Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Foster Care Alumni of America

Postcard Project: Youth and alumni create postcards to share their experience in foster care.

Foster Care Alumni of America
is a relatively new national organization characterized by alumni leadership, partnerships with child welfare organization and positive influence on foster care policy and practice.

Members include:

-Foster foster children ("alumni")
-Child welfare professionals who support our mission ("allies")

We also include and support the insights of young people who currently reside within the foster care system.

What We Do:

Our mission is to connect the alumni community and to transform policy and practice, ensuring opportunity for people in and from foster care.


Statistics are bleak for young people aging out of foster care. There is a high rate of homelessness, incarceration, unwanted pregnancies and repeating the cycle of foster care.

It is possible to overcome the obstacles -- those of us who are involved in this organization have done so. But it's not enough to make it ourselves if other people are still struggling.

Our vision is to ensure a high quality of life for those in and from foster care through the collective expertise and engagement of foster care alumni.

"Our experience is our expertise"

As former foster children, we are the "consumers" of the foster care system, and can therefore offer an inside view of ways in which it needs to be improved.

While one person's suggestions about the foster care system can be ignored, it is more difficult to silence a collective voice.

Where Did We Come From?
There has been a growing alumni movement over the last several years. Interviews with over 1600 alumni of the system revealed that foster youth and alumni have a shared culture, predictable challenges, and valuable insights that are not available elsewhere.

In May 2006, seven states were chosen, in a competitive process, to be the first seven pilot sites to establish chapters of FCAA.

Our ultimate goal is to establish a network of members—both alumni of the system and our allies who share our mission-- across the country

To learn more, please visit:

Three focus areas for FCAA in my state:

1.) Lead trainings and workshops
based upon our experience as former foster children, and subsequent research we have done about the issues

2.) Support the efforts of the statewide youth advisory board,
made up of youth in and from foster care

3.) Facilitate statewide connections,
work towards a "safety net" for emancipated foster youth, so that they don't fall through the cracks.

Ultimately, we want to create a statewide online yellow pages, focusing on the needs of current and former foster youth.

An Online Foster Care Yellow Pages would:
• Help foster youth and alumni succeed, by knowing all of the resources that are available.
• Help identify gaps and needs in service provision.
• Make it easier for child welfare professionals to make and receive referrals.
• Give child welfare organizations the opportunity to share all the services that they provide.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Project Visitation reconnects siblings in foster care

Heii Anderson of Keiki Photography took this picture. Judge Browning is the gentleman in the red tie.

It is estimated that 80% of people living in the United States today have siblings. The sibling bond is one of the most lasting relationships most people have.

Siblings influence one other’s development in very important ways. When parents are neglectful or abusive, older siblings often voluntarily take on a quasi-parental role.

For many children, losing contact with their brothers and sisters is the most difficult part about being in foster care, because they have lost their entire family.

Research has demonstrated that siblings who are placed together in foster care tend to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than those who are placed apart.

In Hawaii, Project Visitation was created to maintain sibling relationships by coordinating regular visits that give foster children an opportunity to spend time with their siblings and strengthen their bonds and connections to one another.

It is not known how many siblings are separated in foster care in Hawaii, but national statistics estimate the number at 75 percent.

Historical Background
In 2001, child abuse had reached unprecedented levels in Hawaii. Child protective service workers were overwhelmed by the large volume of complaints and investigations. In Oahu, cases rose from 130 to 200 a month and their sexual abuse caseload doubled.

90% of cases involved drug abuse, particularly crystal methamphetamine.

CPS workers felt as if they were under siege. At the time, there were only 184 child welfare workers statewide. Burnout and the lure of better-paying, less stressful jobs were wooing them elsewhere, leading to a high rate of staff turnover.

With all of these other things going on, facilitating sibling visits was not CPS workers’ first priority.

Judicial Involvement
Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning spearheaded Project Visitation. Whenever he gives a talk, he emphasizes the importance reuniting siblings who are placed in separate foster homes.

Established in April 2001, Project Visitation represents a joint effort between Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, Na Keiki Law Center, the Family Court, Hawaii Foster Parents Association and the Department of Human Services.

