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Children's Voice Article, November/December, 2004

Executive Directions

As the winter holidays approach, most of us are about to find our mailboxes full of appeals from charitable organizations asking for the seasonal donations that fuel so much of their work throughout the year. No doubt many of those letters will feature bold, highlighted, and underlined text with incredible statistics that paint a bleak picture for animals, the environment, human rights, and other quite worthy causes, all in an effort to persuade you to donate a few dollars to reverse that trend. And rightfully so.

And those of us in child protection have our own numbers to consider. As many of you already know, more than 129,000 children in the foster care system have a goal of adoption. Of these, 64% are over age 5; the average age is 8. Twenty-eight percent are African American and 16% are Hispanic/Latino. But the numbers only paint part of the picture. We need to talk about both the numbers and the individual children affected. Finding the right balance can be difficult. After I spoke at a gathering concerning child welfare and juvenile justice, emphasizing the plight of one particular child, someone told me, "You need to remember that data is not the plural of anecdote."

It took me a moment to understand the point being made, but clearly I had not found the right balance in that presentation. I had thought that a series of numbers just didn't have the impact of a single child's story--statistics alone rarely motivate people to change. But my critic was correct to point out that a single story is rarely enough to change attitudes, either.

This is one of the reasons CWLA has worked so hard to promote our Research to Practice Initiative, which takes a hard look at some successful child welfare initiatives and determines if the practices and tools put to use might be of value in other communities. We ask if their achievements are worthy of replication, and if so, we determine how to make sure other child protection workers find ways to put those principles into action. The researchers reveal the most successful programs, but those of you in child welfare agencies are the ones who come up with the innovations and make sure they touch the lives of real children in need.

Doing this work is essential, but communicating the impact is almost as important as we promote the expansion of those effective interventions. That's why we have a variety of ways to get the word out to the field through our website at www.cwla.org.

This effort to balance the message is also found in our efforts to increase adoption of foster children nationwide. CWLA has partnered with a number of other organizations in the Collaboration to AdoptUsKids, a project led by the U.S. Children's Bureau. One of those partners is the University of Texas at Austin, which conducts adoption research to make sure we're doing all we can to encourage adoption. Recent studies have focused on identifying barriers to completing the adoption process, particularly for families of color, and identifying factors that produce favorable long-term outcomes for families who adopt children with special needs.

This summer, many of my colleagues at CWLA were proud to be part of a special event in Washington, DC, designed to touch the lives of thousands of foster children. "Answering the Call: Partnering with Communities of Faith," was a collective effort sponsored by the Collaboration to AdoptUsKids. You can read more about the Collaboration to AdoptUsKids and this conference on page 27.

When HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson took the stage to address attendees, he combined the data with the anecdote, so to speak. Thompson not only welcomed Congressional members and federal representatives to the dais, he also shared the stage with 13 families who had adopted more than 40 children from foster care, many of whom first met their parents thanks to the website established by AdoptUsKids--www.adoptuskids.org.

HHS also highlighted a new series of public service announcements from the Ad Council, designed to find homes for kids. Rather than focus on the incredible number of children in need, these brief messages highlight the simple ways in which parents can be heroes to children--one mother uses a broom to remove a basketball from a backboard perched over the garage so that two young boys can keep playing. In another, a father struggles to play the saxophone while his son accompanies him on the drums.

There's no call to the public to rescue a child in need, no appeal to overwhelming numbers, only a simple story unfolding in front of the viewer, painting the picture of a happy child and a fulfilled parent--a natural invitation to viewers to take on the roll themselves. Along with the data HHS is sharing about the need for adoptive families to step forward, this ad campaign helps create the balanced message.

Someone once said, "Statistics are children with their tears rubbed off." The numbers paint part of the picture, but until we fill in the gaps with the details of the lives affected in so many ways, it's a picture that's as incomplete as a child without a family. I challenge us all to paint the complete picture when it comes to our children in greatest need.

Shay Bilchik


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