Monday, December 28, 2009

Childhood Stability

I'm not really the type that frequents bars, much less on a cold Sunday night in December. I'm more of a homebody and prefer hanging out with good friends and family. However, as I headed out of my house last night, I was looking forward to seeing friends from grade school that I hadn't seen in 20 years. Twenty-something of us had been together nine months a year, five days a week from the time we were in first grade until we went to high school. That's a lot of togetherness.

Last night those of us who gathered relived our years in Catholic elementary school in Cincinnati, Ohio. We laughed a lot.

"Remember third grade when you got your legs stuck in the desk after you sat in it backwards and the principal had to cut you out of it with a saw?"

"Remember when you got me suspended in eighth grade after you dared me to climb the ladder that went to the roof of the school?"

"Remember when the boys got into a fist fight after school in sixth grade? They hit each other, started crying, then shook hands."

"Remember when you got a demerit for modifying the announcements on the school PA to include a message in the office for Tinkerbell?"

The remembering went on for several hours and we laughed ourselves sick. But it wasn't all fun and games.

We toasted our classmate, Warren, who is forever age 10 after dying from cancer when we were in fourth grade. We talked about the Dad's Club fall out in seventh grade, when a bunch of parents fought over whether there would be one or two boys' basketball teams. We remembered how, in 1983, the school brought in professional counselors to talk to us about our feelings. We were a small class. We had one classmate die and another diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease. In the middle of that, my classmates came to my childhood home one evening a week before Christmas to sing carols for my father, who died of cancer a week later on Christmas Day.

We saw some tough times, but we saw them together. Nine months a year, five days a week.

As I drove home last night, I thought about what a gift it is to be anchored, to experience stability in childhood when things change rapidly, without warning. People get sick. People die. People can be cruel and so can life. But in relationships with others, we find our way around the tough stuff and can emerge better people because of it.

I'm grateful for the anchoring my classmates and my school gave me from the time I was 6 until I was 14. It helped build the foundation for my future. But I also think about the children who aren't so lucky to experience this kind of stability, like foster children who move from home to home and school to school regularly. I think about how they lack relationships, the one thing that can really help them heal when life hands them devastation.

If you are so inclined, think back to those who offered you stability in your own childhood and thank them for it. They gave you a vital gift. And if you are so inclined, consider how you can become or help find stability for foster children who aren't quite so fortunate.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Looking Beyond the Least Bad Alternative

In 1994 I attended a mandatory training session for child welfare workers during which we argued the pros and cons of both foster care and keeping kids with abusive or neglectful parents. I remember thinking if I had to choose a side, I would probably come down on the side of keeping biological families together. The familiar is better than the unknown and no matter what, abused and neglected children always longed to be with their parents.

Fast forward about six years. By 2000, I had seen too many parents fail at keeping their kids safe and fail at reunification, but not before their children were too old to have a larger pool of adoptive homes to choose from. My heart always broke for the kids we could have saved at a age 2, but didn't set free for adoption until they were 8 or older and their behaviors were too scary for adoptive parents to consider. As time passed, I more often came down on the side of foster care and a commitment to fostering stability for a child.

I'm not the only one who changes sides on this issue. The system seems to favor one side until too many children are hurt, and then it sways to the other. It has always been this way.

Right now Los Angeles County is swaying toward the biological parent side. An LA Times article introduces us to Darlene Compton and her son, Jontay. Darlene has an extensive history of substance abuse and is not parenting her five older children. To her credit, she has some sobriety under her belt now and is caring for two-year-old Jontay with a significant amount of assistance from Children's Services. You can read all about Darlene and Jontay HERE.

What struck me about this article was a comment regarding the return of children to compromised parents as being the "least bad alternative". I'm familiar with this concept and write about it passionately in my book, Invisible Kids. Too often, social workers and others are forced to choose the least bad alternative for foster kids. Foster care isn't always good. We know that from the story of Marcus Fiesel and many other children. Remaining with biological family isn't always good either, as little Trustin Blue taught us.

As a mom, if someone gave me the choice between two bad alternatives for my child, would I accept one or would I exhaust every opportunity looking for something better? I think I would go the ends of the earth to find another option. I think you would too if it was your child.

So why don't we forget about the two bad alternatives for so many foster kids and start looking for a third? I don't think we'd have to look too hard to find it. It is right under our noses.

