Category Archives: REFCA

Putting Pen To Paper

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This summer I have been given the opportunity to write about the wonderful people who are working alongside me to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America – ordinary citizens of all ages and backgrounds with great stories to tell. My goal: to honor friends, family and colleagues who are actively shaping the REFCA Movement and leading our nation forward.

Last night as I was sitting at my desk writing, I received a phone call from a new foster parent – a woman I met when I launched our first Treehouse Community. She is a passionate child advocate with a truly generous heart.

Her experience as a foster parent has been difficult. She doesn’t feel respected by the social workers assigned to her children. One child did not receive the mental health services he required nor did she receive the ongoing support she needed to meet his emerging needs. Frustrated, she picked up the phone and called the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. The Commissioner responded with grace and wisdom. She drove out to this woman’s home and listened to her speak about the experience.

I encouraged her to continue communicating her thoughts and feelings to Department staff, to hang in there, and to be the advocate our children placed in foster care need her to be: educated, informed, and collaborative.

Standing on the front lines of our child welfare system and caring for our most vulnerable children is a truly humbling experience. It is also important, rewarding, enlightening, challenging, and necessary. Foster parents are given the task of keeping our eyes on the prize – our most vulnerable children and youth. It’s a critical role that the child welfare system and the kids need us to fill. They need the best and the brightest. It’s their lives we’re protecting and their futures we’re responsible for.

If I hadn’t become a foster parent, I would not have become a full time child advocate,
and spent the past 12 years investing in foster care innovation. I am profoundly grateful for the experience. It was a dynamic catalyst that has led to widespread collaborative social change. Here is the Salient Take Away from my experience:

Our child welfare system is in trouble. It is overwhelmed and under resourced and it has been for a long time …. We ask it to do the impossible. We say, “Here. You take care of our most vulnerable and at risk children. We, the taxpayers, will give you a little funding to do the job. Then we’ll leave you alone to do the work and only pay attention if something goes wrong. And, if something goes wrong … Well, then we’ll put your head on the chopping block.”

This is the reason I sold my business. We have set our child welfare system up to fail. This paradigm is not working. For children, families, social workers, schools, government or
society. Every year nearly 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care: the next generation of poor and homeless Americans. They are at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, teen parenting, and lives of poverty.

Here in Massachusetts concerned citizens are Re-Envisioning Foster Care. We are actively leveraging people, dollar, and idea resources to better serve children and youth placed
in our child welfare system. I can’t wait to share our success stories with you. I
guarantee you will be inspired to join the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement!

Putting Children First

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Set in a small town in western Massachusetts, the significance of the Treehouse Community may not be evident from it’s physical presence alone, but it’s positive impact is felt in the region and beyond. Thanks to a collaborative partnership among three visionary organizations – the Treehouse Foundation, Beacon Communities LLC, and Berkshire Children & Families – and 100+ Treehouse community members ranging in age from 1 – 95, this exciting award winning multigenerational neighborhood has been a catalyst for widespread
social change.

Since opening the Treehouse Community with it’s partners in 2006, the Treehouse Foundation has been busy developing a vibrant Center of Foster Care & Adoption Excellence in the region of Massachusetts where the largest number of children experiencing foster care reside. Engaging a collaborative social change approach, this entrepreneurial 12 year old non-profit has inspired action, demonstrated the power of partnership, and leveraged deep investment in foster care innovation. Treehouse is helping dissolve the foster care pipeline to our next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

To accomplish it’s vision Treehouse invites people of all ages and backgrounds to become resources to children and youth whose lives have been impacted by foster care. It is diligently building a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options with regional partners who share the vision.

They understand that most people think there are only two ways to support a child placed in our child welfare system. They are eager to join Treehouse
in developing an array of choices so all kids can live connected, healthy
and fulfilling lives.

The Treehouse Foundation wholeheartedly believes in it’s mission and vision. That’s why it launched The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement (REFCA) in 2010 and is busy planning the Fifth Annual REFCA Conference with
it’s REFCA colleagues (May 30th @ Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, MA.).