The project started on a “shoestring budget.” It is now funded by the Hawaii Court Improvement Project, and has been assisted in its efforts by a $10,000 grant from the Weinberg Foundation.

“The Human Services Department "has kept the level of bureaucracy to an absolute minimum to allow this to go forward," Judge Murray says. “We want kids to have an opportunity to interact with each other.”

How does it work?
- Judges in Hawaii mandate visitation when siblings are separated
- Social workers refer cases of separated foster siblings to the program.
- Volunteers support this mission by bringing siblings together for monthly visits. Each volunteer dedicates 6 hours per month.
- The agency provides volunteers with resources, such as money, car seats, tickets, lunch vouchers, coupons or other items to offset volunteer expense
- The department loans out its eight-passenger vans for the visits
- Community organizations have also planned events for the children to participate in, such as magic shows, trips to the zoo, days at the beach and football games.

"It is such a model public-private collaboration. I can't speak enough about it," said Amy Tsark, Child Welfare Services administrator. "It really supports the foster kids without burdening the social workers."

Altonn, Helen. Program rebuilds family bonds of children separated: Project Visitation offers joint activities for children separated in the foster care system. Honolulu Star Bulletin, May 28, 2002.
Altonn, Helen. Rise in drug abuse, economics strains push isle child abuse levels to highs; officials say caseloads are overwhelming investigators. Honolulu Star Bulletin, Nov. 25, 2001.
Bank, Stephen and M.D. Kahn. The sibling bond. Basic Books, 2003.
Hawthorne, Lillian. Sisters and brothers all those years: Taking another look at the longest relationship in your life. VanderWyk & Burnham, 2003.
Schooler, Jayne. What parents need to know when siblings are separated. Bergin & Garvey, 2002.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Foster care 'fosters' low expectations - but survivors can achieve beyond what they imagine

Photo from
In 2003, high school students from all over the country submitted 3000 essays were submitted to a New York Times Magazine writing and photography contest.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter's essay won the writing contest and she was awarded a $1,000.

Her essay, Three Little Words, described the emotions she felt during her adoption hearing.

Ashley had been taken into state custody at age 3, because her mother abused drugs. From age 3 to age 12, Ashley lived in 14 different foster placements. She stayed in one foster home that housed 16 children in a trailer with two bedroom.

25 percent of Ashley's foster parents became convicted felons. One became a pedophile. One was arrested on drug charges.

In praising Ashley's essay, judges said the "powerful essay describes the moment that her torturous path through foster care ended and her life with her new family began."

What three words did Ashley say when the judge asked her if she wanted the adoption to be official? At the time, they were not words of joy but of cyncism. She wasn't sure that this new family wanted her 'for keeps.'

At the time of her adoption hearing, Ashley was living in her 14th foster care placement. Some homes had lasted less than a week. Why would this one be any different?

During her time in foster care, Ashley had seen other children being adopted -- and then, later, "returned." So, in Ashley's mind, making the adoption "official," did not guarantee that her adoptive family would not send her back if she didn't live up to their expectations.

She spoke her 'three little words' and answered the judge, "I guess so."

Today, Ashley is 21 years old, and a senior at Eckerd College. She has a 3.8 GPA and has recently been named in USA Today's College Academic First Team. After she graduates college, her deepest desire is to inspire and protect the 500,000 children still in foster care.
PS - Her adoptive parents never gave up on her.

Howe, Jennifer. Meet this remarkable college students. Tampa Bay's 10 News, Feb. 20, 2007.
Wimpy, Wex. Ashley Rhodes-Courter endured years of abuse in the state's foster care system before being adopted into a nurturing home. St. Petersburg Times, June 10, 2003.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

My new hero

Two worst foster abuse cases I've heard about lately

Photograph of Georgie Buoy; note the moral vacancy in her eyes.
Okay - deep breath. Some news stories are so terrible that I don't even want to write about them.

Here are two of them:
1.) Robert Clinton (FL): This despicable man photographed himself having sex with his three-year-old foster daughter. Sheriff's officals found 40 photographs of the two of them together.

And, when confronted by the evidence, what did Robert Clinton say? He said that she "had not been harmed."

Not harmed? Imagine being a three-year-old child and having the person entrusted with your care abuse you and exploit you in this fashion. Wondering at the time if you deserved it. Thinking that something must be wrong with you, because you aren't living with your family anymore.

