I walked into the world of child welfare as a foster parent with a 5 month old on one hip and a 17 month old on the other.
As we made our way through the doors of our local DCF office for the girls' weekly visit, I was struck by the absence of people from the surrounding community; folks who could be actively engaged in supporting kids experiencing foster care in the region. I saw plenty of hard working social workers and foster, adoptive and birth parents in the office but no one else.
Meanwhile, I was looking for a bright and colorful family space where the kids and their parents could spend time together during their visit. As a teacher, I was used to bright colors, photos of kids and families, child sized tables and chairs and educational materials for each family to use during their time together. Instead, we were ushered into a dismal looking room without toys. I understood the value of designing family gathering spaces that promote interaction. The kind that families have access to at Children’s Museums, Science Museums and Aquariums.
As I stood in the doorway to the Family Visitation Room I wondered, “Does anyone else notice the lack of resources here?" That’s when I began Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America. I was an educator, a business woman and a seasoned mom. I wanted to understand everything about our public foster care system so that I could become an outstanding Everyday Mom (aka Foster Parent) and knowledgeable advocate for the kids placed in our home.
I began reading everything I could get my hands on about our child welfare system. Then I reached out to social workers, teachers, parents, foster care alumni, lawyers, researchers and others who had frontline experience with the kids, youth and families the system was designed to serve.
What I learned first is that we have set our child welfare system up to fail. We have given it a mandate to keep all children safe saying, “Here are some of the most vulnerable children and families in America. Watch over them. We’ll pay attention when something goes wrong.” Then, we consistently underfund the work, turn our backs and walk away
When there’s a crisis, newspaper headlines slam the adults in charge. When outcomes are positive they rarely make the news. I also learned that most Americans think there are only two ways to support a child experiencing foster care: become a foster parent or adopt a child. This is too much to ask of most people.
The result: millions of Americans are not connected to the kids in their communities who need them the most. We all pay the price for this disconnection. Every year in this country nearly 25,000 youth “age out” of foster care without a family and/or community resources. They are at risk of becoming homeless, unemployed and incarcerated - our next generation of poor and homeless Americans.
There are three things that we can do to change this foster care narrative: 1. Consider the nearly half million children & youth living in foster care worthy. 2. Ensure they are rooted in permanent, loving families and communities. 3. Invest in their hopes and dreams, their lives and futures.
These three actions require us to change the national conversation about our kids placed in foster care. Language is important. Let's begin by erasing the stigma that families needing help from child welfare face.
Instead of calling their kids "foster kids", let's refer to our nation's youngsters in foster care as kids, children, young people and youth: Kids living in foster care. Children placed in foster care. Young people experiencing foster care. Youth who have spent time in foster care. Let's honor their lives. Lift them up. Give them the dignity they deserve.
Next, we must invest in the success of our child welfare system. Our child welfare system belongs to us. Our tax dollars fund it. We know that it can only be successful when it is engaged in a variety of vibrant public/private partnerships. The kind that invest in foster care innovation and help us better serve kids in communities from coast to coast.
This requires an engaged citizenry: Americans standing together under the Banner of Social Responsibility alongside social workers, mental health professionals, educators, pediatricians and child welfare leaders. In addition to foster and adoptive parents, we need non-profits, state legislators, colleges, universities, civic groups, business leaders, philanthropists, educators, mental health professionals, faith based organizations and the federal government to step up to the plate to help create a compelling new menu of engagement options so that it’s easy for Americans of all ages and backgrounds to support kids in their backyards until being a resource to kids experiencing foster care becomes a new national norm.
Once we have an array of options for becoming connected to kids, we will get to know them and care about them. Then it will be much easier to invest in their hopes and dreams for their lives and futures. I’ve seen this over and over again over the past 20 years. People want to help. They want to be of service. They just don’t know how.
Giving them something concrete to do makes all the difference in the world. Over the past two decades, the Treehouse Foundation and our partners have created opportunities for people of all ages to become resources to kids, youth and young adults. Some examples are:
- Become an honorary grandparent in an intergenerational Treehouse Community.
- Spend time in our intergenerational community garden.
- Volunteer in our summer enrichment programs.
- Be a Homework Help tutor.
- Host a holiday gathering. Improve Family Visitation spaces.
- Teach photography, cooking, piano, dance, art, baking, knitting, financial literacy, etc.
- Celebrate life: birthdays, graduations, adoptions, dance recitals, sports events, new jobs.
- Volunteer to be a camp counselor.
- Collect brand new suitcases and duffle bags for The Suitcase Project.
- Host an Infant Clothing/Diaper Drive.
- Be a Gift Card Donor.
- Lead a Winter Coat Drive.
- Become a Visiting Resource.
- Be a Birthday Party Host.
- Send a Kid to Camp (summer, horseback riding, school vacation week, computer, drama.)
- Make Comfort Quilts for kids of all ages.
- Help furnish a young person's first apartment.
- Host a Back To School Backpack Drive.
- Be a Computer Angel.
- Provide iPhones and data plans.
- Donate a first car.
- Offer a job internship/training.
- Create a college scholarship fund
There are many ways to become a resource to our nation’s kids and help ensure that they are rooted in family and community so they can thrive. Making sure there are small, medium and larger size options is key to engagement.
Reach out to a local non-profit organization that serves children and youth living in foster care in your region. If you don’t have time to spend with a young person, you can always make a meaningful donation to support their ongoing programs.
Join Us! The Treehouse Foundation is inspiring a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. Sign up to make a difference in the life of a child who needs an Everyday Hero. Thank you for your time and consideration.