Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year in which Thomas McRae met a friend named Dawson Hylton. The two met as sixth-graders in 2004, not 2006. This version has been corrected.
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 in 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.
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.
There would be 11 foster homes, bringing more hardship — and acts of kindness.
As a sixth-grader in 2004, McRae met Dawson Hylton. The two soon became best friends.
Hylton’s mother, Joi Morris, came to suspect that McRae was living the foster-care shuffle because she always seemed to pick him up at different houses.
As the shuffle continued, Morris started taking adoption classes with Child and Family Services, thinking that some day she might adopt McRae.
In 2009, he ended up at a group home in Northeast Washington run by Boys Town, a national organization that provides homes and help for foster children and other at-risk youths. His new home wasn’t far from where McRae had been shot years before.
“When he came in, he had anger issues,” said Hubert Geter, 35, who ran the house with his wife, Chauna. “But he was very pleasant and mannerable. I kinda wish more of the kids were like him.”
This home — it was his 21st — was different. For the first time, McRae felt as if he was living in a real home. “The Geters are my mother and father figure,” he said. “I would give up my life for them.”
But the Geters were able to provide only a temporary home, so after a few months, McRae moved again, into what would be his last foster placement. It, too, felt like home. He thought the foster family would adopt him.“I wanted that sort of love like nothing else,” he said.
It didn’t happen. McRae called Joi Morris, Hylton’s mom. “Can you adopt me?” he asked.
She said yes.
“My initial thought was that I complain about young males in the area not living up to what they should be,” said Morris, a program specialist with the Association of American Colleges. “If I could make a difference with one person other than my biological son, then that would help.”
Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights, a nonprofit group that tries to change failing child welfare systems, said there are plenty of success stories among those who outgrow foster care. But there are also thousands who find themselves homeless, jobless or in prison.
At the end of 2011, around the time Morris was adopting McRae, 400,540 children were in foster care in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Only 12 percent of them were adopted that year, and more than 26,000 aged out of the system.
On July 31, McRae and 15 other interns with the congressional coalition’s Foster Youth program announced their policy recommendations as Cardin (D-Md.) and other members of the Senate and House listened.
McRae, tall and skinny, introduced his fellow interns. Outwardly, he does not lack for confidence. He was voted Mr. Freshman and Mr. Sophomore at Cheyney, which is outside Philadelphia. He is also his dorm’s head resident adviser. He’s majoring in psychology and considers himself a poet.
“These stories are for the youth who have been abused and mistreated . . . and for the youth who are having trouble making it in school,” McRae said. “Our voice is for a brighter future, for the next generation. These are our stories, so please listen.”
Presenting his policy proposals, he suggested that Congress require mental health services to be offered as an option for a year for young people who have aged out of the foster system. He also suggested that Medicaid eligibility be extended for former foster youths until the age of 26.
In an interview later, McRae said he still feels the burdens of an unstable childhood. He finds it hard to get close to people, though his adoption by Morris has helped, along with having friends at college.
McRae relished the Capitol Hill experience, including passing the podium where President Obama has delivered the State of the Union address. He returns regularly to Boys Town, where he shoots hoops with the boys who live there, and stays in touch with the Geters. On Father’s Day, he took Hubert Geter out for lunch.
He goes back, he said, because the home changed his life.
In the last week of his internship, McRae reflected on the experience.
“I was around people I could relate to who were supportive,” he said. “And you know what else? D.C. is my city. I promised myself a summer of peace, with no drama, and I got it. And I’m gonna give back to this city. It’s my responsibility.”