We are the alternative. Jontay's chance for stability and success largely depends on the support he and his mother receive not from the government, but from the community they live in. The most successful families are rooted in support systems. The kids who have done the best transitioning from foster care back to biological families have foster parents who remain involved as a support to biological parents. And in these cases when reunification fails, these children don't suffer nearly as much. They may lose their primary caregiver, but they still have attachments and a sense of belonging. Both are critical to the lifelong success of every child.

Someday the government will stop showering Darlene with the supports and services that enable her to maintain her sobriety and care appropriately for her little boy. What will happen then? And if she fails, will Jontay be young enough and free from emotional problems to find an adoptive family?

I sincerely hope Darlene and Jontay make it. I also hope we start thinking about how we can bridge the gaps and become the safety nets for kids like Jontay. There are far too many who need us to join this discussion and find better solutions.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Truth Hurts

Sometimes truth is brutal. Sometimes it's so horrific we want to turn away. Sometimes we think we are not strong enough to handle it and we forget that we're only asked to hear a story, not to live it. Living it would be much, much worse. Please, don't turn away just yet.

Meet 17-month-old Peter, who (I believe) rests in the arms of angels after a short life of complete and utter torture at the hands of his mother's boyfriend. The attached video is less than six minutes long and paints a picture of a life story that none of us want to hear or see. I challenge you to view it.

I asked you to do this because kids like Peter and Marcus Fiesel need you to know their stories. Not so you can be devastated and feel helpless, but so you can do whatever you can to make sure another child doesn't suffer abuse and neglect to the point of death. There is nothing that we cannot do when we come together around a common cause. Nothing. So if the foster care or legal systems need to be re-made so children do not suffer, we can do that. It won't be done by social workers, judges or other professionals alone. It can only be done by all of us.

But we can't do it if we are not willing to come face to face with the stories and to be moved to action. I know it is uncomfortable and sad to hear about children suffering. I also know that nothing in this world is more gratifying than working to bring their suffering to an end.

You can do this. You can watch this video. If you can't bring yourself to do it, I understand, but that doesn't mean you can't do something to help. You can visit and learn how to make a difference in the life of a child like Peter or Marcus who we still have a chance to save.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Doctor's Faith Guides Work with Maltreated Children

For every bad story about a child mistreated in foster care, I stumble across a great story about people dedicated to helping them. For every darkness that casts a shadow over vulnerable little lives, someone, somewhere is working to make things better.

Meet Dr. Phillip Scribano from New Albany, Ohio. He is the medical director of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. You can read about the two health-care programs he has implemented here. One involves coordinated medical care for foster children. The other involves home visitation and outreach to mothers with children under age two. Both are promising practices, no doubt changing the lives of the children served and strengthening their futures.

Many children in foster care lack comprehensive, consistent medical care with doctors who know their histories. There are lots of different reasons for this. Children move from foster home to foster home and change caseworkers frequently. Each transition increases the likelihood of important information getting lost. As a former Children's Services caseworker, I seldom had updated medical records on a child when I received a new case.

Once as a Guardian Ad Litem I came across a medical report in the file of a new case I had just received. It involved a baby who had been scheduled for an MRI. When I contacted the foster parents, they indicated they had taken him for the MRI but assumed the caseworker would tell them if they needed any further follow up. When I talked to the caseworker, she had assumed the foster parents would be contacted by the doctor if follow up was needed. These are the cracks through which the medical care of foster children fall. Within days, thanks to a big-hearted pediatrician (probably one a lot like Dr. Scribano), the foster baby was seen and treated accordingly.

What I love about Dr. Scribano's story is that he talks about how his faith guides his passion. I know what he means. So do you. It is that feeling of being driven to be part of something bigger than just ourselves, of giving because we know that there is no greater purpose for our life. It is taking the skill you have, whether you are a doctor, social worker or everyday, average American and using it to make the life of a child better. There are so many ways to help these vulnerable children. Visit or read Invisible Kids: Marcus Fiesel's Legacy to learn how.

This Thanksgiving, this is what I'm grateful for. I'm grateful for the thousands of people across our country who have dedicated their lives to helping foster children. And I'm grateful that you are considering joining them.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Booming Voice for Foster Children

The first time I met Bishop WC Martin, I was taken in by the look in his kind eyes. Although we are physically close in height, it felt like he towered over me with his life experience and heart for foster children. We couldn't look more different. He is a black Southern Preacher old enough to be my grandfather. I'm a white, thirty-something mother of three and social worker. He is boisterous and I'm a little more reserved. He's been a guest on Oprah, 48 hours, and other national media venues. My media exposure has been mostly local. He doesn't seem to worry about what people think of him. I tend to second-guess myself more than is probably healthy.