Next week REFCA stakeholders will come together for their Winter Working Group Gathering. Throughout the morning folks will share the latest information
about REFCA Working Group inspired programs like A Home Within, HEROES Youth Leadership Project, Project Thrive! Zero To Five, and the Bridge Road Youth Housing/Job Skills Program. Mary LeBeau, a seasoned child welfare
professional who works on behalf of children and youth across the nation,
will facilitate the event. Her goal: Help the group weave permanency into
every aspect of their REFCA work and remember the permanency mantra:
Stay Home. Go Home. Find Home.

We look forward to our upcoming REFCA events: the Winter Working Group Gathering & the Fifth Annual REFCA Conference. It is always such a
pleasure to come together with people who are compassionate, thoughtful
and wise; folks who are eager to engage in collaborative social change
where children come first.

Is That Really Possible?

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It’s happens all the time… I’ll be at a stop light and someone will drive up next to me, roll down their window and say, “Re-Envisioning Foster Care. Is that really possible?”

I live in the Greater Boston Area, work in western Massachusetts, and take my daughter to ride in a barn down by the Cape. As I crisscross the state with two magnets on the back of my car that say “I’m Re -Envisioning Foster Care!” lots of people are introduced to this amazing concept.

Over the past few years thousands of people
have seen them. Sometimes I’ll be at a stop light.
When I look in my rear view mirror I notice people
pointing to them and then entering into a discussion.

I’d love to inspire many more REFCA conversations!
Perhaps when someone donates a fun car wrapped in bright colors and cool graphics that share the message in a much more dynamic way… I’m waiting for Ernie Boch or some other generous car dealer to contact me and offer up a free lease! I can see the number of Re-Envisioning Foster Care conversations rising as I type those words ..

Occasionally, I’ll be in a parking lot putting my groceries away and someone will walk up and talk to me. A couple of weeks ago, I was loading shelving into my car at Home Depot. A family approached me and said, “What does Re-Envisioning Foster Care mean? What are you doing?” I can’t tell you how much fun it is to dive right in and share the details of the past decade! People always walk away smiling. Pondering the possibilities.

Recently a Boston police officer, who was standing nearby when I parked my car at Northeastern University, sauntered over to my window and asked, “Where will you put the kids if they are not in foster care?”

We had a great discussion about the fact that most Americans think there are only two ways to support a child placed in foster care: become a foster parent or adopt a child. He understood that this is too much to ask of most people and that the result is millions of Americans turn and walk away from the very children in their neighborhoods who need them the most. He was thrilled when I told him we are building a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so that people of all ages and backgrounds will have many more opportunities to become resources to kids.

I enjoy these spontaneous conversations with folks who typically are not thinking outside of the foster care box. I love the expressions on their faces when they hear about the investments in foster care innovation that the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections, Birdsong Farm and others are making to improve the lives of our children and youth who have placed in foster care. They love hearing about Mel Lambert’s Pony Pals and how mini horses and mini donkeys are supporting the health and well-being of kids in Massachusetts.

People are genuinely happy to hear that the Treehouse Foundation and all of it’s partners are working together to dissolve the foster care pipeline to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans. They want the “aging out crisis” to end.

They are delighted to hear that Treehouse and it’s partners are actively engaged in creating Project Thrive! – a new initiative designed to support the needs of infants, toddlers & pre-schoolers in foster care. They are excited to learn about HEROES – our youth leadership project designed to empower young people whose lives have been impacted by foster care.

They love hearing about all of the goodness that is woven into Life on Treehouse Circle – for the 100+ children, families and elders who live in the beautiful multigenerational Treehouse Community. “I love that idea! People my age can help? Can you build a Treehouse Community in this area?” people remark. “Loving family and caring neighbors. Now that’s exactly what the children need,” say others.

And everyone feels good about Camp To Belong MA. “I can’t imagine not being connected to my brothers and sisters,” one college student said the other day. It felt so good to be able to give him the link to the Sibling Connections website.

