Reversing the Foster Care List in DC

DC127 | October 2015

One Life

Imagine a city where there are more families waiting for children, than children waiting for families.

Ten years ago, a group in Aurora, Colorado launched Project 127, an initiative with the goal of reversing Colorado’s foster care wait list. At the time, approximately 875 children in the Colorado foster care system were waiting to be adopted, to find a safe, secure and caring environment they could call home. Today, there are only about 200 children awaiting adoption in Colorado’s foster care system.

In 2013, a handful of caring and motivated individuals brought this dream to DC. With a vision to reverse the DC foster care list, DC127 was formed. On November 2nd, it launched a city-wide initiative, Foster the City, designed to mobilize the DC community to do something to help the 1,300 children in DC foster care. Four hundred people representing 28 churches attended the event and connected with 11 different organizations from across our city.

“There are about 600 churches in Washington, DC, and right now 1,200 children in Washington, DC’s foster care system… There are [also] about 1,200 families, at the same time, who are at risk of entering foster care. So, if [each church] supported two families and two children in foster care, no family in crisis would be without a support system and no child in foster care would be living in instability without a community,” says DC127 Director Chelsea Geyer.

By coming together as a community, we can reverse the foster care list in Washington, DC.

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Globally, 153,000,000 children are considered ‘orphans.’ In the United States, nearly 400,000 children are in our foster care system as a result of abuse and neglect.

In Washington, DC, 1,200 children are currently in our foster care system and another 1,200 are estimated to be at-risk of entering foster care soon, which means that within our small eight-mile radius, 2,400 children are need of serious care.

Children enter foster care for one of three main reasons: abuse, neglect or abandonment. When a child isn’t adopted from foster care and isn’t reunified with their family, they “age out” of the foster care system. In Washington, DC this is at age 21.

Cost of Doing Nothing

So what happens to these kids once they are legally on their own? According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative the cost of doing nothing is great: “On average, for every young person who ages out of foster care, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs over that person’s lifetime. Social costs include taxpayer-funded costs such as public assistance and incarceration, as well as costs absorbed by the community, such as wages lost as a result of dropping out of high school.”

Studies show that, of the children who age out of the system without a permanent family:

  • 12-30 percent struggle with homelessness
  • 40-63 percent do not complete high school
  • 32-40 percent rely on some form of public assistance
  • 50 percent experienced extreme financial hardship
  • 18-26 percent were incarcerated

Brokenness and Instability

With 26,000 youth aging out each year, this adds up to nearly $8 billion in costs to the country. And these statistics represent only the financial toll. They don’t tell the story of the personal challenges these kids experience as they age out of care and enter adulthood without the support of a family to guide them as they make big decisions, reach milestones, and build families of their own.

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.

Elie Wiesel

The result is a cycle of brokenness and instability. As families and homes are broken apart, the children's education suffers, their risk of incarceration and homelessness increases, which in turn increases their risk of sexual exploitation and also makes them more likely to have children of their own taken into foster care, continuing the cycle.

Reverse the List

DC127 believes this problem is not without an answer—and prevention is the key. By offering support to parents and their children and working to keep families together, DC127 is reaching kids before they even enter foster care. And by helping to match foster kids with caring families, the organization helps ensure that adolescents don’t spend years bouncing around, only to age out without the safety net and security of a loving home.

One Question

This film asks one simple, but important question: what if?

DC127 dreams of a city where children are cared for and families are supported. What if the church made sure every child has the foundation and stability necessary to thrive? What if we, as a community, stepped in to help make this dream a reality?

One Heart

Something To Give

When Amy and Adam married in their late 30s and early 40s they knew they wanted kids and that they would have a lot of love to give, but having their own children has yet to become a reality. During this trying season, they have embraced children around them, spending time with family, babysitting for friends and investing where opportunities allow, but the hope for a family of their own remains.

Grappling With The Realities

As a teenager, Amy worked with at-risk youth, many of whom were in the foster care system, and saw first-hand the need for loving and supportive homes for foster children. After learning about DC127 from their pastor, Amy and Adam began to consider whether this might be the next step. But for Adam, there were a lot of questions:

“I was okay with adoption. I took a little work to be convinced on the fostering part. My parents have some family friends that have had some struggles with the foster system. I had heard some of the rough stories, so my perception was always kind of like, the system is going to break our hearts. I was one hundred percent behind adoption – bringing a kid into the house permanently – but I really wrestled with the idea of the reunification part. Knowing you were going to love on these kids, and you don’t do it halfway – we don’t do it halfway – you bring them into the house, you’re going to love them and take care of them and do everything, and I had trouble wrapping my head around the idea that you’re doing it short-term. You’re going to have to put them back into a situation that might not be great.”