He shook my hand warmly and introduced himself, leaning in to catch my name. He and I were both keynote speakers at a conference last Spring. After his address I passed him on my way to the podium. We had a minute to talk and I couldn't resist asking if he had any last-minute tips for me before I took the stage. When he speaks, people listen. He looked me in the eye and said, "I'm just a poor country boy from the backroads of Texas. I speak from my heart. You do the same and you will be fine." I took the stage and finished my address to the sound of resounding applause. "Good work, my friend," he said as we walked out together.

Bishop Martin and I crossed paths again last week. He was in Cincinnati to address pastors and other church leaders in our area with the goal of motivating them to get involved with foster care and adoption. Midway through his passionate speech he stopped, took a deep breath and said, "Everyone one of you in here has a responsibility for a child lost in the system." He talked of passing the buck, closing our eyes and turning away from children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents. Enough is enough.

This is exactly the message church leaders needed to hear and I was thrilled to have someone like Bishop Martin deliver it. To read John Johnston's Cincinnati Enquirer article about Bishop Martin's address, click here. It is a great piece and really captures the message.

Bishop Martin and I autographed our books (mine is Invisible Kids) for the attendees. After the crowd was gone, we packed up and headed out the door. He was returning to his home in Possum Trot, TX and I was on my way to guest lecture at a university. As we parted ways, I found myself wondering when we would cross paths again, and I hoped it would be soon.

To catch a glimpse of this great man and his life's work, please visit or check out his book, Small Town Big Miracle.

To learn more about the Coalition of Care and the 28 churches coming together around the needs of foster care, please visit

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Long After We Are Gone

I’m a people person. I really like people (most of them, anyway). I think they are fascinating and can always teach me something. I often wonder what I can learn from each person who crosses my path.

So it comes as no surprise that I get a lot of energy from speaking engagements and book signings. I just returned from giving the keynote address at the Indiana State Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Conference. I’ve met hundreds of CASAs across the country and they never fail to amaze me with the passion, dedication, and perseverance they bring to their volunteer work. I always say CASAs are among my favorite people. I found the Indiana CASAs to be no different.

Immediately following my keynote address I started autographing books. The line was long and I was trying to move people through while also staying present and thanking each person. As I looked up to greet and thank the woman in front of me, she leaned over the table a little, as if she was about to tell me something important. I listened.

“I’m 70 years old and I am a CASA. I lived in foster care from the time I was six years old until I was grown.” She paused and drew a deep breath. “Back in those days, I saw a caseworker once a year when she would bring me a box of old clothes and tell me that it would have to last until she returned again.” I noticed tears forming in her eyes behind thick glasses, her hand on the table between us, steadying her weight as she spoke. She continued.

“Things are different now. Caseworkers and people visit a lot more.”

I’m not sure what I said in return. I could tell you I said something brilliant, but who knows? I did squeeze her hand and thank her for volunteering. And she moved on.

If I hadn’t had a long line of people waiting behind her, I would have loved to ask her what it was like being a foster child in the 1940s and 1950s. I wonder what she remembers, and if the memories are good or bad?

What I took away from our brief encounter was a reminder that childhood memories stay with us for decades, long after we become adults and make our way in the world.

It is powerful to know that we can make a lasting impact on a child for years if we choose to get involved and work to make a difference. How wonderful to realize that one act of kindness just might be seared into memory and recalled at a much later time, long after we are gone.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Katie's Chance at a Childhood

A close friend of mine began fostering a fourteen-month-old little girl named Katie* not too long ago. Confidentiality prevents me from giving any identifying information about this sweet little baby, so bear with me as I try to paint a picture of her that makes sense. Malnourished, severely neglected and grossly delayed, Katie came into foster care with simply a name, a date of birth, a t-shirt and diaper. I met her that night. She sat on the floor next to her foster mother, her dull green eyes lost in a world all of her own and her soft, curly brown hair reeking of cigarette smoke despite a warm bath and clean jammies.

By morning, there was a case of diapers and some board books from the neighbor down the street who heard of her arrival. Later came gifts of clothes and a "security blanket" from friends. Several months later, random gifts for Katie continue to appear, courtesy of extended family and friends.

Material items weren't only the benefits Katie received. Thanks to the proactive work of her foster mother, within two weeks she had referrals for developmental assessments. She also had her first doctor's appointment: she had never seen a doctor before.

