Monday, November 9, 2015

Foster-Care Crisis Begs for Cooperation


There are a number of organizations in the United States and around the globe that work for the betterment of foster children, but in most cases they work autonomously.

Although their primary missions are the same (to provide a safe and healthy environment for the children in their care), they lack consistent coordination and interaction with their “sister” institutions.

These organizations work hard to provide children with the best facilities and services, but they are often limited to serving the children located within their immediate physical location. Oftentimes, remote and rural areas can cover large geographic areas, placing unique and difficult demands on agencies. Additionally, those organizations located within higher-populated areas can be faced with even more complex and difficult strains on their services and resources because of higher demand.

Communication and integration between the organizations is essential to alleviate the strain and limited resources within the organizations themselves. Throughout recent history we have many examples of situations where citizens from around the world have come together to provide resources, rescue and aid to nations in distress following natural disasters. When these citizens, working in colaboration for the greater good, have come together with a united plan of attack, they have been able to put aside politcal differences and cut red tape to solve an immediate crisis.  Foster-care organizations must develop ways to set aside individual agendas, cut red tape and work in concert to solve the immediate crisis that surrounds the foster-care system in this county.

One of the ways in which the organizations can attempt to interact with one another and work in a more efficient way is through a nationwide Internet foster-care database. With advancements in communiction technology being made on an unprecedented scale, formerly remote regions are now becoming accessible. More than ever organizations can connect with one another from across the globe in a matter of seconds. A nationwide foster-care database would allow various organizations to share information, ideas and location of children. It could also help link necessary resources with the appropriate child in need regardless of where the child resided at the time.

Organizations would save money, time and resources if, through communication and the sharing of information, they could discontinue duplicate expenditures on aid for children. Care could be streamlined if a particular doctor, teacher or care-worker were able to access and provide information and services for more than one organization in mutiple locations.

When organizations put aside politcal agendas and differences and come together for the greater good to solve a problem, they can work wonders.
In this era of technology when volumes of information are at our fingertips, it would be of great help if the personal details of children in need were maintained in a secure form and shared by the right organizations so they could unite the right services with the appropriate child in need in more effective and efficient ways.

If the organizations would be willing to set aside personal agendas, join hands and cooperate with unified national database, there is no ceiling to what we could accomplish for the betterment of our children.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A New Kind of Foster Care: The Crossnore School Model

A foster child is generally defined as a child without parental support and protection, placed with a person or family to be cared for, usually by local welfare services or by court order. A true definition, but it leaves out the part where the child is no longer safe in the enviornment that as humans we are supposed to trust in the most: our families.

When these “family” units fail, children are placed in foster homes. Foster homes can take many different forms, from institutions and group homes to private homes, but a new model of “home” is emerging.

The Crossnore School is one such foster home in North Carolina. They are a nonprofit residential foster care home for children in crisis; staff provide a sanctuary of hope and healing for the children there. The school is spread across 85 acres in a beautiful area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Crossnore School not only takes care of these children but provides them with a sanctury of hope and healing.

The children who live at Crossnore, live in home-like cottages under the close supervision of two cottage parents, dedicated professionals who proivde love and assistance 24 hours a day.  However, this is not what makes Crossnore unique. They are the only residential foster care home in North Carolina that also has a public K-12 charter school, where all of their children attend.
Crossnore offers a holistic approach to treating the while child emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. Their “Theory of Change” model is unique to their organiation. Offering 19 forms of therapy ranging form family and play therapy to substance abuse and equine therapy also makes them unique.

In 2008, The Crossnore School began adopting the Sancturary Model of Care for use at its facility. This model of treatment and organizational framework for creating trauma informed communities was developed with Dr. Sandra Bloom. Crossnore is one of 100 program internationally where the Sanctury Model is applied. Using a trauma-informed basis for care in also another unique principle of the school.

The main mission of the Crossnore School is to provide complete and intensive care for the children to enable them to develop into mature, responsible adults. The children are given complete care and treatment to ensure their quality mental, physical and emotional development. Their model of treatment is unique and quite different from what is used in other foster homes in North Carolina and across the nation.

