Punching Holes in the Darkness: U.S. Foreign Assistance for Children in Adversity

Come Share Your Dreams
Photo Credit: Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit 9
May 3, 2013 Nashville, TN

As a boy, renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson lived on a hillside in Scotland, his family’s home overlooking a small town below. Robert was intrigued by the work of the old lamplighters who went about with a ladder and a torch lighting the street lights for the night. One evening, as Robert stood watching with fascination, his parents asked him “Robert, what in the world are you looking at out there?” With great excitement he exclaimed, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

Three years ago, CCAI set out to punch holes in the darkness. Frustrated by the fact that the United States Government, a leader in so many other areas of global concern, lacked a clear and effective strategy for reducing the number of children living without the support of a family; we started by asking why? Why was it that a value so clearly a part of the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect children had not made it into our foreign policy?  Why was such a fundamental American value, the value of family, not better represented in our programming abroad?

The more we learned, the more our concern grew. We learned that while an estimated $2 billion dollars a year was reportedly being invested in international programs focused on the care and support of orphans, little to none of this funding was being spent on preventing orphanhood. We learned that despite overwhelming scientific evidence that institutions seriously damage children, our lack of advocacy for family based care was resulting in an increasing number of children being confined to a life in them.  And perhaps one of the hardest lessons we learned: despite national experience with international adoption as a worthy and effective way of securing a safe and stable family, we watched as global leaders suggested otherwise.

And so we had a choice to make. We could stand idly by and allow the futures of millions of children be cut short by this darkness or we could punch holes in the darkness in the hopes that bringing light to these issues would inspire change. We chose the latter.  We began by educating federal policymakers on what emerging brain science tells us about how urgent the need is for global policies to better reflect the right to a family as a basic human right.  We also outlined how U.S. policies, programs and priorities might be improved to better protect this fundamental right. Finally, we hosted two national and one regional convening to engage foreign leaders in a concrete conversation on moving their child welfare systems away from orphanages and toward families.

Our Haiti Convening illustrated that it is not only possible but preferable for the Government of Haiti to focus on rebuilding its families instead of rebuilding its orphanages. Our Way Forward Project sought to stimulate dialogue among the world’s experts on both the need for family-based care but also the ways in which laws, policies and programs might be developed or expanded to support the use of family-based care for children in need of it.  And most recently, our Pathways to Permanency Project provided permanency training for 15 key leaders from Guatemala.

Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs held a hearing on the newly launched USG Action Plan for Children in Adversity (APCA).  In providing testimony to the committee, Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg acknowledged that APCA is the first ever high-level USG policy that acknowledges that children need families to thrive.  He also acknowledged that the Action Plan is a critical realigning of U.S. investments in children abroad around three key objectives, the second of which is to reduce the number of children without families.

Today, Mr. Stevenson, I felt like that lamplighter.

Mothers Making a Difference

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CCAI Executive Director Kathleen Strottman

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” I have always loved this quote and have tried to make the sentiment behind it part of the mission and work of CCAI.  If you look at what we do, hopefully one message is clear: everyone can play a role in ensuring that all children have a family to call their own. In honor of Mother’s Day, I would like to highlight the power and conviction of three amazing adoptive mothers (all I might add Angels in Adoption) who every day use what opportunities they have to make a tremendous difference for children. I am so proud to know them all and so grateful for all that they do.

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Jane Aronson

Angel in Adoption 2000

Best known as the “Orphan Doctor,” Jane Aronson is the adoptive mother of two boys, Ben and Desalegn. As the Founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO), Jane works to transform the lives of orphaned children. WWO examines the medical and developmental conditions of children who live in orphanages, and identifies immediate healthcare needs and advocates for their well-being through the Orphan Ranger Program.