While other kids her age were building vocabularies of hundreds of words, Katie didn't know she had a voice. I was lucky enough to be with her the night discovered she could make noise. Silent for weeks, she suddenly began mimicking an older child. She opened her mouth as wide as she could and sound poured out. She was amazed and delighted as she soaked up the encouragement of her small audience. Katie came alive that night, and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. She is making great gains and has recently started crawling. When she arrived in foster care at age thirteen months, professionals diagnosed her development at age four months.

I've heard foster parents talk about when their foster babies "woke up." It seems one day, after a considerable amount of love, stability and plenty of nurturing, abused or neglected babies decide that just maybe the world is worth engaging. They start to interact with their caregivers and begin exploring their surroundings and their own abilities. However, I've never had the joy of seeing this unfold. Until now.

Kids like Katie are the ones saved by foster care and by selfless, loving people who put their hearts on the line and open their homes to children who need a safe place to land in the middle of the night. I can't imagine a more fulfilling or more potentially heartbreaking role than one of a foster parent. Little Katie was fortunate enough to be placed in a safe foster home with a foster mother completely devoted to her. She is a lucky little girl, no doubt. Those of us who have come to love her are lucky too.

If you are not in a position to foster, there are many other ways to help our most vulnerable children. Foster parents are so grateful for the support they receive from a wider community. If you know a foster parent who is doing a great job, please thank them. They are saving childhoods everyday.

I wish I could post a picture of Katie with her bright eyes and wide grin, but again, confidentiality is necessary. I wish you could see how her face lights up or hear how she babbles non-stop now. I also wish I'd taken her picture the first night she was placed in foster care. What a difference! No matter what the future holds for Katie, today she is showered with love and affection coupled with services like physical and speech therapy to help her catch up. She is finding her voice and her place in this world. And for today, that is all that matters.

*name has been changed to protect her identity.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Amy Baker Outrage

Amy Baker is considered a household name in Greater Cincinnati. When the story of murdered foster child Marcus Fiesel took the area by storm, Amy Baker was front and center in a twisted nightmare that seemed to belong on an episode of Jerry Springer instead of on the front pages of our local paper.

She and her three kids were living in Marcus' foster home at the time of his death. Amy was the live-in girlfriend of foster parents Liz and David Carroll. During Liz Carroll’s murder trial, Amy testified that she and David had burned the remains of Marcus’ body and dumped them into the Ohio River. For those of you just tuning in and wanting to know the full story, click here.

Amy never served prison time for her participation in the death of Marcus. She was offered immunity in exchange for giving prosecutors information about Marcus’ disappearance. I interviewed Hamilton County Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier for my book, Invisible Kids. Over coffee he seemed thoughtful and chose his words carefully when the subject came to Amy. He believed we might still be looking for Marcus if not for her confession.

Say what you want about Amy. People in Clermont County put signs in their front yards telling her to leave their community. That’s fine. They are entitled to their opinions and their outrage. But perhaps their time and energy could be better spent by putting up signs encouraging foster parenting. Maybe the signs could read, “Four thousand kids in Ohio will go to bed tonight awaiting adoption. No one has stepped up to love them forever.”

I digress. Amy Baker was back in court recently regarding the custody of her own three children, two girls and a boy. They were 6, 5 and 3 respectively in August 2006 when Marcus died and they were placed in foster care. Ten months later, in June 2007, they had changed foster homes three times.

It has been two years since then. How have they fared? Are they together? Have they been safe in foster care? And why does it take our judicial system so painfully long to make decisions about permanency for children who’ve experienced abuse, neglect and significant trauma? And more importantly, when are we as a community going to figure out better systems for protecting our children? If we wait for the government to fix itself or come up with something better, we’ll be waiting a long time.

On August 29, 2009 Amy Baker and her estranged husband, Brian, signed permanent surrenders on each of their three children. This means their parental rights have been severed and the kids can be placed adoptively. They are 9, 8 and 6 now. Who will adopt them? Will they be adopted together or will they lose each other forever? What kind of emotional needs will they have after enduring early childhood trauma?

In Hamilton County, Ohio, adoption subsidies that help adoptive parents with the care and cost of raising adopted children have just been reduced due to budget cuts. Post adoption services, such as therapy, have been eliminated. Who is going to step up and have the financial means and community support to adopt three innocent, blameless children? I hope and pray someone does.

