May 2014: Memorial Day & National Foster Care Month


Every year in May, during the holiday weekend as the nation celebrates Memorial Day and remembers those who died in our nation’s service, I call my grandmother to wish her a Happy Memorial Day. While she did not serve personally, her brothers and husband did. We often talk about her brother Ralph who died at the age of 19 as he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. His ship, the USS Indianapolis, was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Pacific Ocean on July 30, 1945–just two weeks before the nation celebrated “Victory over Japan” on August 15. My grandmother has shared with me how her family was still mourning the very recent loss of her brother as the rest of nation cheered that day. I call my grandmother every Memorial Day in part because I can–she is the matriarch of my father’s family and I enjoy talking to her. But I also call because her story is my story through our shared family history, and I want her to know that someone remembers her brother’s—and by extension her family’s—sacrifice.

In the world of child advocacy, May is also when we celebrate National Foster Care Month. Originally designated by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 20 years ago, National Foster Care Month (NFCM) provides an annual opportunity to recognize the approximately 400,000 children and youth living in foster care, as well as their foster parents, child-welfare workers, advocates and mentors. It also continues to bring attention to the many challenges faced by children and youth in foster care. Although foster care is intended to be temporary, children and youth remain in the system for an average of two years, and more than 23,400 youth age out of foster care each year without reunification or adoption.

At CCAI, we are keenly aware of the heart cries of these children to be part of a safe, loving and forever family—and this May we are focused on raising awareness about the challenges that older children and youth face in finding their forever families. Did you know that of the 101,666 children available for adoption out of foster care in FY 2012, only 52,039 were adopted? And sadly, for children age nine or older, who make up 48% of the total number of children in foster care, only 25% (13,184) from this age group were adopted (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2013). We know that without the security and support of a family, those who age out of foster care struggle to obtain housing, insurance, higher education and employment. We also know that all too often laws and policies create barriers that make it difficult for children to find their forever families, and thus CCAI’s mission is to identify any such barriers and support policymakers as they remedy them.

President Obama expressed his support for National Foster Care Month in an official Presidential Proclamation; both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives registered their support through Resolutions. Add your voice to theirs! This May, we invite you to consider ways you might become more involved in the lives of children and youth in foster care – because every single child deserves the opportunity to call a grandparent of their very own on Memorial Day and learn parts of our nation’s history through a special connection with someone who lived it.

Becky Weichhand, Director of Policy, CCAI

Small Hands Change the World

Kenya, August 2012

In August, CCAI’s Director of Policy, Becky Weichhand, traveled to Kenya to continue to build on the work of The Way Forward Project. She spoke at the East African Orphan Summit in Nairobi, visited local orphanages, schools and development non-profits, and met with staff at both the Kenya and Regional offices of UNICEF and the PEPFAR programming staff at USAID to learn about their work in Kenya and the region as it relates to orphans and vulnerable children and to discuss efforts to continue to make family-based care for children not only a best-practice but a reality for children in the region.

The following is a short photo essay of this trip.

Neighborhood children in front of a home in Soweto, the largest slum in the capitol city of Nairobi.
Children in their school uniforms at a school run by a church in Soweto await the opportunity to greet their guests at the end of the school day.
A toddler looks out the window into the yard at the orphanage in which he lives.
Children in this orphanage enjoy play time with orphanage staff and volunteers.
Becky holds a little girl who lives in the orphanage while the child sitting alongside her holds a toddler who also lives there.
Becky visits the top of the Kenyatta International Conference Center overlooking Kenya’s Parliament building with her friend Winnie. Winnie serves on the board of the Kenya Network of Care Leavers. The Kenya Society of Care Leavers is a grassroots youth empowerment movement that promotes the well-being of those who have spent time in institutions in Kenya by creating support groups for young people who have left orphanages in Kenya as well as educates children and youth still in orphanages about their rights.
Jeromy Smith (far left), a U.S. citizen and adoptive parent of Kenyan children was a tremendous support to the East African Orphan Summit leadership and its emphasis on empowering local government and church leadership to promote in-country, family-based care for children in the region. Here he is pictured with the director of Rwanda’s PEACE Plan Initiative as well as two Kenyan attorneys who spoke to the East African Orphan Summit audience about the process and timeline for domestic Kenyan adoptions.
A sign on display at the Nairobi Giraffe Center reminds us that our work impacts generations and that as we work to promote family care so that children in the U.S., Kenya and around the world can thrive, they in turn can change the world.