Young children are like teenagers: egocentric. If something goes wrong, a young child thinks that they made it happen.

All I can do is hope that as this young girl grows up, she will eventually come to the realization that this was not her fault, that something inside of Robert Clinton, something dark and disturbing, led him to do this to her.

I hope that in time she realizes that what she deserves is love, protection and shelter. A three-year-old child should never know what it feels like to have a man force himself into her and photograph the experience.

Did I mention that she was the 13th foster child entrusted to his care?

2.) Georgie Audean Buoy (OR): This 84-year-old woman has been charged with several counts of sexual abuse in at least three separate incidents. In a taped confession, she admitted having sex with her 11-year-old foster son.
Foster parent arrested for child sex photos. ABC, Feb. 15, 2007.
McCall, William. 84-year-old woman admits sex with boy in foster care. Seattle Times, Feb. 16, 2007.
Sex battery charges filed against foster parent. WFTV, Feb. 15, 2007.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Separating Siblings In Foster Care

Meet Kayla Pettit, 16 years old.

When she entered foster care at eight years old, she was separated from her siblings.

She didn't see her sister again for six years. And as of this date, she has never been in contact with her younger brother again.

It wasn't the state who brought Kayla and her sister back together. Terri Bailey, Kayla's foster mother, took the time to figure out which social worker was handling the case, and contact them. Afterwards, Terri witnessed the tears and joy that took place at Kayla and her fifteen-year old sister's reunion.

Kayla Pettit is one of about 50 Iowa foster youth in a group called Elevate, which empowers teens to educate the public about foster care and adoption. Its members were recently asked to choose and pursue the most important thing that they would like to change about foster care.

They responded by lobbying state lawmakers for legislation that would legally guarantee children the right to visit each other if there's no choice but to divide them up into separate foster homes.

A draft of the bill states:
- If children are not placed together, the social worker will have to explain why not to both the child and the judge.
- If siblings are not sent to the same home, they will be allowed to visit each other.
- Foster parents will be required to attend training on the importance of sibling relationships.

If this legislation is passed, Iowa will be one of the few states in the nation to have such a law. Most states report that they *try* to place siblings together and arrange visits already.

As the director of the Middleton Center for Children's Rights has stated, "The young people we've worked with are saying states need to do more than try. They want to know why they're not being given regular visitation with their siblings, and they think foster parents need training to make sure those visits happen."

I would add that some social workers might need sensitivity training in this area as well.

In many abusive and neglectful families, older siblings serve as caretakers of younger ones. For younger children, their older sibling may be the only nurturing figure they have ever known.

It's not as if we haven't known about this problem for a long time.

As Gordon Johnson, chief executive officer of Chicago-based Jane Addams Hull House Association firmly stated back in 1998, “When we split up foster children from their brothers and sisters, we are taking away the only connection they still have to people they love. This pain literally drives children crazy.”

He added that, “If the siblings are split apart, they don’t have an opportunity to grow and change together."

For more information about Elevate, please visit:

To see a video about previous legislation that Elevate has prompted, please visit:

Editorial: Keep siblings together in foster care: Change Iowa law to make that a priority. Des Moines Register, Feb. 13, 2007.
Jacobs, Jennifer. Keeping foster siblings together. Des Moines Register, Feb. 11, 2007.
Phillips, Christopher. Foster-care system struggles to keep siblings together. APA Monitor, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 1998.
Shirk, Martha. Iowa youth work the corridors of power - and their advocacy pays off. Jim Casey Opportunities Initiative.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lisa's message to Congress

I was asked by the Youth Policy Action Center to share my personal experiences with student loans.

I am so glad that proactive changes have been made since I aged out of foster care in the late-80's. Organizations like the Casey Foundation and the Orphan Foundation of America, as well as state vouchers, are making a positive difference!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Scholarships for former foster youth

The Orphan Foundation of America and Casey Family Scholars Program are offering $1.5 million to help foster youth attend college, university, or training programs.

These scholarships are competitive. The deadline to apply is March 31.

More information and application procedures are available

Another source of financial assistance is available through state vouchers:

The process is less competitive, but getting the paperwork from the school can be problematic.