If and when that happens, I hope the rest of us can get past our anger and outrage and find ways to support the loving foster and adoptive parents who are brave and kind enough to do what the rest of us won’t.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back To School

It's back to school time at my house, and three kids equal three different buses each 45 minutes apart. Looking for a positive spin on this, I thought it be great to have time with each child individually every morning. I hadn't thought about what would happen if we missed a bus, particularly the first one.

However, this is exactly what happened on the first day of school. As the back of the bus grew smaller and smaller until it vanished, all I could see was this nightmare domino effect wreaking havoc on the rest of the morning. It played out in my mind in slow motion as my oldest daughter and I stared at each other. How does Kid Number Two make Bus Number Two if I drive Kid Number One to school? And what about Kid Number Three still asleep? He's too little to stay home alone. Panic set in. Note to self: make sure husband does not leave for work early on the first day of school.

For eight years, school buses retrieving the Schlaack kids have picked up at the same corner. I never considered this might change some day. Sure enough, the bus pass had the new location right on the front. I was so entrenched in the way it had been that I didn't even see what was written in black and white.

So as I stood on the corner wondering what in the world we were going to do, one thought flashed through my mind so fast I'm a little surprised it even registered. "Is this what it is like for foster kids?" Things change in their lives constantly with no warning. And unlike for me, it is not even written down for them where they can see it, if only they would read it.

Many foster children enter up to three different schools during the course of one school year because they move around so much. Foster parents aren't required to attend parent-teacher conferences or participate in the educational process for foster children. Some foster parents do these things and more. Far too many don't.

Can you imagine not laying eyes on the school your preschooler attends each day? Four-year-old Trey was placed in foster care after his mother overdosed on heroin. His foster mother had never been to his school, had never seen his classroom or met his teacher. As his Guardian Ad Litem, I never felt right about this. Still, Trey stayed in this foster home because his basic needs were being met and we had no reason to move him and no guarantee he would land somewhere better.

If your kids are back in school and you have some time on your hands, think about how you might give some of it to help a foster child. Tutoring or volunteering at schools or non-profits are all good ways to give back to children who really need you in their corner. You might even consider giving the greatest gift of all: opening your heart and home to a child who desperately needs someone to love and protect him or her, and attend parent-teacher conferences. To learn more about fostering, click here.

As for our first day of school, we got lucky. Our wonderful neighbor who works at the middle school was heading out the door just as we were coming around the corner. Disaster avoided. The kindness of a neighbor in my small community put our morning back on track. I think that is exactly what will put our foster kids back on track too.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

From One Mother to Another

"Becoming a mother makes you the mother of all children. From now on each wounded, abandoned, frightened child is yours. You live in the suffering mothers of every race and creed and weep with them. You long to comfort all who are desolate." -Charlotte Gray

Maybe it was the mother in me who led me to choose the career I have. My second child, Grace, was just ten weeks old in 1998 when I started working as a Guardian Ad Litem in Juvenile Court. By day I represented the best interests of abused and neglected infants and toddlers. By night I held my baby and her older sister, Hanna, a little closer and a little longer, desperately wishing that all children could be so loved and protected. And when the guilt over working outside the home crept in, I reminded myself that "my other kids" needed me just as much as my own did.

Each significant moment in my life is measured against my children. My youngest, Ben, had just turned four when a little boy named Marcus Fiesel was reported missing. I watched Ben play with his toy dinosaurs as the evening news flashed the details of the three-year-old foster child. As a mother, I wanted to go join the search for Marcus who was supposedly missing in a park. As a Guardian Ad Litem with a caseload of abused and neglected infants and toddlers, I couldn't help but fear the worst. If he was in foster care, Marcus had already been lost once: lost in a world where social workers took him from his mother because she was unable to care for or protect him. Now he was lost again.

This week marks the third anniversary of the day when Marcus' foster parents locked him in a closet and left him home alone. This week marks the day he died, wrapped in a blanket and packing tape in the sweltering heat of a closet. Three years ago, the remains of his body were dumped in the Ohio River.

When the news reports of Marcus' disappearance and death started flowing in, I immediately focused my attention on supporting my Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) as we digested the news and ensured the safety of each of the 60-plus infants and toddlers we jointly represented. By day, we double- and triple-checked on each of "our kids" and their foster homes. By night, I soaked up the presence of my three kids. I watched Ben sneak into my bed in the middle of the night and for once I let him stay there, as I stroked his hair and cheek while he and my husband slept and I wept.