People seem so relieved to hear that solutions are being created to some of child welfare’s most intractable problems – challenges that our overwhelmed and under resourced public foster care system needs our on-going resources and support to solve.

I’m grateful that those two blue REFCA magnets spark such interesting conversations. Thanks to everyone who pulls up next to me and asks, “Is that really possible?” I am so relieved that you don’t want to tell me that my brake light is out or that I forgot to put my gas cap back on..

I would much rather talk about Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America. It’s my favorite topic!

Let’s start at the very beginning

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Ensuring that young children placed in foster care have safe, secure environments in which to develop healthy brains, bodies and attachments with primary caregivers is good for the children and it helps build a strong foundation for a thriving, prosperous society.

Currently in the world of child welfare, philanthropists, policy makers and practitioners are focused on resolving the “Aging Out Crisis”. This is due to the fact that every year nearly 30,000 young Americans “age out” of foster care.

While most young people in the United States continue to receive support from their families into their 20s, young people who “age out” of foster care often lack this support. To successfully transition to adulthood, youth need both a permanent family relationship and skills for independent living. Young people who “age out” of foster care alone and without a diploma or job skills face joblessness, homelessness and lives of poverty. They are often unable to complete their educations, find housing or get medical care.

According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities initiative, a three state study shows that:

* Nearly 40% had been homeless or “couch surfed” since leaving foster care.
* Only 48% were working, compared to 72% of their peers who had not been in foster care.
* Only 6% of young people who left foster care finished a 2 or 4 year college degree.

The majority of foster care investments are being poured into this critical arena because it is the gateway to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

While this is understandable, focusing such a large portion of our resources on the door out of foster care is not the best long term strategy for creating solutions to the national “Aging Out Crisis”. We need to begin investing fully on the front end of the foster care experience and learn how to utilize people, dollar and idea resources all along a child’s developmental spectrum.

To do this, it is imperative that we flip the current foster care paradigm. We live in a country where citizens help pay for the child welfare system with their tax dollars. In order to create a successful system – one that truly meet the needs of all children placed in foster care – we need to remain engaged rather than only paying attention when something goes wrong.

We make a promise when removing children from their family of birth. We promise them a better life: safety, stability, and a committed and enduring family relationship if they cannot return safely to their first family.

The children need us. Our overwhelmed and under resourced child welfare system requires our help. To create a new reality in America, we need a different approach. One that ensures that every child is rooted in family and community.

In his book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, Dr. Shonkoff underscores the value of investing in young children. He and his colleagues at Harvard’s Center of the Developing Child share research that shows how the architecture of the brain is impacted by early childhood trauma. They talk about the importance of a child’s early environment and nurturing relationships.

Shonkoff writes, “The scientific evidence on the significant developmental impacts of early experiences, caregiving relationships, and environmental threats is incontrovertible. Virtually every aspect of early human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning early in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years. The science of early development is also clear about the specific importance of parenting and of regular caregiving relationships..”

New knowledge creates new responsibility. This scientific research and information about new national approaches gives those of us who are serving children placed in foster care a new platform from which we can enact bold and comprehensive new measures all along a child’s developmental timeline.

I am proud to announce that the Treehouse Foundation is collaborating with our regional Re-Envisioning Foster Care Partners, Enchanted Circle Theatre and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, to develop an Early Childhood Wellness Project. We are currently seeking multi-year funding to develop an Early Childhood Wellness Approach for western Massachusetts.

We have prioritized two content areas for our initial program development:

* Strengthening the early foundations of lifelong health and well-being.

* Enhancing the resources and capacities of healthy attachments.

The Early Childhood Wellness Project is creating an environment that nurtures new ways of thinking, supports strategic risk-taking, and values the importance of investing in young children experiencing foster care.

The importance of fresh thinking and widespread investment in early childhood innovation has never been more critical. Please join us and help improve life outcomes for the nearly 1,000 young children ages 0-5 who are experiencing foster care in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.

What Are You The Most Proud Of?

