misbehaves, former foster youth said. “They always used my brother as a reward,” said Devonisha Bugarin, who joined her brother Davion to testify in favor of the bill.

“What I hear from young people is that sometimes visits with siblings are a privilege instead of something that should be guaranteed,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families at the Colorado Department of Human Services. “Sometimes you will see foster parents withholding that opportunity. I don’t think that has ever been sanctioned by anyone.”

If the bill passes, foster parents and caseworkers also will have to reconsider restricting cell phone or social media access as a form of discipline. “It’s not just taking a cell phone away, it’s really cutting off their ability to talk to their siblings,” Castillo Cohen said.

The driver’s license bill, House Bill 1023, would exempt foster teens from needing a signed affidavit of liability from a parent or legal guardian. It would also allow them to learn to drive with any adult at least 21 years old, instead of only a parent or guardian.

Under current law, foster kids must go to court to get permission to get a driver’s license, with approval from a foster parent and the county child welfare department. Ashley Chase, staff attorney for the state Office of the Child’s Representative, which oversees lawyers representing children in foster care, said she has gone to court many times and filed motions “in order for a teenager to do something that is a right of passage.”

“If that seems a little absurd, I agree with you,” she told lawmakers on the House transportation committee.

“Frankly, many of these foster children give up,” she said. “They are told they can do it but it never materializes.”

The legislation, unlike similar laws in Oregon, Florida and several other states, doesn’t provide any funding for driver’s education courses or insurance. Colorado foster youth would have to show proof of financial responsibility in their own name.

Still, the bill could “change lives,” said its sponsors, including Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican from Firestone. “This bill says, ‘We see you,’” she said.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...