From one mother to another, I need to tell you that foster children like Marcus still exist in every corner of every community across America. The pieces that come together to build their futures exist in mothers' hearts just like yours. Happy endings do exist for some foster kids, but only when adults come together to make them happen. These children need each and every one of us now more than ever.

This is why I wrote Invisible Kids. To get a glimpse into the worlds of young foster children like Marcus Fiesel, pick up a copy . You will be amazed, heartbroken and uplifted by the stories it contains. Or, check out to get educated and get involved, or to order the book.

Because once you are a mother, it is harder than ever to turn away from children who need you the most.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Community Helps Foster a Bright Future for Former Foster Child

I admit it. I've been getting discouraged. I've been following the trail of devastation that budget cuts will leave on foster children. It's not pretty. A nagging little voice in my head has been asking if people really do care. I wasn't sure. But happily, I got a resounding YES when I read about a foster child success story. And it's even out of Cincinnati.

Susan Zaghlool became a ward of the state at age 12 and remained in care until she was an adult. Today, she is a twenty-something-year-old woman who just graduated with her doctorate in pharmacy. She got by with a little help from her friends, who came in the form of various guardian angels. Some were paid child welfare professionals. Many were not. All were decent people willing to give a hand to a young girl who was on her own at age 18. Read HERE about Susan and the average community citizens who helped her.

We can take a lesson from mentor John Kasak and his wife, Audrey, who have mentored Susan and been a part of her life for years, helping her with college applications and budgeting money, among countless other tasks. Or Barbara and Marshall Grimes, who gave Susan a scholarship for school, along with care packages of homemade cookies and Christmas gifts to let her know she is supported and loved.

These interventions are the kinds that mean the difference between success and failure for foster children like Susan who do not have family to fall back on. Can you be a mentor? A care- package-maker? Can you help a foster child shop for a car or file their taxes? Surely there is something you can do to help a kid who is trying to make it. The help you give strengthens kids like Susan and builds communities of people who take care of each other.

And that doesn't cost our crumbling government system anything.

To learn more about Hamilton County's Foster Care Enrichment Council, visit The Foster Child Enrichment Council. To mentor a foster child, visit Cincinnati Youth Collaborative . To be an advocate for a foster child, visit Prokids.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tales of Two Seven-Year-Olds

My son Ben will be seven years old next month. After two weeks of a very loose tooth, it's finally under his pillow while he awaits the arrival of the legendary fairy. For at least a week, his cousins, aunts and uncles asked him when he would finally part with this tooth that's been hanging by a thread. There was even a bribe of five dollars from Ed's brother, who thought it would be best to get it out as opposed to the devastation of losing it at some random time. No such luck.

But last night out it came. There were high fives in the air all around the pool as the uncles manned the grill and the cousins swam.

Another little boy named Gabriel Myers turned seven-years-old last January. I wonder if he ever had a loose tooth? Did anyone notice if he did? Did he ever hear about the tooth fairy? Did he ever experience Sunday dinner with a family?

Gabriel Myers was a Florida foster child. Child welfare professionals were alerted to his arrival shortly after his birth. He was two days old when his mom was crushing up pills and snorting them in the hospital where he was born. Six years later, he and his dog were found in the back of his mother's car in 2008. She was passed out on drugs in the front seat. He likely lost his dog when he was placed in a foster home.

He bounced around in between relatives and foster homes until April 15, 2009. On that day, he was sitting in the lunchroom at school alone with his head bent down. A therapist walked toward him and he grabbed her hand. "My tummy hurts. I want to go home."

What home did he mean? His foster home? His grandparents home? His aunt and uncle? His former foster home?

We will never know what home he meant, although it is pretty clear from his child welfare file that he never had the kind of home where his extensive emotional and behavioral needs could be managed. He had been physically and sexually abused and was on multiple medications.

On April 16, 2009 seven-year-old Gabriel hanged himself with an extendable showerhead in the bathroom of his foster home. At age seven, Gabriel was done with this world and his life. You can read all about his journey in foster care Here.

In Florida, child welfare professionals and others are doing everything they can to review his case, look to see if and where blame lies, set new policies and laws and all the other things we do when children die in foster care.

But it is not enough and it will never be enough until average moms and dads, aunts, uncles and cousins embrace these foster children who are traumatized and so very needing and vulnerable.

As hard as it will be, please take 15 minutes and read the attachment detailing Gabriel's life and death. Take a step into the world of this little boy with the hurt tummy who wanted to go home. Think about the 500,000 children in foster care who desperately need all the support, advocacy and love they can possibly get. When you're done reading, drop me a line or two with your comments.