As an adoption medicine specialist who has evaluated more than 4,000 children, Jane has been in private practice and serves at the Director of International Pediatric Health Services in New York City. As if these roles don’t keep her busy enough, Jane has just published a beautifully touching book, Carried in Our Hearts, which provides first-hand accounts from parents and children whose lives have been touched by adoption. The book’s title is taken directly from the mouth of a five-year-old girl, Bailey, who was adopted from china. “My mommy didn’t carry me in her tummy, she carried me in her heart,” explains Bailey.

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Deborra-Lee Furness Jackman

Angel in Adoption 2013

Recognized by the Film Critics Circle of Australia as a best actress, Deborra-Lee Furness Jackman’s stardom didn’t make adopting from her home country any easier. After encountering insurmountable challenges when trying to adopt a child from Australia, Deb and her husband, Hugh, decided to begin the process in the US.

Despite the fact that her story had a happy ending—Deb and Hugh are now the proud parents of two children, Oscar and Ava—Deb has not stopped advocating for children in Australia who do not have a family to call their own. As the founder of National Adoption Week in Australia, Deb personally calls on individuals to become champions of children without families. She is also the Director of Worldwide Orphans Foundation Australia, a World Vision Ambassador, and the Patron of the Lighthouse Foundation, an organization in Melbourne that works with homeless children.

Deb’s passion for ensuring that every child has their basic human right to a family recognized is best summed up with a quote from a column she authored in the Australian Women’s Weekly:  I can’t think of anything more important than ensuring that every child in this world has at least one person who has their best interests at heart, someone who cares about them so they know they are loved and valued.

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Nia Vardalos

Angel in Adoption 2011

Those who had the pleasure of watching Nia Vardalos star in My Big Fat Greek Wedding will be pleased to know that she is just as charming and hilarious in person as she is on screen. Nia and her husband, Ian, adopted a little girl, Ilaria, from the US foster care system. As the National Adoption Day spokesperson, Nia used her personal story to inspire thousands of other prospective adoptive parents to consider foster adoption as a wonderful way to build a family.

In her new book, Instant Mom, Nia chronicles her journey to parenthood and beyond. Perhaps the most priceless gifts that Nia bestows upon readers are honesty and humor. Nia describes the first couple of months after Ilaria became a member of her family and admits that there were many moments when the scene inside her house wasn’t picture-perfect, like when her daughter would throw her toys in frustration. But she also  describes such touching memories like when, for months, she and Ian took turns sleeping on a cot in her daughter’s bedroom so that she wouldn’t wake up afraid—they literally texted each other when the one on “cot duty” had to go the bathroom in the middle of the night! Ilaria woke up one evening to find her mom sleeping next to her and rubbed her hand against Nia’s cheek. These highs and lows are what all adoptive parents experience when they bring  a child into their family, and Nia reminds us all that this process is normal, unpredictable and, most importantly, transformative.

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On this Mother’s Day, I would like to thank all of the moms out there who started where they were, used what they had and did what they could to ensure that every child has a family to call their own. And a special thank you to my own mother who inspired me to do the same.

Former CCAI Foster Youth Intern Testifies Before Congress

This morning, former CCAI Foster Youth Intern (FYI), Talitha James, testified before Congress at the hearing Letting Kids Be Kids: Balancing Safety with Opportunity for Foster Youth. Below is Talitha’s testimony, which speaks to the importance of normalcy for children in care.

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Former FYI Talitha James (third from the left)

My name is Talitha James. I am a graduate of California State University of Fullerton, a former CCAI intern of the U.S Senate Committee on Finance and I am a former foster youth! I would like to share with you my life experiences while growing up in California’s foster care system in the county of Los Angeles. I am hopeful that this opportunity will help people within this forum to truly understand the struggle that many foster youth endure in their attempts to achieve “normalcy.”

I was declared a ward of the court at the age of two. Transitioning in and out of many foster homes became a way of life for me. I was placed into the homes of strangers who had every good intention of caring for me and became ticked off when they realized that the most important thing to me at the time were my friends, my biological family and my love for sports.