My friend Anjey Breno, who works for the Orphan Foundation of America, reports that foster youth are more likely to follow through with the entire application process if a caring adult is there to guide them through the process.

Youth who are eligible receive up to $5,000 a year to help with tuition, student loans, books, rent and food.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Foster care commercial series by CFCA

I ran across Evan Davis' blog recently:

He has created a series of commercials for the Christian Family Care Agency, which will be broadcast on TV and Cable throughout Southern Arizona.

Evan Davis is hoping to find other foster care and adoption agencies, particularly in Utah or Arizona, who could benefit from the use of these commercials. He's willing change the logo and contact information at the end so that these TV spots could potentially be used by anyone who needs them.

Here is an example of one of his commercials:

Meet the president of O.H.I.O. Youth Advisory Board

Adrian McLemore spent 10 years of his life in foster care. He believes that everything happens for a reason. Throughout high school and during his current time in college, Adrian has served in leadership positions in various student and community organizations. He served as Class President for three years, and State President for a prominent student organization.

Adrian is majoring in Business Management and Political Science. His goal is to become the President/CEO of a fortune 500 company/corporation. He would also like to venture into politics and one day become President of the United States of America.

Adrian McLemore has recently been elected President of O.H.I.O. (Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio) Youth Advisory Board.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Whole Child International

Kudos to 34-year-old Karen Gordon for using her $1.3 million divorce settlement to start a nonprofit organization to improve orphanages.

The word "orphanage" has become increasingly unpopular over the past 20 years. Newt Gingrich went under fire in 1994 after suggesting the return of Boys Town orphanages to care for abused and neglected children.

Gordon's initial offer to help United Nations officials explore how to improve care in orphanages was turned away. The rationale was that the World Health Organization and World Bank oppose putting children in orphanages, so "why bother fixing them?"

There is the ideal -- and then, there is reality.

The fact is that most of the world's 16.2 million orphans will spend their entire childhoods in an orphanage.

In 2006:
Only 6,500 of China's million orphans were adopted.
Only 3,700 of Russia's 700,000 orphans were adopted.
Only 43 of Nicaragua's 6,000 orphans were adopted.

Gordon's efforts to improve the standards of living for the many children who reside in orphanages was inspired by Hungarian pediatrician, Dr. Emmi Pikler.

The Pikler Institute in Bedapest was founded in 1946 on the belief that orphaned children can thrive only if they are nurtured with consistent care. Instead of rotating caregivers, Pikler has each one looking after the same group of 7-8 children for several years.

The care and setting at the Pikler Institute are designed to facilitate the development of attachment and security. Infants are free to play, rather than being confined to cribs all day. Caregivers are encouraged to talk frequently with the children, in order to facilitate bonding.

Gordon's quest to improve institutional care has taken her to 51 orphanages in 11 countries. She witnessed the outcomes of children were deprived of consistent, loving attention. One of her many initiatives in order to create positive long-term change is to supplement the pay and raise funding for Nicaraguan orphanage staff.

In the United States, we often use the term "children's home," since many children's parents are alive but unwilling or unable to care for them.

Like orphanages, children's homes have become a taboo subject... despite the fact that at least 94,650 foster children were housed in institutional settings in 2005.

Just as there are not enough adoptive parents for all of the world's orphans, there are definitely not enough foster parents in the world.

Dolan, Kerry. Creative Giving: Adopting a Crusade. Feb. 12, 2007, Forbes.
National Council for Adoption.
U.S. Department of State

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Foster care statistics

Each year, over 20,000 young people "age out" the U.S. foster care system.

Older youth (aged 16–18) are more likely to be living in group homes or
institutions than the overall foster care population—the least “family-like” settings.

In 2005:
- 513,000 children were in foster care
- 48% were female (243,964)
- 41% were Caucasian (208,537)
- 94,650 were in group homes or other institutional settings
- 4,445 foster children ran away
- 51,000 children were adopted
- 114,000 children eligible for adoption and waiting for homes

Each week, nearly 60,000 children in the United States are reported as abused or neglected.