The Crossnore School works very hard to ensure the children in their care blossom to their full potential. This is why we need to take a second look at our understanding of residential foster homes or congregate care in the United States and look to Crossnore as an example of how foster care can look for the future of the nearly 400,000 children in care each year.

For more information on Crossnore, please visit their website, or connect with them on Facebook at To stay up to date with the latest from Garbage Bag Suitcase, sign up for our email newsletter at, or find us on Facebook at

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Have You Asked?

 A Simple Request for Social Workers, Counselors and Those Working with Kids
Photo Courtesy of Sophia Chefalo
For over twenty years, I said nothing. I hid my status as a foster care survivor from almost everyone I knew. The label “foster kid” had brought only negative judgment throughout my childhood, and I couldn’t think of any good reason to share this secret in my newly created life. To protect the truth about my past, I cut ties with anyone who had known that I was in foster care. And, when I embarked on my college life and then my professional career, it was a topic that I tried to avoid at all costs. I became quite good at covering up the truth. I even resorted to telling little “white lies” in order to avoid the chance that anyone would discover that I had been raised in foster care, aged out at 18, and was left to my own devices by an overwhelmed system. 
But one day in 2011, my life came to a screeching halt. After spending over twenty years working in law offices, focusing on criminal defense and divorce matters, I had become burned out at watching essentially the same kids and the same parents circulate through the system.  They had different names and faces of course, but the stories were all very similar to my own beginnings: families that were at or below the poverty line, unemployed, single parent homes, addiction issues, mental health issues.  The similarities went on and on.
Person after person reminding me of someone I had known when I was in foster care. Mirror images of my biological mother, foster parents, foster siblings, even the court staff and workers, responded the way they had when I was in the system.  It was like being stuck in my own version of the movie Groundhog Day. So, without any real plan in mind, I Googled “Foster Care Statistics.”  It changed my life. I had no idea how many children were in foster care in the United States, and I had little understanding of the horrendous job the system as a whole was doing to care for these children.
When I was in foster care, I knew of very few other foster children. At school, often in rural areas, I was not exposed to other foster children outside of the home I lived in. We had no support groups. I thought I was the exception, a broken child from a broken home. When I realized that I wasn’t alone, I knew that I had to share my story so that I could help others like me.
That’s what started this journey: a mission of educating the general public on the real effects of the foster care system, and how it effects the criminal justice system, the welfare system, the prison system, unemployment rates and the countless other facets of society that so many foster youth continue to be a part of.
In this quest I am asked almost daily by social workers, case managers, supervisors, youth ambassadors, and the like, “What was the one thing that happened that allowed you to become successful?” 
I understand why they are asking the question. I aged out of the system with no support, and yet I managed to graduate from college, establish a fulfilling career as a legal professional and life coach, and now have a wonderful family of my own. I understand that they are curious to know if there is one thing that could be repeated to make success happen for other youth trapped in the system.  But there is only one thing I can point to that allowed my life to turn out the way it has, while so many others struggle: I had a stubborn belief in myself.  I knew that I would make it, no matter what life threw at me. And, I refused to let anyone take that belief away from me.
Now, I challenge those working in the system to ask tough questions, “Have you asked your children what they need or what they want out of life?” I often find that case workers are so busy filling out forms and answering telephone calls that they often forget to actually ask that simple question of the children they oversee.
In my practice as a life coach, I counseled with a social worker to help her move through a difficult point in her life. As we chatted, she made a comment that she felt trapped in her job because she did not have the resources to help even a small portion of the children on her caseload. She lamented that when she asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up and they said “a doctor, lawyer or veterinarian,” she knew that those types of jobs where unobtainable for them given their circumstances.  
Initially, I was caught off guard by her comment. “How come they can’t be those things?” I asked.
“Well, you have a student who is failing most of their classes, and who is not able to do their current work. How are they ever going to be able to become a doctor, it’s unrealistic?”
I thought for a moment about what she was saying. It was something I saw a lot in the court system. “Why is it your job to tell them no?” I asked. She sat for a moment staring at me. While we sat in silence, I couldn’t help but wonder why any of us thought we were in a position to tell someone they couldn’t do something. I had been told as a straight “A” student in high school that people like me don’t go to college, instead we get jobs to serve the rest of the world.
Instead, isn’t it our job to encourage the dream? After all, for children living in the foster care system, they hear “No” more than anything else.  They hear things like “You can’t do that,”  or, “You can’t be that” from a lot of people. As a society, we should be the ones to say, “That’s a really big goal, and this is how you can do it!”
So, I challenge you. Have you asked yourself, your family, your co-workers or the children, what their big dream is? What they would do if they could do anything in the world? Have you asked?