My perception was…the system is going to break our hearts.

Amidst this grappling, Adam traveled to Nashville for a work trip to help law enforcement improve their IT systems used in pursuing and apprehending sex traffickers. While there, Adam learned that a large portion of kids that end up on the streets are recruited out of the foster care system. When confronted with this reality, Adam's thinking began to shift.

Upon returning from the trip, the couple's church showed a film featuring parents involved in fostering. "It put it squarely in perspective about giving a family a chance to heal and come back together. It was very clear that I was getting a message that I was not being part of the solution. So we walked out of service, and I said, 'Okay, I'm ready to do this.'"

Taking the First Step

Right before Thanksgiving, Amy and Adam called and set up an appointment with DC127 Director Chelsea Geyer.

“She talked to us about what the organization is and what they [do]. We felt really positive. It's a very daunting process. There's so much to navigate in trying to find the right fit. There are so many different questions you can have. 'What's the right age for me?' 'What do I need to do to be prepared?' Every person that you talk to tells you a different story. Chelsea is kind of our yoda - she's the person we go to when we need the real story. And if she doesn't have the answer, she's going to find it for us. And if she doesn't have the resources, she's going to find them for us. And it's happened over and over again.”

Creating Community

The Hammonds met with Chelsea and proceeded with the orientation, where they were connected with another foster family that had gone through DC127.

DC127 has been the backbone to help us stand upright when we just don’t feel like we can do it ourselves.

Amy and Adam talked with the family about their experience, asked questions and began building a community of people who can support them along this journey. The next step was to select a foster care organization.

“DC127 is an organization that is kind of a launching pad to help you get to the fostering process. They are not the ones that actually help you get the kids in your house. They’re the ones that create the community around you that will support you through what can be an extremely frustrating and challenging process… DC127 has been the backbone to help us stand upright when we just don’t feel like we can do it ourselves.”

Through every stage of the process, DC127 has been there to support the Hammonds as they prepare for the journey ahead. By offering resources, guidance and a support network, DC127 tells families, you don't have to navigate these challenges alone.

Big Changes

Deciding to foster has been no small decision, and for Amy and Adam it has meant significant life changes. They have a strong desire to keep sibling sets together, and must therefore be prepared to host multiple children of varying ages. This would not have been possible in their previous apartment, and so, they began looking for a new home.

Amy and Adam found a new place, signed the lease, but soon realized that the house wasn’t quite ready yet.

Help Along The Way

“There was a lot that needed to be done and clearly with foster care, that’s just a normal thing. You know, you have to make sure you have the smoke detectors in the right place. So there were a lot of things we needed to work out, including moving.”

In addition to their jobs, the foster care prepwork and bringing their new house up to code, the Hammonds now needed to take on the actual move. DC127 stepped in and alerted the DC127 network at their local church. The following day, 30 people showed up to help Amy and Adam move.

And it didn’t stop there. DC127 organized a team of people to come help with unpacking, weeding, cleaning and working to make the house more livable.

“I had a woman helping me unpack in the kitchen ad stocking our bookshelves in the kids’ room with kids books. It felt so blessed, and that’s really how we have felt every step of the way through working with this organization. They have poured into us.”

Investing In Families

"They have really done a fabulous job of explaining and sticking to the tenet of foster care that we really believe is the most important thing, and that is that, the goal is that we reunify children with their families.

We are feeling really compelled to pour into families too. So we’re really excited about the process because that’s part of it too. I don’t have to question because I think that they are on the same team that we are in trying to really give kids a fighting chance and help to minimize the damage that can come through something that’s so traumatizing."

Hitting The Ground Running

"If we were doing this on our own, I think it would be daunting. It can be very discouraging – the process – because there is so much that you need to do to get your life, your house, yourselves ready to do something like this.

