Onward & Upward!

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Looking at the world through the eyes of America’s marginalized children can be heartbreaking. Engaging in conversation with youngsters who have been removed from their homes and placed in our public foster care system is an eye opening experience. Sometimes listening to foster care alumni speak about their life experiences can leave one feeling stunned. It can also be a catalyst. A Call To Action.

I was one of those people who felt stunned by the reality of our child welfare system. After becoming a foster parent 14 years ago, I met hundreds of children and youth in foster care. I had the opportunity to speak with young adults who had “aged out” of our child welfare system. They became important teachers, guiding me forward to Re-Envision Foster Care in America. Their reality spurred me into action.

First, they helped me understand that the overwhelmed and under resourced child welfare system that we, as a citizenry, have created is not working. They spoke to me about feeling different, less than, unworthy, and hopeless. They articulated why our hands-off approach – giving them over to a state agency to raise and only paying attention when something goes wrong – has created a foster care pipeline that leads directly to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans: 25,000 young people “aging out” of a system annually with no family and no place to call home. Most do not have high school diplomas and are at risk for homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, teen parenting and lives of poverty.

In 2013 there are half million children and youth in foster care. They want responsible adults across the country to do the right thing. They want us to make sure they have access to the opportunities and resources they need to lead healthy and productive lives like their peers who haven’t been placed in foster care:

* Excellent educations in schools where administrators and teachers truly understand the impact of early childhood trauma and PTSD.
* Engaged community members who invest in their safety, health and well-being consistently throughout their childhood.
* Dedicated mentors who help them succeed in all areas of their lives.
* Stellar role models who help them re-imagine their life trajectories.
* Exceptional mental health services that help them heal from challenging beginnings.
* Compassionate and efficient child welfare professionals who help them reach their full potential.
* Progressive non-profit leaders who lead the way for widespread improvements in our foster care system.
* Visionary philanthropists who invest in foster care innovation.
* Outstanding legislators who create new public policies that ensure that all children in America have access to the resources required to develop into healthy and productive citizens.

The life experiences, courage, resilience, sincerity and poetic storytelling of our nation’s youth in foster care fuel the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) Movement. They inspire our national REFCA Roadmap. These articulate young people are eager to transform today’s reality – an America where most people think the only way to support a child placed in foster care is to become a foster or adoptive parent – to a fully engaged America where people around them have a broad spectrum of options they can choose from.

It is time to honor our children and youth placed in foster care. Our nation’s most vulnerable children need us to to come together from coast to coast and create a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options; a broad array of choices that offer Americans of all ages and backgrounds exciting new ways to become everyday resources to youngsters who may physically reside in our communities but who feel that they live under a different sky.

Imagine being interested in helping a child in foster care and being able to access an actual menu that would provide you with a dozen programs in your neighborhood that you could plug into – programs that invite you to spend a morning working in a garden, an afternoon reading stories or an evening in a cooking class with a child placed in foster care. You could host a birthday party, take someone to the movies or lead a winter coat drive. Imagine the possibilities! Currently I am teaching someone to drive and helping two young people launch a business venture. One friend underwrites summer camperships. Another runs our Camp To Belong MA horse program with her daughter, sister and friends. One lovely philanthropist donated money for our HEROES Youth Leadership Project.

To do this on a national scale we need to develop a Culture of Possibility. The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus for American readers defines culture as the “customs, civilization and achievements of a particular time or people regarded collectively.” The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) Culture of Possibility is a national community that simultaneously exists and evolves to fulfill its promise to our children placed in foster care. It is a creative human endeavor that calls for a “gleam in the eye” of its leaders, the courage to eschew limitations, wise investment of resources, and a shared leap of faith into an uncharted future.

Let’s tell our children in foster care that we are actively re-thinking, re-defining and re-imagining child welfare. Let’s show them that we are joining together to make sure that when youngsters are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, we will honor our promise: to keep them safe, provide them with a loving and supportive life-long family if they are not able to return to their parents, make sure that they are always connected to their siblings, surround them with compassion and understanding, and give them all of the resources they need to become healthy, productive adults. In short, that we will give them every opportunity to live an engaged, connected and fulfilling life.

Onward and upward!

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A Life Well Lived

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It is said that there are only two stories – a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care are living both stories at the same time.

Take 5 year old Ali. Last week she was living at home with her mother who suffers from poor mental health. A call was made to the Department of Children and Families by a teacher citing neglect. A visit to the home was made. The next day Ali was picked up at school by a social worker and taken to a foster home.

Being removed from one’s family and placed in foster care is traumatic. This experience, even when a child is being removed from an unsafe situation, can bring grief, shock, stigma, loss and a future filled with invisibility, shame and hopelessness.

Most children aren’t doing anything special when their lives break apart – one moment they are with their family or with their peers at school, the next they are not. This is a life altering experience. Some children have the resilience to cope with the unpredictability, loss and change inherent in our chiild welfare system. Others find it completely overwhelming.