In 2003:
- 2.9 million reports of child abuse and neglect were filed
- Of those reports, 944,531 were referred for investigation
- 906,000 reports were substantiated or indicated
- 61% were neglected, 19% were physically abused, and 10% were sexually abused.
- Only 57.1% of these children received follow-up services

Seven out of 10 cases of child abuse and neglect are exacerbated by parental drug / alcohol abuse.

In 2005:
-40% of responding child welfare officials reported increases in the number of children placed in foster care due to parental methamphetamine use in the past year
-Children whose families do not receive appropriate treatment for alcohol and other drug abuse are more likely to end up in foster care, remain in foster care longer, and reenter foster care once they have returned home.

Role of caseworkers:
Federal Child and Family Service Reviews have clearly demonstrated that the more time a caseworker spends with a child and family, the better the outcomes for those children and families.

Currently, nationwide, staff shortages, high caseloads, high worker turnover, and low salaries impinge on the delivery of services to achieve safety, permanence, and well-being for children.

Adoption and Foster Care Reporting and Analysis System (AFCARS)
Casey Family Programs
Chapin Hill Center for Children
Child Welfare Information Gateway:
Child Welfare League of America (CWLA)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Michigan foster care system in need of reform

Two-year-old Isaac Lethbridge was removed from his parents on charges of neglect, and placed into a foster home by state. His parents, Matt and Jennifer Lethbridge, had already lost custody of Issac's eight siblings, due to neglect. Jennifer is currently pregnant with her tenth child.

Isaac didn't choose his parents - and he certainly didn't choose his foster placement, where he was beaten to death. He did not choose to be burned, beaten and sexually abused within this foster care placement.

Isaac was the third child to die under the state's watch during the last 18 months.

Recent suggestions that have been made by Michigan residents include:

* Accreditation: Less than half of the 500 licensed child-placing agencies in Michigan are accredited.

"The state should push for accreditation of the 500 public and private agencies involved in managing care for foster children. Even stricter than the federal requirement of licensing for care, this would bring much needed accountability to the system, giving agencies and caseworkers a clear set of guidelines for monitoring care - or risking the loss of their accreditation and jobs."

* Smaller caseloads and more strategic use of staff: Michigan caseworkers typically handle caseloads of 20 children or more, which is higher than the national standard. The department has fewer than 10,000 workers, and training funds have been cut.

"The state assigns dozens of workers to monitor case files to make sure agencies meet state laws. It would be more efficient to assign them, in SWAT team fashion, to complaints so that everyone knows what's under investigation and what's being done about it. This could help caseworkers with their loads as well."

* Mandatory psych evaluations:
"Now, the state puts potential caregivers and foster parents through criminal background checks and makes sure they don't appear on the state registry of people with histories of child mistreatment. Psychological tests, which cost at least $200 apiece, would help better judge the fitness level of people the state asks to care for its children."

* Watch out for 'collector families:' Illinois, which is being upheld as a model for Michigan to follow,their changed licensing rules to rule out placing more than six children in a foster home, except in rare cases. In Michigan, it's not uncommon for foster homes to have as many as eight foster children.

"Do more with less" always means money
Children's Rights, a New York-based advocacy group sued the state in August 2006.

Michigan's budget deficit is projected at more than $800 million for the current fiscal year.

Federal foster-care reimbursements to counties are less than they ever have been. Wayne County, which handles about one-third of all of the children in foster care in the state, now pays out an extra $40 million a year for foster children, due to federal reimbursement drop-offs.

More than 3 in 4 children entering foster care in Michigan do so because of parental neglect, not abuse. It is interesting to note that a few years ago, Michigan was considered a model for other states because of its family preservation programs. That was before funds were cut, and programs preventing maltreatment, including parenting classes, were eliminated.

There was also a "changing of the guard." Early retirements and staff reductions at DHS since the late 1990s have resulted in the loss of 4,000 workers - many of whom have been described as the most-seasoned and best-trained staffers.

Photo from
Dickerson, Brian. How many chances do parents get? Detroit Free Press. Jan. 31, 2007.
Kresnak, Jack. System overhaul could be only hope - faster adoptions, smaller caseloads seen as solutions. Detroit Free Press, Jan. 30, 2007.

Valenti, Mark. Reform system to save children - tight budges are no excuse when foster children's lives are at risk. Detroit Free Press, Jan. 31, 2007.