And if you are lucky enough to have a tooth-fairy-believing little one in your life, hold him a little closer and know that you make his world better and his future brighter if you join the ranks of people across our nation who have vowed to improve the lives of foster children.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Recent Speaking Engagement

Not too long ago I was a guest speaker for a very intimidating group. I've spoken to groups as large as 700 people before and done radio shows broadcast to thousands without much trouble, but this particular group made me feel like I was back in third grade giving my first oral report. I entered the building, putting one foot in front of the other as if I was heading to a prison cell to serve out a very long sentence. Finally I arrived at my destination. Seventy sets of eyes were cast on me. These eyes belonged to sixth-graders.

I had come to their school to talk to them about foster children. Their Religion Teacher had read my book, Invisible Kids, and was convinced that everyone could do something to help, even other children. I wasn't entirely sure of this at first, but agreed to come anyway. In the days prior, I wondered what to say to them. Striking a balance between being realistic about the challenges foster children face while not overwhelming my pre-teen audience could be a challenge.

We started by discussing what they would take with them if they had to leave their homes. After some interesting chatter, we easily moved into the topics of living with strangers, how hard that would be and what it would be like to not know day to day what life might bring. We talked about the gifts of kindness and friendship and how important it is to welcome newcomers, because you never know what troubles the person sitting in the desk next to you is facing. Life can be hard sometimes. We get through it by helping each other.

My hour with the kids flew by and as I left the school, I thought maybe I should consider being a teacher when I grow up. I enjoyed them.

Several weeks later a fat envelope arrived from the students. When I opened the package I sat quietly and read each and every letter from all seventy students. "When I get older I think I would like to have a job where I could help kids who need me." "Thank you for telling us about foster children. I didn't know there are so many children who need loving families." "My family has started including foster children in our prayers at night." The comments went on and on.

In a world where there is often more bad news than good, it is good to be reminded that as long as we keep trying, as long as we keep sending out a little good every day, we are bound to have an impact sometime. It is much more pleasant to live this way than to throw our hands up in the air, turn our backs and curse the darkness.

I guess their wise teacher was right. She knew all along that even children can do something to help foster children. Someday, these sixth graders, along with millions of others, will step into their futures and leadership roles. And when they do, how wonderful it would be if we nurtured their hearts to care for the vulnerable, the lost and forgotten.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Is Cincinnati near The Tipping Point?

I'm reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell right now. My brother-in-law, the eternal entrepreneur who is forever giving me ideas on how to boost book sales, passed it along and suggested I read it. The back cover reads, "The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire." One more drop in the bucket and the floodgates open.

One more drop hit the bucket this week in Cincinnati, Ohio. Actually, three more drops.

The three drops are a nineteen-year-old mother, her nine-month-old son and a three-year-old toddler she was babysitting. All were found shot dead inside her home, apparently the victims of a domestic violence altercation between the mom and her boyfriend. Just in case you are thinking, "Come again? Really?", I'll repeat it. Someone shot a baby in the head. A baby. And his mother. And the three-year-old she was babysitting.

Certainly nothing magic about that. But stay with me here, I'm going somewhere with this.

Watching the news tonight, (I have to stop doing that before going to bed!) something was very different than in many homicide cases in Downtown Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine. Most times residents and others look the other way. When the police knock on doors and search out information, they are met with silence. Many crimes go unreported and even more remain unsolved. Not this time.

People are speaking out. They are pushing past their fear or whatever held them back before. They seem to be saying, Enough is enough. We will no longer look the other way. We will stand together and stare down this evil. We want a better life for our children and our families.

Maybe this is the social behavior that can spread like wildfire and result in a coming together of our communities. Maybe the rest of us can find that courage and passion and do the same for the foster children who live in every area of our city and the struggling families who need our help and support.

Dare I say, I think Cincinnati is on the verge of a Tipping Point. And not a moment too soon.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Rare Gift

Life handed me one of those rare gifts a couple of weeks ago when I was reunited with a young man I had known 15 years ago.

He was five years old when I removed him from his drug-addicted, neglectful mother. I was his Children's Services worker at the time. I vividly recall finding him home alone in the middle of the day, with no food and clutter strewn throughout the apartment. The police were called and his mother was arrested as I received an emergency order of custody from a magistrate, allowing me to place him in foster care. I strapped him in the back of my white Ford Taraus and delivered him to an emergency foster home in Cincinnati.

I had often wondered what had happened to that sweet little guy, particularly when my own little boy turned five. I got my answer when he and I came face to face at an unexpected meeting.

He stood before me two weeks ago, a meeting orchestrated by another child welfare professional. He was all grown up now. Even so, I could see a hint of the little boy with chubby cheeks. He wrapped me in a bear hug and thanked me for saving his life. Tears swimming in his eyes and mine, we talked for an hour while I answered his questions about his early life and he filled me in on his subsequent childhood spent in "the system," bounced from one foster home to the next until he was 17.

The system didn't provide a magic answer for him. It usually offered a bed and some food and nothing more. Out of all the thirty-plus foster homes he lived in, only one he referred to as loving. But still, he thanked a caseworker from long ago for saving his life. And that spoke volumes about how horrendous it would have been for him to remain with his mother.

Surely we can do better. We can put our heads together and figure out better ways to raise our children who have no one to protect, love and nurture them. Find a way to get involved. The kids are waiting for you to help.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Good News on the Way!

I'm watching the nightly news as I write this post. I'm two minutes in and have so far heard about a death from Swine Flu in New York, a shooting in Cincinnati's Northside and a church burglarized. I don't know about you, but I've been trying to focus more on good things than bad. Note to self: chronic news watching makes it hard to focus on good.

So to keep my promise about giving you good news with the bad news on foster care, I'd like you to know about something called Every Child's Hope. I even like the name. You don't hear the word 'hope' associated with foster care very often.

Following the death of murdered foster child Marcus Fiesel nearly three years ago, a group of churches came together to begin discussing how the church could respond to the needs of children in foster care. To date, over two dozen churches have joined Every Child's Hope Coalition of Care for Foster Children. The goal: to build community around foster children and families. An upcoming weekend event sponsored by Every Child's Hope features keynote speakers and information sessions all aimed at educating the community on the needs of foster kids and engaging people by offering a number of volunteer opportunities to assist them.

I have long believed that the answers to problems facing these kids will be found in the larger community around them, not necessarily the government system charged with their oversight. The Coalition of Care has so many resources to offer the government system in caring for vulnerable children. As a "system" person, spending most of my time working with government agencies and the court, I know better than anyone about separation of church and state and how careful we must be to honor that. But there is something to be said for community, faith-based or not. And my feeling is, if you have something to offer our children, by all means, step up. The Coalition is doing just that.

And that really is Good News.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Welcome to my Invisible Kids Blog

It took me six months to finally launch myself into the Blogsphere. For some reason, I find it a little scary to start blogging, which is really funny, because I wrote an entire book. When I was writing my book, Invisible Kids, I imagined myself sitting down with a reader and having a conversation with them about kids in foster care and how we can all do something to help them. My imaginary reader was a nice and interested person.

While blogging, I feel like I’m standing in front of a classroom full of people waiting for me to say something meaningful, if not brilliant. I’ll plow ahead though, assuming you are all as nice and interested as my imaginary readers (who became real, by the way, when my book hit bookshelves in January 2009).

My name is Holly Schlaack. I am a child advocate, author and mother of three. I have spent fifteen years on the front lines of child abuse and neglect, first as a caseworker for Children’s Services and later as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL), representing the best interests of abused and neglected infants and toddlers in juvenile court.

I’ve learned a lot about children and families over the years, as well as the laws that govern the lives of foster children and the system responsible for overseeing their care when parents fail to protect them. Sometimes the foster care system works. Sometimes it fails. Sometimes it destroys the very children it is designed to save. And when this happens, there are grave consequences not only to the people involved, but also to our entire communities.

I have a passion for these children that is matched by a passionate belief that the time has come for all of us to stand together and fix this broken foster care system. It is the only way we will save children and families. There is something we can all do to help, and the responsibility to do so rests directly on our shoulders. If we are willing to reach out, we can change the course of thousands of lives and directly impact our communities and a future generation.

Child abuse and neglect is a heavy topic and many people don’t want to discuss it because it is sad. Trust me, I know. It is sad. However, there are happy endings too, though they seldom make headlines. And there is little else that brings the kind of satisfaction and joy that comes from playing a small part in a happy ending. You can play that part.

Look for me to post an entry once a week, telling you a little about some of the foster children in our communities and most importantly, how you can get involved and help them. I welcome your comments and look forward to our discussions about abused and neglected children and making the world a safer, more loving place for each one of them.

To learn more about me, my work experience and the book I was drawn to write, please visit