Growing up, it is essential that children receive care, and can grow strong roots within their community. That is often challenging for kids that find themselves in unstable family conditions and are in need of a foster home. The Seattle-based Mockingbird Society is working on spreading a new model to revolutionize the child welfare system.
“All of us can think of a coach, a mentor, a teacher, or someone that made a difference in our lives,” says Mockingbird Society Executive Director Annie Blackledge. For children that find themselves in an unstable family situation, finding and staying connected to these important people can be a real challenge. The Seattle-based organization, founded in 2000, made it their goal to provide a voice for foster youth, to end youth homelessness and improve the overall child welfare system.
Children are placed in the foster care system when a court determines that due to neglect at home, and being at a risk of maltreatment, physical or sexual abuse, relocation to a safer place is the better option. As of Jan. 2015, 8,400 children lived in a foster home arrangement in Washington State, and while some could stay with family members, 6,000 of these children relied on foster homes according to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The number of licensed foster homes, however, continues to decline and has dropped almost 17 percent since 2007.
The Mockingbird Society has created the Mockingbird Family Model (MFM) to make the foster experience a good one for children and foster parents. The unique foundation of the model is called a hub home, or “grandma's house” as Director of Family Programs Degale Cooper calls it. The hub home is the center of an intentional community of six to 10 foster families living in proximity to a veteran foster parent that provides 24/7 assistance, support for the family and child, as well as respite care and social activities.
“I would not have continued to be a foster parent if I did not have the experience of being a hub home provider. I would have been one of the foster families who after their first year of fostering decided not to foster any longer,” says Cooper, recalling her foster care experiences with another organization before becoming a hub home provider. The lack of resources, a support circle, proper training and immediate help can be frustrating for kids and families trying to grow and come together other during a challenging time.
The hub home is a place that kids and parents can turn to for help, and that will prevent children from having to be removed from the family during a crisis. Rather, the intention is to reach out to the hub home provider for an immediate response, which will set up both parties for success and empower them to make a brand new start – even if that means having to take a break and catch one's breath in a hub home.
The MFM is designed to help kids build lasting relationships between care providers, other families, and peers and set them up with a strong network to navigate the challenges of adulthood once they leave their foster homes.
“I know I am making a difference because families need that level of support, and that is the skill I can bring and share,” says Cooper.
The Mockingbird Family Model aims to find a quality home for kids from a variety of backgrounds and take ethnic, cultural, religious preferences as well as a possible connection to the LGBTQ community into consideration when placing a child with a family that can cater to their unique personality and provide a comfortable experience.
Blackledge, who is a foster care alumnus herself, highlights the significance of kids' placement in proximity to their siblings during the experience.
“I really believe that this model could have changed things for me. I was separated from my younger brother when I was in foster care, and I think had we been together, both of our experiences could have been very different.”
Due to the shortage of foster homes, it is not always possible to place kids with the same family, yet the MFM works on placing them in the same hub home constellation and collaborates with the families to help keep siblings connected and nourish those relationships. The organization partners with youth that were part of the foster care system to address issues and improve the overall experience for others. That includes pushing for better policies and a stronger law.
Responding correctly to crisis has been shown to be a success for staying together long-term and ensuring that kids get to remain in their communities, rather than being moved to a different location and having to start over again. The Mockingbird Society has partnered with the Milgard Family Foundation in Tacoma to implement the MFM in Pierce County, and nine hub home constellations are currently operating in this region.
While the Mockingbird Society is always looking for foster parents to join their program, not everyone can be a foster parent, yet can become a sponsor that helps finance kids' social activities like trips to the pool. The Mockingbird Society’s Inspire Luncheon will be held on Sept. 29 from 12-1:15 p.m. at the Westin Seattle Hotel, 1900 5th Ave., Seattle, where guests can enjoy a thoughtful and engaging program that highlights the power of youth voice.
While the organization has a statewide presence with youth chapters in Spokane, Yakima, Everett, Tacoma, and Olympia, they are hoping to expand even further, attract and retain dedicated foster parents and find strong allies that want to help the Mockingbird Society transform the child welfare system.
When asked what needs to change in the child welfare system, Cooper is quick to answer, “Society needs to come back together as a community. We all have some responsibility in ensuring that young people whether in foster care or they're homeless or in intact families have the support from their community to thrive and do well.”
Learn more at www.mockingbirdsociety.org or call (206) 323-5437.