- 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.
- Strengthening the early foundations of lifelong health and well-being.
- Enhancing the resources and capacities of healthy attachments.
- 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
- 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.
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…
Trips to the beach
Saying goodnight to the horses
Baths in the sink
Running through the sprinkler
Swimming for hours
Trips to the zoo
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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.
Every year nearly 30,000 young Americans “age out” of foster care.
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:
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.
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.
“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?”
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:
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!
Since 2005 I have had the honor and the distinct pleasure of working side by side with a wonderful woman named Kerry Homstead. Together we have built the Treehouse Community and launched the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative. Standing under the banner of Shared Responsibility we cast a bold vision: Every Child Rooted In Family & Community.
Kerry has spent her entire career supporting children and families. When we met she was working at Smith College. Our official Treehouse Foundation titles are Founder/Executive Director and Treehouse Community Facilitator. For seven years we have functioned as a team. We are equals. I have profound respect for Kerry. She is intelligent, thoughtful, wise and trustworthy. Just ask Treehouse community members and our Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America partners!
Kerry Homstead is also highly professional and diplomatic – two traits that come in very handy when you are engaged in collaborative social change. Recently, after winning the Purpose Prize, I found myself thinking about all of the layers of engagement required to be a successful social change agent. Diplomacy is key. I went to the dictionary and looked up the definition of the word diplomat. It said, “A person who deals with people tactfully or skillfully.” That’s Kerry.
I used to think the best way to describe the Treehouse Community Facilitator’s role was “something akin to a faith based leader”. I have now refined my explanation of the job description to “something akin to a faith based leader and a diplomat”. Diplomacy is the key to Kerry’s approach. She is accessible, discreet, flexible, solution oriented and able to handle all manner of life circumstances with grace (read juggle five balls in the air while scanning the horizon for new balls coming up and old balls falling gently downward). She is a fabulous listener and a seasoned professional who generously shares her time with anyone who visits, lives and works on Treehouse Circle.
For the past twenty years I have kept an Appreciation Journal. Every morning I begin my day acknowledging all that I am thankful for. Every evening I do the same. This writing practice keeps me grounded in goodness. Paying attention to all of the positives in my life helps me stay in the moment and accomplish so much more as a social entrepreneur, mom, wife, friend, sister, child advocate, neighbor and citizen.
When I look back through my appreciations over the past seven years Kerry’s name comes up daily. I appreciate her work ethic, her dedication, her thoughtful responses, her respectful collaboration, her kindness, her authenticity. I am grateful for her patience, her calm approach, her amazing skill set.
I appreciate her work ethic, her dedication, her thoughtful responses, her respectful collaboration, her kindness, her authenticity
This morning I appreciate having the opportunity to head into the Conference Room and wrap holiday presents with her – an annual tradition that allows us to show all of the children and youth living on Treehouse Circle just how much we love and appreciate them at this time of the year. I know that when I come home tonight spending time with Kerry selecting gifts and writing holiday cards for the kids is something I will write about in my Appreciation Journal. I’m sure there will be other pieces of our day together that I will also note.
Thank you Kerry. You are an inspiration and a role model to us all. Having you in my life and on this Re-Envisioning Foster Care Journey is such a blessing. I look forward to the lessons we will learn together as our work unfolds in the new year!
If you walk into the Treehouse Community Center these days you will hear the rat-a-tat sound of a floor drill. We are replacing the floor in the Gathering Space – the largest area of the TCC where we all gather for Soup Tastings, Treehouse Teas, homework, birthday parties, adoption celebrations, Re- Envisioning Foster Care Working Group meetings, sign language classes, seasonal fiestas, celebrations of life, art projects, pot lucks, regional gatherings,and much more!
Replacing the floor has given us an opportunity to use many other parts of the Community Center to host events. Last week-end the HEROES Youth Leadership Project used the Kitchen, Library and Foyer when making a film. “Grace & Flexibility” is our motto!
Yesterday afternoon I opened the door to the Library and was delighted to encounter more than a dozen people, ranging in age from 3 weeks old to 65 years, engaged in an array of activities. “What fun!”, I thought and immediately walked over to meet our newest Treehouse community member who was sleeping in the arms of a loving neighbor.
After greeting everyone I found an open spot at the Homework Table where Westfield State interns, a young girl and a lovely elder were making Christmas tree ornaments and two teens were researching job openings at the Holyoke Mall.
Treehouse Community Facilitator, Kerry Homstead, was reading a college application essay that had just been completed by one of our high school seniors. As she gave him feedback our Treehouse Tutor checked in with another youth who had requested help with her homework. They decided to go to the Conference Room where they could work on a project that required more space and a quieter work environment. A Treehouse staff member was seated on the couch engaged in a lively discussion with several young people.
Kerry finished reading the college application essay and began to take photos of the group. A mom walked in and asked if the tutor might have time to fit her daughter into the day’s Homework Help schedule. After she signed her up, she headed out to take her younger daughter to an appointment. Arrangements were made to transport her daughter home after the science homework was complete.
Conversations in English, Spanish, Spanglish and Sign Language filled the room. When our newest Treehouse community member woke up and needed a diaper change, I offered to help. We were all delighted that the baby was waking up. As we made our way through the foyer to the bathroom we spoke gently to her. For a community of people who are on a mission to serve children whose lives have been impacted by foster care, we are honored to have the opportunity to support the health and well-being of infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary aged children, middle schoolers, teens and young adults living on Treehouse Circle.
As I placed the baby gently onto the changing table and began to unfold her tiny diaper, the door to the Women’s Room opened and a lovely young woman requested a ride to the high school so she could attend an important meeting. Her mom was still at work and had suggested that her daughter walk down to the Treehouse Community Center to see if someone was available to help out. Her kind neighbor said, “Sure!” and off they went.
“Grace & Flexibility” is our motto!
After the baby had been diapered and was carefully wrapped up in a colorful fleece blanket, her family arrived to pick her up. We exchanged greetings, hugs and information. Then they headed home. Another mom stopped by to pick up her mail and chat. One of the Treehouse staff members took a group of kids outside for some fresh air. They headed for the playground.
The workers put their drills away and began to pack up. The afternoon’s Sign Language class ended and students stopped by the Library to check on our progress and share what they learned during their time together. The young man who had been working on his college application essay wished everyone a good night and went home to eat dinner. Two of his siblings came over to the Library as he was leaving and began their homework.
Those of us who had been making Christmas tree ornaments congratulated one another on our success – a lovely tray of handcrafted bells.
As I was cutting out my last felt leaf of the day, I heard laughter. Glancing up, I had the pleasure of seeing two young friends, one deaf and one hearing, engaged in a conversation about a movie they had both clearly enjoyed. As they conversed their moms and siblings were making plans to get together later in the week.
Life on Treehouse Circle is full of connection, goodness and belonging. Something we all need. I’m delighted that replacing the Treehouse Community Center floor has given us this opportunity to gather together and share our lives in such caring and creative ways!