Reflections from Ethiopia

When I tell people that our visit to the United Kingdom and Ethiopia was only 10 days in total, many ask why I would go all the way around the world for such a short period of time.  Why not stay longer? I always laugh and tell them that for Members of Congress and government officials, 10 days is a very long time to be away!

Obviously, part of the nature of such official delegations is to pack as much into an itinerary as possible because you’ve flown so far and have such a short amount of time.  From the perspective of CCAI’s 20/20 Vision Program, we’re thrilled that in such a short time Members of Congress and other individuals influencing U.S. policy toward orphans and vulnerable children are able to see for themselves the needs and challenges these precious children face.  Once they encounter the need face to face, they immediately begin to consider what best practices they can match with these needs to best serve children and help them realize their right to a family.  But from my personal perspective, I wished we could stay longer at each of the wonderful places we visited.  My mind was spinning as to what resources we might bring to bear to assist the many organizations and individuals working so diligently to serve the children of Ethiopia amidst many challenges.

One example was our delegation’s last site visit on our last morning in Ethiopia, when we visited the Missionaries of Charity Orphanage in Addis Ababa.  The Missionaries of Charity are the order of nuns that Mother Theresa began years ago.  The nuns of this order in Addis Ababa – thirteen women in total – support not only 250 orphaned and abandoned children, but also dozens of young mothers with their infants who have no homes, in addition to many terminally sick individuals of all ages.  They shared with us that every morning the street outside their property is filled to overflowing with people waiting and hoping to come inside.  I asked how they select the women and children they take in, and was told that they look for the weakest, sickest individuals and bring them in as they have openings.  These thirteen ladies serve so humbly and ably – but face such challenging circumstances by the sheer numbers of people they are trying to help.  Our visit to their property reminded me that there are so many individuals who are doing their best – but they need our support.

Becky Weichhand, CCAI's Director of Policy with an Ethiopian nun

And then there are some biases that we still need to work to change, which is nearly impossible to do in such a short trip.  As I mentioned earlier, almost every single meeting our delegation participated in with Ethiopian officials and NGOs was met with an incredible spirit of cooperation and open dialogue.  It was most certain that there was a shared goal of serving and supporting Ethiopian children in and through families – first in Ethiopia, and – if no other alternatives remained – then through intercountry adoption.  Yet we did encounter one very hostile individual who was not even willing to speak to the needs of a group of children facing gravel physical and emotional needs because of her opposition to the idea of intercountry adoption.

One of the things CCAI feels very strongly about is that it is incredibly important to bring individuals and organizations that come from differing perspectives on how to best serve orphans and vulnerable children together into the same room and foster dialogue.  We believe that there is much common ground to discover in these environments when hearts are open to listening, sharing, and finding solutions to the great challenges children without families face.  I’m willing to bet that if we could have sat down together, that individual whose hostility we encountered at the orphanage would have come to a place of understanding – if not agreement – with us as to ways Ethiopians and Americans, governments and NGOs, can work together to serve the children of Ethiopia.

Toward that end, CCAI is honored to have participated in this important delegation to the United Kingdom and Ethiopia, and will continue to work through our 20/20 Vision Program to facilitate future delegations and bring great partners to the table to work together on these crucial issues.

Becky with an Ethiopian Orphan

We are incredibly pleased that the delegation’s visit to Ethiopia strengthened old relationships and opened new doors among the Ethiopian and U.S. Governments and the non-governmental organizations working in the country.  We are also pleased to learn that our discussions of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption encouraged the Ethiopian government to take steps toward requiring all adoption service providers from foreign countries to be Hague-accredited in order to process adoptions of Ethiopian children and to also move toward ratifying the Hague Convention and implementing it in Ethiopia.  In addition, due to the elevated awareness created by our delegation’s visit to Ethiopia to focus solely on children’s issues, USAID will soon be coordinating a United States Government Task-Force on Children’s Issues in Ethiopia.

All incredible outcomes from a wonderful delegation to a beautiful country.

Ethiopia Travel Diary: Day 2, Bantu

The day after we toured several sites in Addis Ababa and met with various U.S. and other government leaders, we headed out to spend the beginning of our second full day on the ground in a rural area named Bantu – the home area of Ethiopian President Girma Wolde Giorgis.

Our delegation arrived to the Buckner Bright Hope School in Bantu to find the 400 school children and many of their families and members of the Bantu community were also there to greet us.  The children were singing “Welcome, welcome,” and clapping when we arrived.

A local Ethiopian Orthodox Church choir performed a traditional and ancient song and dance, and then Senator Landrieu, Ambassador Jacobs, and Gary Newton spoke briefly with community elders.