During my tenure while growing up in foster care I was not granted the opportunity to spend the night at my friend’s house because the county required that all persons over the age of 18 living in the home would have to complete and pass a background check, home assessment and sign documents that ensured they would not “run off” with me. I remember my friend wanted to know so badly why every time she invited me over to her house I declined the offer. I never told her back then the real reason why I couldn’t spend the night over her house.

Growing up in the foster care system, I felt like I was in captivity. Many times I was separated from the things that meant so much to me and the only reasoning that was given to me was, “ It’s the County rules” or  “ We have to get the County to approve.” This reference was towards the same County officials who skipped out on mandated monthly visits, placed me into foster homes that were unfit for any child to live in and overlooked my plea to play sports because it was more important for me to see a therapist. I remember the many different experiences that I had as a foster child where I would pray to God to take me off this earth because I wanted so badly not to be a foster child.

Another experience I would like to share was about a time when I wanted to play volleyball but couldn’t do so because of the unrelenting barriers that restrict foster children from being normal. As a foster child, I needed court approval to travel more than 100 miles outside of the county I resided in.  This barrier prevented me from playing sports. I went through most of my junior high school years yearning to play sports. It wasn’t until I was placed in the care of my aunt where I was granted the opportunity to play sports.  The same strict rules applied to me when my aunt became my caregiver, but she had seen my desire and allowed me to play sports. She knew that there would be consequences if anything were to happen to me while she was caring for me. I am thankful that she realized my desire to play sports and to be a part of a team was the best therapy that anyone could offer me at the time.

The late great Dr. King professed, “ I grew up in a family where love was central, and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly, mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances.” The opportunity we have here today is to offer youth in foster care, regardless of their environmental circumstances, the dream that we have always hoped for, the chance to be normal again.

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Talitha and Chairman Reichert
Talitha and Representative Joe Lewis
Talitha and Representative Joe Lewis

In his Opening Statement, Chairman Dave Reichert of the Subcommittee on Human Resources also mentioned another former FYI, John Paul Horn, and incoming FYI, Georgina Rodriguez. Reichert said the following:

Entering foster care is a life-changing experience for children. Foster children are faced with a dizzying array of changes that are anything but normal. They are separated from their parents. They are often sent to live with a family they have never met. They may start attending a new school, have to make new friends, and make new efforts to participate in sports and other activities they previously took for granted.

On top of all of this change, we know some child welfare policies have the unintended effect of making life even harder for these children. Rules may keep them from spending time with friends, participating in sports, and even getting a driver’s license or finding a summer job.

To read Chairman Reichert’s entire Opening Statement, click here.

 

Guatemala Delegation: Lessons Learned

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CCAI Executive Director, Kathleen Strottman

I remember well how I learned that when it comes to the welfare of a child, a single committed person can make a difference.  I was in my first year at law school, having just left my Jesuit Volunteer work in some of the roughest parts of Chicago, and I had the chance to sit in the courtroom of Judge Roosevelt Dorn.  Judge Dorn was feared by just about every young teenager in Inglewood because he was known for being a no-nonsense judge who would go as far as putting a status offender in prison if it meant saving them from a life of crime. That day, I saw a grandmother weep while thanking him for saving her grandson, because his unusual judicial orders to stay in school, respect his elders and take the trash out nightly had in fact worked to keep him out of trouble.  He smiled and said to her “There’s no need to thank me ma’am, I will go as far as I can to save a child. It’s why I am a judge.”

It was this lesson above all that I hoped we might impart to the 14 child welfare leaders we invited to take part in our Pathways to Permanency project.  I hoped that each of them would leave the experience knowing that they were empowered to help kids, even if doing so required that they push the limits.  Over the now 15 years I have now spent as a child advocate, I know it is those who “think outside of the box” who make the greatest change.