The logistical details involved in preparing to take in foster children can be overwhelming. Clothing, toys, books and beds are among the many things that families want to provide for the children living in their home, but for potential foster parents, there is so much that remains unknown. How old will the children be? Will they be boys or girls?

“It’s like building an airplane while you’re flying it.”

This is where a support network like DC127 steps in to help -- with resources, with guidance, with support.

A Daunting, But Important Mission

The process for becoming a foster care parent is complicated and cumbersome, to put it lightly. Prior to placement, there are prep classes, CPR and First Aid classes, background checks, home studies and interviews, and mountains of paperwork that must be completed.

“The application is crazy. There are probably 20-30 forms or pieces of [information] that we need to turn into them. And some of it’s stuff that we both have to do, so it’s a lot of paperwork. Some of it’s like, we need to go to the DMV, get copies of our driver’s records, copies of our marriage license, and every little piece. And it’s great that they do it because I would hate to think that they wouldn’t be really thorough, but it is a lot.

We feel so strongly that you should really be pouring into these kids and the families that they come from and being a positive impact and I feel like that’s one of the things that we’ll be best set up to do because we have this ally. I love that DC127 wants to reverse the list so that there are more people waiting, and I think that is such an important mission.”

There are all kinds of other things that people can do. It’s not just taking the foster kids in. It’s the volunteering. It’s helping somebody move. It’s making dinner for a family that’s just had a baby placed with them. You would do that for your best friend when they had a baby. Think about all the people in your community who are doing this on a daily basis and giving of themselves to do it. They need the same kind of support.

DC127 is great for that because they really help to rally our community around us. We don’t feel alone doing this anymore."

One Hope

If it truly takes a village to raise a child, then someone needs to mobilize the village. Enter DC127.

Religion that God our Father considers pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27

What started out as a small initiative of local DC churches has grown into a larger movement dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable children in our city. DC127 was founded to unite churches, organizations, government agencies and businesses in DC around recruiting and supporting foster and adoptive families so that no child is waiting for a home.

"We have a lot of single moms, and we have a lot of kids who live without the guidance of parents in the foster care system. We have translated that to say who is our modern-day widow and orphan? Who is our society not seeing?"

DC127 is not a foster care referral or adoption agency; it is not a social services provider; it is, perhaps, best described as a network, a movement or a catalyst.

The DC127 movement creates community that comes alongside children and families at various stages of life to support them through difficult circumstances. Sometimes help comes through mentoring; other times it comes through temporary care for children at risk of being placed in foster care and parents in need of extra help; in other cases, a temporary or permanent loving home is what kids need.

Safe Families is a first line of defense, helping to provide support to families living in poverty and instability to keep them together and keep more kids out of foster care.

Erica Baker

Keeping Families Together

On the prevention side of its work, DC127 partners with Safe Families for Children to help kids before they end up in the foster care system.

"Families come to Safe Families for Children because they have nowhere else to go. These are families who are living socially isolated [lives]. They often don't have family in the area; they don't have neighbors they can turn to; and they are experiencing something that's hard for anyone with a community, but they have to do it alone. And so, a lot of our families, yes, they are living in poverty, experiencing homelessness or just in some sort of a crisis, but they have absolutely no one to support them through this. They don't have that network of support that so many of us have... The families come to us because they're alone. And nobody should parent alone, nobody CAN parent alone. It takes a village, and that's so true. That's what we see: parents who love their children and want to be good parents to their children, but just like anybody else, [they] need help."

Once the courts or a social worker identifies a family in crisis, Safe Families is often contacted to wrap around the family with a variety of support roles in order to help the parent improve circumstances and keep their family intact. One such support role is the Volunteer Host Families, who provide a temporary safe haven for children one to three pre-arranged weekends a month, just like an aunt or uncle would.

Through Safe Families, there are three support roles to consider:

  1. Be a Host Family: Someone to open their home; to care for the children so parents have the space and time they need to get back on their feet
  2. Be a Family Friend: Every parent needs a friend, someone to listen, care and help connect them with services they need
  3. Be a Family Coach: Make sure that every volunteer has the support they need, including babysitting, meals, clothes/toys

Safe Families is a first line of defense, helping to provide support and community to families living in poverty and instability and fighting to keep families together and keep more kids out of foster care.

A Home for Every Child

In instances where a child is not able to return to their biological family, adoption through foster care can provide a permanent home to a child and is a beautiful process, as the child becomes a full part of the family.