Then our entire group visited some of the school’s classrooms and watched a few demonstrations of the children’s math and English-speaking skills.

It was very interesting to me to note how the school is now the focal point of the community of Bantu.  The school actually feeds the children who attend two meals a day and provides them stipends for uniforms.  At one point, I asked the Director of Buckner Bright Hope, Getahun Tesema, how many sibling groups attend the school, and he told me that only one child from each family in the community is able to attend because parents are unwilling to send all their children away from their housework.  I then asked Getahun how the school staff choose which child from a family to attend – Did they select the oldest? Youngest? Smartest? He explained to that they choose the weakest and most malnourished child in the family so they are fed the two daily meals the school offers and thus have a better chance of surviving childhood.  It was a humbling reminder to me of the vast needs families in Ethiopia face, that the school would use malnutrition as it’s guiding factor in approaching enrollment.

Ethiopia: Day One

Soon after arriving in Addis Ababa, the delegation met with the Embassy, USAID, and other high level officials involving key stakeholders in the Ethiopian orphan crisis.  CCAI will soon be releasing a full report outlining the goals, activities, and most importantly outcomes of this trip, but below are several highlights of the first days in Ethiopia.

The first morning we toured Buckner Bright Hope Ethiopia which provides services to children and families.  This organization has only been operating for several years, but has already begun transforming the community!  It was incredible to see the highest standards of care and nurturing that these children were receiving through the loving arms of Buckner Bright Hope’s staff.

Ambassador Susan Jacobs finds a loving friend who wants to snuggle during her visit to the Assessment Center.
Senator Landrieu comforts to a little child who is upset as he is about to settle into for a nap.
Jack Gerard, CCAI Board Member, with a young boy at Buckner’s Assessment Center.
Foster families from Buckner Bright Hope’s foster program

As a result of the heart-tugging and inspiring experiences of the day, we then returned to our hotel for a discussion with representatives from the Embassies of France, Italy, Spain and Belgium, as well as UNICEF Ethiopia.  The delegation then moved on to a round table prepared by UNICEF Ethiopia and USAID which brought together panelists from the full continuum of care for orphaned children in Ethiopia – ranging from institutional care, child protection, foster care, domestic adoption, and intercountry adoption.

All of these experiences and conversation are laying the foundation to promote relations between the U.S. and Ethiopia in an effort to protect orphans and vulnerable children and promote sound adoption practices.

CCAI heads to the UK to tackle orphan issues globally

As part of CCAI’s 20/20 Vision Program, I had the privilege of coordinating a congressional delegation to the United Kingdom and Ethiopia during the August recess here on Capitol Hill.  Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) led the official Congressional delegation and was joined by Ambassador Susan Jacobs, the recently appointed Special Advisor to the Department of State’s Office of Children’s Issues (reporting directly to Secretary Clinton), as well as Mr. Gary Newton, USAID’s Special Advisor for Orphans and Children.

CCAI is honored to be a part of what we believe is essential to moving Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVC) policy forward in the world by bringing the government sectors together along with the private sectors and faith-based groups.  Toward that end, CCAI and Senator Landrieu’s delegation coordinated with the Legatum Institute of London and Buckner Bright Hope of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Buckner International of Dallas Texas to create an incredible itinerary to raise awareness of the children around the globe in need of permanent, loving families.

The delegation’s visit to London was graciously hosted by Dr. Jean Geran and Natalie Gonnella at the Legatum Institute, who also launched the fabulous EACH Campaign in March, 2010.  Legatum Institute arranged for Senator Landrieu to meet with two Members of Parliament – Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick and Mr. Nick Smith – to discuss the issues surrounding orphans and vulnerable children and the legislative work of the U.S. members of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption toward finding permanency for these children.   The meeting was followed by a larger program with a panel of presenters from the United Kingdom and United States, including Secretary Andrew Mitchell, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development.

The delegation then concluded their short visit to London with a tour of the Foundling Museum, which tells the story of London’s first home for abandoned children – the Foundling Hospital.  The Foundling Hospital’s work was supported by philanthropist Thomas Coram and his friends: artist William Hogarth whose beautiful pieces grace the walls of many rooms in the museum, as well as the renowned composer George Frideric Handel who regularly played his Messiah at benefit concerts for the Hospital.  The Hospital’s care for abandoned, parentless children was cutting edge in 1739, and the historical lessons the delegation heard were quite amazing.  How far we have come since that time, but how much work still remains!

After a short but quite full day in London, the delegation was off to Heathrow Airport to catch our overnight flights to Addis Ababa where we had four more days of meetings.

-Becky Weichhand, Director of Policy