And I am thrilled to tell you that we succeeded.  In our last two hours together we asked our new friends to share some of the lessons they learned from this experience.  As we began this conversation I expected their replies to be things like “I learned that the United States spends $25 billion on child welfare” or “I learned that the federal agency in the U.S. that handles child welfare is called the Administration of Children and Families.”  But what emerged was much more powerful than I had imagined.  Below are just some of the lessons our delegates reported learning:

  • Institutions Harm Children:  Anyone who has ever seen Dr. Charles Zeanah, one of three lead researchers on the groundbreaking Bucharest Early Intervention Project, speak will not be surprised to learn that he had the audience in tears by the end of his presentation.  One judge said “ having seen this scientific evidence, I am clear we are hurting our children not helping them. More people in my country need to know this truth.”   CCAI has already been invited by officials in Guatemala to do a follow up training for key leaders on the harmful effects of institutions.
  • There is great value to partnership: During the panel presentation by key leaders in Texas’ Child Welfare System, one of the delegates asked what percentage of the funds the state had was used to support partnerships with community-based partners.  The entire group was clearly struck by the answer that 90 percent of the state’s funds are used in this way.  The group was equally impressed by Colorado’s success in partnering with the faith-based community to reduce the number of children in need of family.  As one government official said, “When I get back to Guatemala, I will start to look for the people who can help me, because I now know I cannot do it on my own.”
  • Children have a basic human right to a family:  After watching a hearing in the DC Superior Court and spending the day with judges from all over Louisiana, delegates noted that a major strength of the U.S. system is its adherence to the believe that children have a basic human right to a family and at some point that right supersedes a parent’s right to parent.  They were also struck by the lengths to which our legal system goes to protect that right.
  • Real reform requires the law and leadership:  In welcoming our group to the Superior Court of D.C., Judge Zoe Bush credited the federal government’s passage of the “Family Court Act” as the catalyst that started the important work seen throughout the courthouse today.  Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration of Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out to the delegation that the federal government’s focus on safety, permanence and well-being as well as the Adoption and Safe Families Act’s clear timelines are constant guides to the work that state child welfare agencies do on behalf of children.  And without exception panelists throughout the visit said that the biggest differences come from a leader who has a vision and the passion needed to make others follow. 

Delegates said these lessons are ones that will stay with them forever.

“I strongly believe that the 14 people that had the opportunity to spend this week in United States, had an experience that changed their minds, beliefs and hearts for the good of the children.  I know many of them are already applying the information and are working hard to begin with the changes that need to be done.  We know is not overnight, but we already began. “                                  -Delegate Karla  Moldanado de Molina

 

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Members of the Guatemala Delegation with CCAI Staff

 

Recap of CCAI’s Delegation of Guatemalan Officials

CCAI was honored to host a delegation of Guatemalan judges, child welfare administrators and social work professionals for a judicial and administrative child welfare training tour in the United States in April 2013. We invited these individuals to participate in our Pathways to Permanency project because of their direct involvement in the welfare of children in Guatemala.  Our hope is that this exchange will inspire these individuals to become agents of change in their own communities. 

Washington, D.C. • New Orleans• Dallas

 Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C., the delegates visited the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and received overviews on the U.S. dependency system from Presiding Judge of the D.C. Family Court Zoe Bush and the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Judge Bush gave the delegates an insider’s view of how moving to a “One Family, One Judge” court model has transformed the way they serve children and families.  The group  then observed a kinship guardianship hearing in which a grandmother sought guardianship of her three granddaughters under the protest of one of the children’s biological fathers.  Through this hearing, the delegates were able to get a better sense of how important it is to have all parties interest, but most especially the child’s, represented in court.

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Presiding Judge of the D.C. Family Court Zoe Bush speaking to the Delegation at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

While at the court they also met with D.C. judicial child welfare resource organizations including the Children’s Law Center of D.C., the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and the Child Protection Division of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. Discussions centered on the role of the attorney in child welfare, and the importance of giving voice to children, youth and parents in legal proceedings.  A presentation on social workforce capacity strengthening followed, with International Social Services – United States of America, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance and CapacityPlus. The delegation discussed the vital role of the social workforce, and how judges and lawyers can play an important role in elevating and valuing this profession in Guatemala. 