This article originally appeared as an OpEd piece for Youth Today. To learn more about my work please visit and sign up for my newsletter and blog notifications.

Thursday, July 16, 2015



Before we reform the Criminal Justice System, we need to take a closer look at the Foster Care System

  Earlier this week, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people who he said were serving sentences disproportionate to their crimes. They were all serving time for drug-related offences. After he commuted their sentences, President Obama called for reform to the criminal justice system. He was quoted as saying, “In far too many cases, the punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.”
            President Obama is calling for a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system. This would entail a federal review of solitary confinement, the restoration of voting rights to former felons, and the passage of a sentencing reform bill by Congress.
            I agree with the President. The criminal justice system has been out of balance for a long time. As a nation, we must face the fact that while we represent roughly 5% of the world’s population, the United States makes up 25% of the worlds total prison population. Simply put, we imprison our citizens at a higher rate than any other nation!
            I believe that there is more to the issue than simply passing sentencing-reform bills. We need to understand who is in prison, and why. Where do these prisoners come from? On a personal and socio-economic level, what if anything do they have in common? When asked about prisons and inmates the average American believes in generalizations like the idea that inmates come from low-income households, raised by single mothers from urban areas. It's stereotyping at its best. However, there is one common thread that (in some estimations) unites over 80% of the United States prison population: at one point in their lives, they were all foster children!
            We have known for decades about the foster-care-to-prison pipeline, yet we continue to do nothing to address the source of the problem. For decades, politicians have called for reform to the criminal justice system, the prison system, and increased spending on law enforcement. While at the same time, our society continues to cut programs in schools, sports and extra-curricular activities for children. It seems, that music, art and social wellbeing aimed at single parent households and children are the first to go.
In tough economic times, families struggle to make ends meet. Many times they are unable to provide for their children. Desperation can lead to bad choices and result in the system taking control of their children. With over 400,000 children currently in foster care, we are at a point of critical mass. Caseworkers are overwhelmed. Qualified foster parents are in short supply. Sometimes, we remove children from a situation only to place them in a new home that is no better than where they came from. Without a review and overhaul of the foster-care system, we may never see the results in the criminal justice system that we so desperately want and need. 
            Over the years, my husband, a criminal defense attorney, has dealt with many people in crisis. He has expressed his frustration at how difficult it is to get out of the system, once it gets it grip on a person. Many times, with costs, fines and conditions of probation, single parents are set up to fail. He understands that the system itself, from judges, public defenders, prosecutors and probation officers are overwhelmed. He says that it could be as simple as “without demand, there is no need for supply.” He is referring to the cheap heroin that is overtaking our small Northern Michigan community.
            After there was a crackdown on the ability for people to get prescriptions for serious pain medications, they resorted to the purchase of illegal narcotics. With that increased demand, there was a flood of small time drug dealers willing to satisfy their need. Thus, without the demand, there would be no suppliers.

            Applying this simple economic principle, if we create reform designed to eliminate the conditions in our society that impact impoverished parents, help restore educational programs, and address the theories of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) study, we will produce fewer desperate families and thus less of a potential supply for the foster care and criminal justice system.