Friday, July 21, 2006

Making the most of every opportunity

As mentioned in a previous post, I have been chosen to help design the Ohio chapter of FCAA. As co-founder with my friend Gayle, my first challenge will be getting in touch with foster alumni throughout the state, and inviting them to help positively influence nationwide policy.

History of Foster Care Alumni of America
In 1999, the Casey Foundation conducted the largest ever retrospective study of foster alumni. Their research was based on extensive interviews with 1400 foster alumni, who had aged out of care between 1966-1986.

Because this study was the first of its kind, they had no idea what to expect. One thing that they didn't expect was that every participant, whether their ultimate placement had been positive or negative, wanted to change the foster care system.

They were actively engaged on all levels. One woman who was destitute, spent hours talking on a calling card, in the hopes that her experience could be used to positively impact others.

As a result of their findings, the Casey Foundation founded an Alumni Relations Board in 2000. Two years later, the board recommended the need for a national organization. Why? Because foster alumni needed to have a collective voice.

FCAA achieved national 501 3c status in 2004. In May of 2006, representatives from seven states (including yours truly) attended the summit in Seattle.

The need for a collective voice
Foster care alumni are an invisible population. If you met me, you wouldn't know I grew up in foster care unless I told you. There is no scarlet "F" label on my chest.

Because of the stigma and stereotyping that most foster youth experience growing up, alumni are often reticent to identify themselves as former foster children. We have experienced firsthand the low expectations and lack of credibility that foster youth are often afforded.

It has been a conscious choice on my part to identify myself with my past. I do it because of my passion to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But, a national foster alumni organization takes this idea one step further: It empowers foster alumni to speak for themselves.

Connecting with other foster alumni
Many challenges are inherent in trying to arm the passion and power of former foster children. We have learned not to connect, not to commit, not to trust. We have learned to be individuals, and to stand on our own. We have experienced feeling "different," which often leads to self-isolation.

So, how can we connect with one another? Trust one another? Work with one another, when our first impulse will be to tackle problems individually?

Obstacles exist, but I believe the outcome is worth the effort. Before leaving for my trip to California, I printed out 200 fliers, inviting adults who grew up in group homes, foster homes or with a relative (kinship care) to contact me and be a part of Ohio FCAA.

My initial plan was to visit every Krogers in town and post fliers on the bulletin boards. Unfortunately, Krogers have replaced their bulletin board with plastic display cases, and wire shelves designed specifically for Krogers-approved publications.

My back-up plan was to post fliers all over the local college campus, with the help of my oldest stepdaughter. I also visited every store downtown in the Short North area. This is an area frequented by people of all backgrounds, from professionals to college students, to homeless individuals.

I posted fliers in college coffee shops, tattoo parlors, downtown restaurants, laundrymats and car repair establishments.

Opportunity for a television appearance?
I have recently been in contact with Michael Bloom, the associate producer of the Dr. Keith Ablow Show. He is looking for a foster child or alumni who is struggling.

Here is the dilemma, as I see it:
Mr. Bloom has a deadine to deal with... He seems to be sincere in his belief that Dr. Keith Ablow is a reputable and sensitive doctor. He cannot understand why different agencies that he has contacted, including Foster Care Alumni and the California Youth Connection, appear to be stonewalling him.

The way he sees it, this could be a great opportunity for someone. Free counseling, and the show would pay for their follow-up care. The reason that Mr. Bloom works for the Dr. Keith Ablow Show is because he believes that it positively changes lives.

However, I can also understand why organizations might hesitate to respond. When I received Mr. Bloom's email, my first instinct was to feel protective...

My concerns:
1.) Not to betray anyone's trust. (I will not give out contact information for the foster youth / alumni that I am in contact with without their permission).

2.) What I call the "Drew Barrymore syndrome:" If you take an emotionally raw person and they air their experiences publicly, that is very sensitive information that they are putting out there. It could potentially follow them throughout their life.

Foster children already grow up with a case file, which is not always permanently closed when they reach adulthood. They don't need to be haunted by anything else.

3.) Not to waste an opportunity to give a voice to someone in/from foster care. There are many emotional issues affliction foster children that can and should be brought to life. Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of them.

Foster alumni often don't have medical insurance. If the show provided follow-up therapy, that would be a generous and helpful gift. It might lead to greater emotional health and healing...

I think that the two biggest challenges that Mr. Bloom faces in trying to find foster youth/alumni willing to appear on the show are:

1.) We as foster youth don't want to come across as weak, needy or broken. Not allowing us to talk about our successes and progressive healing is a turn-off. We need to be able to say how far we've come, before we risk the vulnerability of sharing an area or two wherein we might still need to heal.

2.) The television format is "now, now, now." If you really do want to contact someone straight off the streets, homeless due to aging out of foster care without proper resources and/or emotionally raw, you have to put in some time.

You will have to earn their trust. Work at it. Foster alumni have often been exploited in the past, and they will be ultra-sensitive to being exploited in the future.

For you, it's a show. For them, it's their life. Because deep-down, underneath the tough exterior that we might put on, foster care alumni are vulnerable.

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Your comments are always so timely and hit me right in the heart. There have been several "opportunities" for M's story to be told in some very large forums lately. Her father and I weigh the benefits of healing to her, her desire to speak out, and all of our desire to expose the problems of the system vs. the fear of exploitation, pain, and basically the "sleaze" factor of some of these shows.

So far we're sticking with the one promised venue with a good reputation. This is entirely M's decision and she's excited about it. We're continuing to pray that this proves to be a positive, empowering experience for her.

I totally understand your concerns. I know nothing about the show you are referring to so I don't have an opinion about that.

I know that your heart and head are in the right place and believe you will come to the right decision.

Hi, Lisa. Where have you been?
I went to a really nice child abuse prevention public hearing at the CPS headquarters in Austin.
Very informational.
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