Children's Voice July/August 2008

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Illinois Foster Kids Speak Out: "Don't Write Me Off"

How does the public view foster care? When a group of private child welfare agencies in Illinois posed this question to focus groups, the answer was disheartening, but not surprising--people were concerned about the negative news surrounding foster care. In a nutshell, they feared the system.

The agencies--65 in all under the direction of Voices for Illinois Children and with the support of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services--decided to tackle the stigma directly. In April 2006, they launched a statewide, multi-year marketing campaign aimed at encouraging Illinois residents to support youth in foster care and foster care agencies.

During its first year, the Foster Kids Are Our Kids campaign involved foster children telling the public directly through television ads and posters, "Don't write me off." WGN-TV in Chicago ran $800,000 worth of free air space featuring commercials in which foster youth say, "Just because I'm a foster kid, doesn't mean I'm a lost cause. I have the potential for greatness I wish you could see me for who I am. Don't be afraid of me, and don't feel bad for me. Just care what happens to us."

In 2007, the campaign focused on the theme, "Making foster care better," and expanded advertising to bus and subway stations, highway billboards, and college campuses. In television commercials, average citizens point out that growing up in foster care is tough but that you don't have to be a foster parent to help. They say they mentor foster children, volunteer at agencies, donate money, and take the kids next door to ball games.

A website) and toll-free number (1-888-4RKIDS2) direct visitors and callers to local foster care agencies prepared to help people get involved in different ways. During the first year the website received more than 56,000 hits, and 621 inquiries were made to the toll-free number, 255 of them from out-of-state callers. Ninety-five percent of the calls were inquiries about becoming foster parents.

Federal grants are funding the Foster Kids Are Our Kids campaign through 2008, but Jerry Stermer, President of Voices for Illinois Children, hopes more resources can be found to continue the campaign for another 5 to 10 years. "This is probably one of the most amazing efforts that I've seen in child welfare in the 35 years I've had some association with it," he says.

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