Ali is a child who found the experience completely overwhelming. She is very close to her mom. Losing her was simply too much to bear. She needed more than a foster home.She required hospitalization and round the clock support. Hopefully, she will feel better soon and be placed with a caring trauma informed family that lives in a community that understands her grief and will help her heal – people who surround her with all of the kindness and compassion she needs.

We make a promise to children when we remove them from their homes: to provide them with safety and find them a permanent loving connection if they cannot be returned to their first family. In a timely fashion.

Somewhere along the way we, as a nation, forgot our promise and many children like Ali “bounce” through a series of homes, schools, and people.. We know that all children need to belong and be connected to loving people. They need to feel cherished. Without these basic cornerstones, children become lost souls. Imagine if Ali and her half million peers who are experiencing foster care were connected to a group of adults who value, honor, love and support them. Imagine the difference this would make. For their lives, our communities, schools, prisons and society.

The Treehouse Foundation does imagine a different life for our children in foster care. For the past decade we have been investing in widspread innovation designed to ensure that all children live healthy and productive lives. We envision every child being woven into a safety net of loving, respectful and caring relationships.

In 2006 we opened our first multigenerational Treehouse Community to pro-actively address our nation’s “aging out” crisis. Every year in this country 25,000 young Americans “age out” of our public foster care system alone. Without a family to claim them and an extended family standing beside them, they are at risk for homelessness, incarceration, teen parenting, unemployment and lives of poverty.

The Treehouse Community model invites Americans of all ages to help children. It demonstrates how we can work together to move youngsters out of foster care into permanent loving adoptive homes so they are never at risk of “aging out”. We are dissolving the foster care pipeline to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

For the past 7 years, over 100 people, ranging in age from newborn to 94, have been investing in one another’s health and well-being. Kids are moving out of the child welfare system, being adopted by caring families, consistently supported by their neighbors, succeeding in school, getting the mental health services they need, and heading off on career paths or to college where they are pursuing their interests.

In 2010, the Treehouse Foundation launched the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement to harness creative ideas and leverage resources to better serve our children and youth. In addition to planning and hosting 4 annual Re Envisioning Foster Care in America Conferences and facilitating the development of 8 regional REFCA Working Groups, the Treehouse Foundation is leading the creation of a regional REFCA Road Map and Implementation Plan Process for western Massachusetts – a template that can replicated coast to coast.

Children in foster care are homeless in the deepest sense. Many have lost their first families, their innocence and their dreams. The Treehouse Foundation is working non-stop to create a Culture of Possibility so that every child in America is given the opportunity to live a life that is valued, supported and well lived.

Ali and her peers deserve to thrive. They are worthy of our investment. Please help the Treehouse Foundation achieve widespread impact. Go to refca.net and donate $50, $100, $25) or more today. Help us Be The Change! Thank You!

Remembering…

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Fourteen years ago a little girl with dark brown eyes and long curly hair entered my life. She was absolutely adorable. Today I met a little girl who looks just like her..

I was standing in the kitchen washing the dishes when the dog started barking. Then I heard a soft knock on the front door. When I opened it there she was in the arms of my neighbor. Bright and beautiful. She too is one of six siblings placed in foster care.

It was such a gorgeous day that we all decided to go out in the backyard. After exploring the magical contents of our Play House we checked out the playground. She climbed up in the tire swing and took it for a spin. After an hour of enjoying each other’s company she changed into a lovely party dress and said, “Good bye!”

I walked back through my yard remembering…

Picnics
Dress up
Doll houses
Playgrounds
Trips to the beach
Saying goodnight to the horses
Dolls galore
Baths in the sink
Riding bikes
Watering flowers
Running through the sprinkler
Swimming for hours
The playroom
Trips to the zoo
Drumlin Farm
All those fun pink dresses

Then I got in the car and drove my youngest daughter to the barn so she could visit one of her favorite horses. Shortly after we arrived her sister drove in. She is the spitting image of the beautiful little girl who came to play in my backyard this morning. Beautiful brown eyes. Dark curly hair. All grown up.

As the girls put their horse back in the field, I leaned on the fence admiring the view: two sisters engaged in conversation. Fourteen years goes by so quickly. I can still see two little sisters climbing up their slide and learning how to swing. I remember their laughter, their curiosity, and how they enjoyed exploring the world.

I hope the beautiful little girl who visited me this morning comes back to play soon. I’m ready to welcome another little one into my life.

Home Sweet Home

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I was the world traveler in my family. I spent a great deal of time in my twenties and thirties visiting other countries, soaking up the sights and sounds of each new culture I explored.

My oldest daughter has taken over that role now. A self described “language nerd”, she is fluent in Dutch, Thai, Arabic and Spanish. One of her little sister’s favorite treats would be having her bedtime stories read in a mixture of languages – one page in English, the next in Dutch, then Thai and so on. She would listen intently and then say, “Do it again!” or “Now read it with a British accent!” when the rotation was complete. It’s a happy childhood memory for us both!

