In November 2009 there are more than 120,000 children waiting in foster care for an adoptive family. This month President Obama will issue a proclamation to announce National Adoption Month to raise awareness about this situation. I appreciate the way National Adoption Month encourages Americans to think about the importance of moving children from foster care into life-long families. It is also an opportune time to envision new realities for our children who remain in the public foster care system.
Every year nearly 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care without any enduring family relationships or community connections. This usually happens on their 18th birthday. They commonly leave the system without a place to live, a high school diploma, a job or the consistent support of a caring adult. The result: 25,000 vulnerable young Americans leave foster care and experience rates of homelessness, incarceration, and unemployment far above their peers.
Federal dollars have become available to begin addressing this “aging out” crisis. The focus is on creating programs for teens. But finding new ways to embrace and care for our most vulnerable children on the front end of their foster care experience is also critical in order to prevent “aging out” from happening in the first place.
In 2006, The Treehouse Foundation invited people of all ages to become part of a unique “aging out” solution designed to help America understand under
what conditions our young people with foster care histories can flourish. Its leadership led to the creation of a multigenerational neighborhood where families adopting children from foster care live with supportive neighbors.
The Treehouse Community model emphasizes finding humane and compassionate responses to support children that are community driven rather than solely reliant on social service systems. It provides children with a permanent family and a neighborhood invested in their health and well-being so that they do not leave foster care without anyone to count on. Treehouse inspired communities are currently being developed in California and Oregon.
Most Americans will hear about National Adoption Awareness Month and think it is a good thing. They will like the fact that on National Adoption Day a few thousand youngsters will be adopted from foster care. Some will be moved to pick up the phone to help out. Most will not. Not being offered any other alternatives to adoption or foster care, hundreds of thousands of potential resources will walk away from the children who need them the most.
Here’s an idea. Let’s create a menu of compelling new programs that serve kids in neighborhoods across America. Let’s offer folks an inviting array of ways to help, big and small. Partner with City Year and AmeriCorps as well as local colleges, universities and community organizations to help implement these exciting new program options and promote widespread engagement. Let’s give more Americans a chance to meet kids who need them. My experience is that volunteers who spend time with kids at camp,
in a garden or a barn are the ones who consider broader possibilities down the road.
To date my partners and I have created the following replicable models: the Treehouse Community, a year round sibling connection initiative, an animal therapy program, an intergenerational community garden, and an arts and learning project. Together we can do much more.
As we celebrate National Adoption Month this November please choose to honor the lives of the more than 500,000 children in our nation’s foster care system. Invest in innovation so that we can re-envision foster care in America.