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Winning the 2012 Purpose Prize has given me an amazing opportunity. For the past month I have been talking with a group of national reporters about what it takes to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. What a gift! I discuss the REFCA Initiative and all three non-profit organizations I have established over the past decade: the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm. I hope these interviews inspire widespread investment in foster care innovation.

As I share my story – from the moment I read a newspaper article about a five month old baby who was kidnapped from his foster home in broad daylight in 1998 until today – and answer all of the questions that folks who are new to child welfare might have, I always find myself wanting to spend another hour chatting about the subject. Compressing 15 years of life experience, collaborative social change and innovative investments into a 20 minute interview is a challenge.

Sometimes I’m on my game. Usually I am concise and on point. Then there are other times when I hang up the phone and I look down to discover that my hands are still moving. (Ask anyone who knows me. I talk with my hands alot. I used to teach hearing impaired children so sign language is second nature to me!). I’m not quite done answering their last question…

During an interview today one reporter asked me a great question: “Of all of the work you have done over the past ten years, what is the one thing that you are the most proud of?”

It took me a minute to collect my thoughts. I recalled standing in my toy store in Brookline, MA, rocking my youngest daughter to sleep. This was the moment when I began Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America, the moment when I decided to sell my businesses and focus my attention on flipping the foster care paradigm.

As a foster parent I realized that the model we have been operating from is not working well. It became clear that when we hand over our children in foster care to a government agency to parent and then walk away, the outcomes are not good – for the children, the nation, and our under-resourced child welfare system. The ramifications of not paying attention until something goes wrong were obvious. This societal disconnect seemed to be the root cause of our collective failure to prevent foster care from creating the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

Wrapping my brain around all of this, while learning that every year in this country 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care alone and at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, teen parenting and lives of poverty, proved to be a powerful catalyst for me to Re-Envision Foster Care in America.

The beautiful baby falling asleep in my arms was another powerful motivator. It was crystal clear that this little one, her siblings and peers who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care deserve to be cherished and surrounded by caring communities of people who invest in their lives on a daily basis.

As my daughter fell asleep, I began thinking about the fact that most Americans believe there are only two ways they can support a child placed in the public foster care system: become a foster parent or adopt a child from foster care. This is too much to ask of most people. The result: millions of Americans turn and walk away from the children in their communities who need them the most. That was the moment when my role became apparent. My job: get those people to stop, turn around and come back to the kids.

I knew this could only be accomplished if folks had a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options available to them. Developing this vibrant REFCA Menu became my top priority. I sold my stores and since 2002 have collaborated with visionaries, funders and stakeholders of all ages and backgrounds to create an amazing array of new opportunities in order to better serve children and youth placed in foster care.

Together with this amazing group of collaborative social change agents, I have:

* Established three non-profit organizations for the compelling new REFCA Menu of Engagement Options.
* Invited citizens to become resources to children in their communities.
* Raised over $15 million to invest in foster care innovation.
* Leveraged people, dollar and idea resources to better serve children and youth placed in foster care.
* Sponsored three annual Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America conferences and planned a fourth.
* Created stellar public/private partnerships among non-profits, businesses, colleges, universities and
government agencies.
* Facilitated three regional REFCA Working Groups: Aging Out/Transitions, Education and Permanency.
* Researched best practice regional and national programs.
* Brought people together to create a regional REFCA Road Map and Implementation Plan.
* Consulted with top-notch teams of researchers to track our progress.
* Developed sustained replicable program models that other states can use.
* Shared our learning with others around the country.

This is the work I am the most proud of…collaborating with a group of visionary Americans of all ages and backgrounds to launch a dynamic social change movement designed to create an array of public-private partnerships that harness creative ideas, mobilize collective energy and maximize financial resources to better serve our children and youth placed in foster care.

Making it possible for ordinary citizens to turn around, come back and become resources to youngsters in their communities who need them for an hour, a day, a week or a life time. Weaving a vibrant safety net for our most vulnerable children, our communities and our child welfare system. Giving people many more opportunities to pay attention and plug in. I am proud of helping flip the foster care paradigm!

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REFCA Newsletter October