This November, foster care innovators from around the country will gather in Boston to highlight their stellar strategies for improving the lives of our nation’s children and youth living in foster care at the 8th annual Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) Conference. These visionary leaders include foster care alumni who are sharing their expertise, leadership and wisdom to the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement.
These award-winning innovators are working diligently around the country to create much-needed opportunities and resources that lift nearly half a million lives up and change the foster care narrative. REFCA 2019 gives them the opportunity to come together with social workers, educators, mental health professionals, researchers, foster care alumni, youth in foster care, parents, caregivers, legislators, child welfare leaders, journalists, affordable housing planners and philanthropists.
Recently a reporter asked me, “What does the REFCA Movement do to improve the lives of children and youth living in foster care?” The REFCA Movement works to effect change on behalf of children and youth in three ways:
- Inspire and activate an engaged citizenry by convening an annual conference that highlights foster care innovation from around the country.
- Educate and support youth living in foster care to become REFCA leaders so they can weave their wisdom, expertise and perspective into the REFCA Movement.
- Catalyze Americans to promote a re-envisioning of foster care in their communities so that all our nation’s children have the opportunity to live healthy, connected and fulfilling lives.
The REFCA Movement began 20 years ago when I became a foster parent. Entering the world of child welfare with two little ones in my arms, I began learning about the everyday realities that our children and youth placed in foster care face.
The statistic that moved me to become a full-time advocate for children and youth experiencing foster care: Every year in this country, about 20,000 young people “age out” of foster care alone — at risk for homelessness, incarceration, sex trafficking, teen parenting and unemployment.
Imagine holding two little ones, who were so full of potential, while hearing that reality. It was the catalyst that led me to sell my businesses and establish the Treehouse Foundation. Two additional realities inspired me to re-think our public foster care system:
We have set our child welfare system up to fail. We have given child welfare the most complex and vulnerable families to care for, provided it with insufficient funding, and said, “Here. You are responsible for the safety, health and well-being of these families. We are going to give you an insufficient sum of money to do the job and then we are going to walk away and only pay attention when something goes wrong.”
We see the results of that strategy in the high school graduation, homelessness and unemployment rates of our youth who are “aging out” of foster care. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative provides outcome statistics for each state.
In no uncertain terms, the data describes how youth in foster care are falling behind their peers and face higher levels of joblessness and homelessness as adults. With these challenges clear, we need leaders to take action — to collect better data, support better practices and develop better policies — so that youth in care can get the support they need, transition to adulthood and thrive.
Most Americans think that there are only two ways to support a child in foster care: become a foster parent or adopt a young person from foster care. This is too much to ask of most people. The result is that millions of Americans turn and walk away from the children who need them the most without ever getting a chance to meet them and find out how they can support them.
Since 2002, the Treehouse Foundation has worked diligently with its visionary partners to create a compelling new menu of engagement options so that Americans of all ages and backgrounds can easily support kids in their communities who are living in foster care.
In addition to attending annual REFCA conferences, interested citizens can volunteer in a variety of exciting intergenerational programs. These include living in an intentional neighboring Treehouse Community, which are designed to support families adopting children from foster care and older adults who act as “honorary grandparents,” or being a camp counselor for sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care.
REFCA 2019 Conference presenters will add to this dynamic and growing menu of engagement options. As Joan Hastings, the visionary philanthropist who funded the launch of the the REFCA Movement said, “It’s time! Let’s spark a new national conversation about foster care. One that is full of hope, possibility and innovation so that all our nation’s children have the opportunity to live meaningful and productive lives.”
Judy Cockerton is the founder and executive director of the Treehouse Foundation and an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.