The other day my daughter came home from one of her global adventures. She was really sick. We surrounded her with love and helped her get back on her feet. We were there to provide food, comfort, transportation, kindness, compassion – the full family safety net.

Last night when I went downstairs to check on the dog my daughter was in the kitchen, standing in front of the pantry, scanning the shelves. She was feeling hungry. A good sign.

I am delighted to have her home with us. Relieved that she’s feeling better. Full of love and appreciation for the joy she brings to our lives. As I watched her make a selection from the pantry, I remarked that I enjoy it when my kids come home and know that they are welcome to help themselves to whatever they need because they are “home”. “Within reason!” I joked.

Observing her, I thought about the meaning of family and home for the 25,000 young Americans who “age out” of foster care alone every year. Kids like my daughter, who launch out in the world without the benefit of a loving family and a caring community to tap into when they need a nourishing meal, feel sick, require a bit of respite from the world, want to celebrate their birthdays or come home for special events and holidays.

I recalled my own successful launch out into the world, made possible by a loving community of family and friends, who invested in me daily and let me know that they were there for me whenever I needed them.

They gave me courage, believed in my dreams, and created a culture of possibility for my success in the world. Experiencing their ongoing support makes it possible for me to live my life by their motto: PASS IT ON! Kindness. Caring. Support.

It is something I do for all of the young people I love and hopefully inspire all of us to do for our nation’s youngsters who have been removed from their first families and placed in foster care.

All of us want to be appreciated and validated, cared for and authentically loved. It is essential for our well-being, our health, and our humanity.

As I watched my daughter cut up a banana for her yogurt, I imagined every youngster whose life has been impacted by foster care, standing in their own kitchens, feeling the love and sense of home that my daughter was enjoying in that moment.

Every child rooted in family and community. All across America.

It’s an image that fills me with joy and peace…

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.

Thank You Grandma Joyce!

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It’s hard to imagine life without Grandma Joyce. She was an integral part of my life for over forty years.

I met her at the age of 19, the summer after my first year of college. My sister was dating her son. She was beautiful, vibrant and kind. A mother of seven. She wore colorful clothes and had a dazzling smile. She spoke with a lovely New Zealand accent. I was immediately drawn to her.

My parents adored Joyce. So did my grandmother. They were all delighted when my sister and her son decided to marry. She and my sister were kindred spirits. They became dear friends who celebrated their life journeys together. Joyce was a treasured family member. I remember the day that she called to inform me that my father was dying and it was time for me to come home. Her gentle voice was filled with compassion as she gave me the news. I was 22 years old and living 3,000 miles from home.

Joyce grew up in an orphanage in New Zealand. It was there that she taught herself how to knit with two nails and a piece of string while sitting outside in the dirt. After World War II she married a GI and moved to the United States, bringing her hopes, dreams and creative knitting talent with her.

Joyce was the kind of knitter who needed no pattern. She could whip up a poncho, hat, blanket, socks, mittens, sweater or dress, for a person or a doll, in no time. Grandmother of 18 and great grandmother of 20+, she made sure that all of her offspring had of one her handmade treasures.

She was generous with other people too. One of the most cherished Grandma Joyce items in our house was a purple sweater she made for my youngest daughter. Joyce had her choose her favorite color of yarn, decorated the collar with a festive weave and added buttons that brought a smile to her face every time she put it on. She called it her “Grandma Joyce sweater” and loved it so much that she asked Joyce to knit another one so that she and her big sister could match. They looked so cute in those sweaters and the ponchos and hats that came later.

Over the years, Joyce taught me about grace, patience and the importance of choosing to be aligned with good people in your life. She showed me how to embrace joy and modeled forgiveness. When I was teaching, I looked to her for inspiration. I loved her hands-on teaching style.

She showed me how to knit and crochet when I was 20. I made a few ponchos and blankets but settled for knitting scarves in the end. That’s because all I ever wanted to do was plunk down next to her on the couch and share a pot of tea. Being near Joyce filled me with peace.

A few years ago, we were seated together knitting on my sister’s couch. At the end of the day, she looked over at me with a twinkle in her eye and asked for my permission to straighten out the scarf I had been working on. I hadn’t been paying attention to what I was doing. I was too busy talking to my brother-in-law who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. While she ripped out a great portion of my uneven knitting I smiled and put my head on her shoulder. I didn’t care about the scarf. I had received my gift for the day: time with my beloved brother-in-law and sitting shoulder to shoulder with her.

Over the years I have known many kind, generous and loving people. Grandma Joyce stands out as one of the most loving of all. I am so glad she was part of my life and that our entire family was blessed by her goodness for so long. Peace to you Joyce. And profound appreciation for the joy you brought us all.

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!