This photo shoot went viral. It started as a joke. The back story: Kelli Higgins is a mom to two children adopted when they were well past babyhood. Her son discussed with her how her photography clients had sweet newborn photos but he and his sister did not. Her daughter suggested, jokingly, that mom and brother do a newborn photo shoot, or at least newborn style. They did and the images captured immediate attention.
There is a sweet and humorous quality to the photos. This family has the ability to be playful about what was lost and to joyfully—in jest perhaps, but on another level authentically—address that loss with a little repair through photos. These children are, for whatever reasons, were able to help create that along with their family. They are the lucky ones.
There’s a larger truth here, though. Setting aside a happy story like this one, 500,000 children experience foster care in this country. One third of these children will never go home with a “forever family” and will never be adopted. Their childhoods will be spent in foster care or group settings. Approximately 25,000 young people reach their 18th birthdays while still in the system. They “age out” of the foster care system alone. Left without enduring family relationships or community connections because they’ve been in foster care throughout their childhoods, they’ve had no practice making life decision and suddenly are turned out into the world expected to make all of them for themselves. Legally declared adults with the assumption they are prepared for independence, this obviously will not be the case. Instead, those very young adults find themselves at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, early parenthood and poverty.
It’s an astonishing and heartbreaking problem. Before reaching emancipation (if we can call it that) the damage done to these children is huge. A year in foster care tends to translate to a significant slide in academic success, as one example. Another, arguably less glaring example is the loss or absence of photographed moments every child deserves to experience and to look back upon. The kinds of initiatives that tell foster children’s stories are ones that seek to provide suitcases to children in foster care so that they do not have to carry their worldly possessions between residences in a garbage bag.
Many people cannot imagine caring for or adopting a child through the foster care system. Like any other parenting decision, the responsibility is huge and people should only commit if they really want to and feel able to do so. But there are people beginning the process of re-envisioning foster care. In so doing, the idea is to take the burden and stigma from the child and to find ways that communities can engage and help and change the foster care system without necessarily taking full responsibility for a child. That adage about the village raising the child is the big idea.
Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America was formed to find ways to bring this big idea into smaller, concrete steps, such as regional networks that put the children first and find ways to help them through collaborative efforts that are community-wide. Mentorship, innovative practices that make engagement more accessible and better networking between institutions that are central to children’s lives are being explored. Judy Cockerton, founder of Treehouse Foundation, and recent recipient of the Purpose Prize after reinventing herself after the age of 60 to do social good, is one of the engines behind this REFCA. A regional conference has taken place for three years in partnership with various agencies and the Rudd Adoption Research Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The fourth annual conference will take place in May.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Cockerton began her mission to change the face of foster care one day when she read a newspaper article about foster care in America. If every person who smiled at the baby pictures could know about the larger story, and buy into the big idea of a village for these children, think about what a step we could take, collectively, toward being a society that actually protects every child.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child Magazine, Huffington Post and Salon, amongst others. She keeps a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows