America Is Stronger When Children Live in Families

This post is co-authored with Joe Kroll and Irene Clements.

There wasn't a dry eye in the Today Show audience last Friday when Demille Cole-Heard paid tribute to his grandfather -- the man he said showed him how to be a man. He testified saying of the man who raised him, there could be no greater father figure.

The young man tricked his grandfather, Charles Warthan, by saying he needed his support as he tried out for The Voice. Instead he really wanted to publically honor the man who worked at least two jobs to support him, after he'd already raised his own children, and encouraged him to pursue his dreams.

His grandfather had always dreamed of singing in front of a large audience so together they made that dream come true singing the Star Spangled Banner on the morning show. They made their voices heard in the land of the free and home of the brave.

This week our three organizations are coming together to launch a common voice in support of families across the country like Demille's. We'll be lifting our voices for families that are often overlooked-kin (grandfamilies), foster and adoptive families.

Together we've formed Advocates for Families First an alliance to support families like the stable, encouraging and loving one in which Charles raised his grandson.

Our goal is to build a unified national movement to support families who care for children and youth, promote their healing and help them thrive when their birth parents are unable to do so.

Why? We know children and youth do better in families. Young people can age out of a system, but they never age out of a family.

Still more than 23,000 youth age of foster care each year without any family connection. At the same time, grandfamilies continue to struggle to meet the needs of children in their care. Kin are still asked to do the same work as foster parents with fewer to no supports.

For every child in foster care living with a relative, nearly 25 are being cared for by relatives outside the system. If even half those kids entered the foster care system it would cost our country more than 6.5 billion dollars a year.

How does this translate for the families? According the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Stepping Up for Kids, foster care benefits provide about 52 percent of what it takes to raising a child. Child Only Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which is what most grandfamilies access if they access any financial support, only provides about 25 percent of what it takes to raise a child.

All the sadder, the kids in care are seldom asked what they want.

Take Catherine Sanders. She came into foster care when she was 13. She was never told adoption was an option, she was only asked what her plan was when she aged out.

On Capitol Hill this week, her voice was clear when she told policy makers, "Remember that you get to go home at the end of the day, but kids (in foster care) have to live it 24/7."

She went on to say "I know that I am 'someone' and I am becoming even more a 'someone.' But I want to be a 'someone" who has a family cheering her on."

Catherine wants what Demille found with his grandfather. Unconditional love.

So what can we do? Simple, put families first. And here's how.

We urge policy makers to support:

•Providing kids who have been abused or neglected with a family that will stay with them forever.

•Prioritizing family care over institutions when it's necessary to remove a child from the birth family.

•Preparing caregivers to meet the complex needs of children coming into their homes.

•Empowering youth and family voices so they can advocate for what they want and need.

•Ensuring that children and youth have opportunities to participate fully in their life
planning, and that caregivers have the right to make decisions for the children in their care.

•Giving children and youth the support and services they need to be stable and successful in their lives.

Cole-Heard learned from his grandfather that hard work, love and persistence always pay off. He made a grand gesture honoring his grandfather.

Now it's time we join together to celebrate and give voice to children like him and the families who step up.

Donna Butts is the executive director of Generations United. Joe Kroll is the executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children. Irene Clements is the president of the National Foster Parent Association. Advocates for Families First is a new alliance of the three organizations.