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Presentations from Children’s Law Center of D.C., the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and the Child Protection Division of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice.

On day two in Washington,   he delegates  met with Assistant Secretary George Sheldon and Commissioner Bryan Samuels at the Administration for Children, Youth and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services and were briefed on the role of the U.S. federal government in child welfare, as well as some of the major shifts in U.S. child welfare law and policy and lessons the U.S. has learned over the past several years.  This meeting was followed by a briefing by officials at the Office of Children’s Issues in the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Center for Excellence on Children in Adversity at USAID onthe role each of these U.S. agencies in intercountry adoptions and international child welfare.

While in Washington, the delegates also met with United States Congressional leaders including Senators Landrieu, Klobuchar, Menendez and Sessions, and then attended a welcome reception at the U.S. Capitol Building with local child welfare and business leaders and comments from Ambassador Francisco Villagran of the Embassy of Guatemala and Carlos Duran, Founder of Hombres de Palabra (Men of Their Word).

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Meeting with United States Senators Landrieu and Klobuchar at the U.S. Capitol.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Judicial and Systems Training

Graciously hosted by the Supreme Court of Louisiana in New Orleans, the delegation met with world renowned Doctor Dr. Charles Zeanah of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University School of Medicine.  Dr. Zeanah presented the latest brain science related to the development of children in institutional care with a focus on how interventions of family care (parenting skills training, foster care and adoption) have the ability to transform a child’s development  in the window before they are 24 months old.  He drew upon examples from his research from the Bucharest Early Intervention Study as well as his work in the United States. 

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Dr. Zeanah presenting the brain science related to the development of children in institutional care.

The delegation also participated in discussions with state child welfare administrators from Louisiana and Colorado, child welfare policy and subject matter experts focusing on the importance of data, technology and public-private partnerships.  Speakers included: Brent Villemarette, Deputy Secretary of Programs, Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services, Sharen Ford, Ph.D., Manager, Permanency Unit, Division of Child Welfare Services, Colorado Department of Human Services, Sue Badeau, Child Welfare Policy Expert, Dr. Mark Testa, Ph.D., Spears-Turner Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr. Jean Geran, Ph.D., EACH, Inc.

Several judges also lent their expertise to the trainings: Judges Guy Bradberry, Thomas Duplantier, Ernestine Gray, Patricia Koch, Madeleine Landrieu, Sharon Marchman all left their dockets to spend time sharing and learning with their Guatemalan counterparts.  The group discussed the similarities and differences between U.S. and Guatemalan laws, the importance of making timely decisions in court, systems improvement and national and local judicial leadership.

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The delegation discussing the similarities and differences between U.S. and Guatemalan laws, the importance of making timely decisions in court, systems improvement and national and local judicial leadership with Louisiana Judges and CCAI.

Dallas, Texas

Engaging in Regional Best-Practices and Implementation

In Dallas, the Guatemalan delegation first met with Texas State child welfare leaders Audrey Deckinga, Assistant Commissioner for Child Protective Services at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services; Tina Amberboy, Executive Director at the Texas Supreme Court Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families; and Pamela K. Parker, Special Projects Attorney at the Texas Department of Family & Protective Services.  They shared with the group about Texas’ past five years of reform efforts and how they as a state have made significant progress through collaborations, partnerships and policy changes.

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State of Texas Child Welfare Leaders Audrey Deckinga, Pamela Parker, and Tina Amberboy.

A highlight of the visit to Dallas for the delegates was the opportunity to hear about models of best practices in care from their colleagues in other countries in Latin America.  Esli Moreno, Coordinator of the Honduran Family Strengthening Project at the Orphan Institute Permanency Center in Honduras, Claudia Leon, Executive Director of Buckner Peru, and Dr. Cecilia Casanueva, Ph.D., Research Psychologist at Research Triangle International with a project in Chile each shared the challenges their programs operate within in each nation and the importance of best practice models and data tracking to make the case for family care of children in these nations. 