Foster care and adoption are not decisions to be taken lightly, and DC127 helps couples explore whether it might be the right step through its regular foster care and adoption orientations.

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DC127 serves foster and adoptive families in three key ways:

  1. Walk with families through the licensing process: DC127 helps find the right agency for your family and supports you as you complete your foster care license (needed for both foster care and adoption through foster care).
  2. Connect with city-wide supports: DC127 works to connect families to supports all across the city, including other families. Its goal is to make sure you have access to all available support resources.
  3. Mobilize the church and community for support: DC127 believes the most sustainable support comes from people already involved in a family’s life. It works with Church Coordinators to surround foster and adoptive families with support, and bring awareness to the larger church community about foster care and the unique needs of foster families.

Foster care and adoption can ensure that no child is without a home. Both are big steps, but ones that need not be taken alone. It's important not to minimize the level of commitment required, but DC127 hopes to create structures and supports that will help make the foster care and adoption process less daunting and more accessible to families.

Everyone Can Help

Not everyone is in a position to be a foster parent, but everyone is in a position to do something—everyone has something to offer. Everyone can become a part of the DC127 community, working together to ensure the success of every child in foster care and those at risk of entering the child welfare system.

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Here are just a few of the many ways you can help:

  • Mentor a Child: Mentor a child. Mentoring can have a significant impact on the life of a child in foster care. Oftentimes, a mentor may be the only consistent adult in an itinerant teen’s life. Several programs offer opportunities to invest time in helping a child in foster care succeed. Family & Youth Initiative, BEST Kids and Safe Families for Children offer meaningful mentoring opportunties. If you’re interested in getting connected as a mentor, email [email protected]to get connected with the next steps.
  • Respite Care and Babysitting: Foster parents and Safe Families Hosts, just like other parents, need to run errands, shop, or simply get a break, but many need babysitters who have gone through background checks.
  • Resources and Services: Most children come to their Safe Families Hosts and foster homes with very few possessions. We are always accepting donations of children’s items like diapers, car seats, and clothing, or professional services like healthcare, hair styling, and house cleaning. We also accept gift cards to grocery stores or children’s outlets, or even area restaurants to provide date nights for parents.
  • Sponsor a Youth’s College Education: Every year, tens of thousands of youth age out of foster care. They likely do not have family to help them transition to adulthood—or help with college expenses. Foster Care to Success connects the public to college-bound foster youth through a unique sponsorship program.

"In Washington, DC, we see a lot of really hard stuff -- we see poverty, we see a broken education system, we see an incredibly high AIDS rate, we see a high rate of homeless families, and sometimes [people] can just think that this is how our city operates, that this is just the rhythm of our city.

If you want to change the rhythms of Washington, DC, you're going to have to expect to change the rhythms of your life. How do you integrate caring for others, and loving others, and bringing about justice into your everyday patterns? What are those slight differences you're going to need to make to see the people that you're not seeing right now."

Get Involved

Editor's Note

Sitting around a large wood table at a local DC cafe, discussing the needs and challenges facing our city, I learned there are approximately 400,000 children in foster care, and 100,000 of those are waiting to be adopted.

It was at that table I became convinced that everyone should consider becoming involved with foster care and adoption. And at that same table, I realized the importance of educating ourselves about the realities of foster care and adoption.

DC127 does exactly that — It helps mobilize the community to get involved in meeting the needs of children and families in our city; it helps educate people about the rewards and challenges of the foster care and adoption process; and it helps provide the resources and support that are essential to creating a positive experience and stable home environment for families and kids.

But the organization takes the mission one step further by also committing to help families in crisis before they become part of the system. When moms and dads need a helping hand, DC127 steps in and provides that hand. When children and teens need a positive and loving role model, DC127 says, “here is a mentor; here is a host family.”

If you take away nothing else from this story, hear the words of Amy Hammond: Just because it’s going to be hard, just because we may feel sad, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it and that it’s not the right thing to do.

Consider the words of Chelsea Geyer: If you want to change the rhythms of Washington, DC, you're going to have to expect to change the rhythms of your life. How do you integrate caring for others, and loving others, and bringing about justice into your everyday patterns?

Everyone can do something to care for the children and families of our city. What will you do?

Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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