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Supreme Court Magistrate, Gustavo Mendizabal, asks a question.

Finally, the group had the unique opportunity to learn from Buckner International’s country and program directors about lessons Buckner has learned in its over 100 years of caring for children and families.  Dr. Albert Reyes, President and CEO stressed how important it was for Buckner to move from its original orphanage based model to its current community based approach which is now caring for children in 14 countries. They highlighted their Community Transformation Center and Family Pathways models, as well as shared from the non-governmental organization’s perspective on public-private partnerships. Discussions focused on how to adapt and apply best-practice models the delegation had learned about to succeed in Guatemala’s judicial and child welfare systems. 

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Group shot of the Delegation, CCAI and Buckner in front of the Maris Alumni Center.

CCAI would like to acknowledge the generous support of the GHR Foundation for the Pathways to Permanency Project.

 

Home Is Where the Story Begins

Carlos Duran is the founder of Hombres de Palabra (Men of their Word), an organization that works to help men reach their maximum potential through education, training and initiatives. Carlos is also the recipient of the White House’s 2012 Champion of Change award. On Monday evening, Carlos delivered a keynote address to the delegation of Guatemalan officials. Excerpts of his speech are included below as are pictures from this week’s meetings with the delegation. For a copy of the full speech, please email info@ccainstitute.org

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We are meeting today for a common cause. This common cause is the future of the children in our communities, and therefore the future of our nations. Because when it comes to children we are talking about the largest and most important natural resource and wealth in a nation; a richness that has to be cultivated, cared for, protected and educated so that it can reach its potential and write history.

…Our children, and the goal of providing them the environment that helps them reach their potential, should be the motivation that calls us to do the work that we have been assigned to. This week, as we look to develop programs or safety nets to protect our nation’s unprotected children, we must try to develop programs that deal with the roots of these problems. We must have a holistic approach to these problems, one that addresses the roots and the symptoms of it. 

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…Programs such as adoption and foster homes are safety net programs. What exactly is a safety net? It is a net that catches a person walking on a tight-rope, or on a trapeze, and grabs them when they fall. But a safety net has special features: first of all it is full of holes; second it is very difficult to walk or stand on; third it is very easy to get caught in, or tangled in, and is often it seem to be a trap; and fourth, it doesn’t help you achieve your goal, it only catches you when you fall.

 …If you want to succeed, you have to get back on the trapeze and learn to swing, and this is only achieved through training and practice. Every child who falls into those programs is already in a disadvantaged position and has to overcome many challenges in order to reach their potential.

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I want to emphasize three things that are important as we do our work:

First, to understand that we have been given the moral responsibility of caring for future generations, that being here today is not an accident but a call to transform the lives of thousands of children and hence generations. We have been given the public trust that we will not look out for our own interests but the interests of the children and our nation. That perhaps we will never see the fruit of our work completely because this is a work that transcends generations.

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Second, we must be clear that seeing a hungry child, helpless, without education, in poverty, ill, should not be norm, it is not right and for that reason we need to create solutions that work. Do not let your heart be hardened. Let us not, the ones called to fix the problem, be insensitive to the suffering of our children. 

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Third, be creative and be innovative. Do not settle to repeat what others do. Guatemala, Washington D.C. requires specific solutions for each city. Find allies where you have not looked before. I believe that faith-based organizations are a tool that we have not fully utilized. The basis of organizations of faith, you can call it a church, mosque or synagogue, is to serve and love your neighbor.

…Why not put some effort to equip them, train them and give them the necessary funds so they can serve the community?

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…A. Dickerson said “Home is where the story begins”. I charge you to lead by example, to go home and love your family, strive for being the role model that they are waiting for and will be eager to follow. I encourage you to fill your heart with compassion and love for your community, to be innovative, not to conform to the past. I encourage you to take upon your shoulders the trust and responsibility that has been given to you by your government, by your community and by destiny, the trust and responsibility to write history one child, one man, and one family at a time.