Messages of Hope

Fostering Media Connections encourages journalists
to write about the foster care system

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When Daniel Heimpel's editor told him he couldn't write about foster care, the reporter quit his job.

"He said, 'You'll never change the system. It's not fixable,'" Heimpel remembers. But Heimpel thinks his editor was wrong. He's dedicating his career to changing the system--and changing what people think about it. After quitting his job, Heimpel launched a freelance career writing about foster care for publications ranging from LA Weekly to Newsweek.

The Fostering Media Connections team-Daniel Heimpel and Eytan Elterman-on their first day of work in Olympia, Washington.

But writing stories--even on a national stage--wasn't enough; Heimpel wanted to make a bigger impact. So this year, Heimpel teamed up with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and launched Fostering Media Connections. His goal is to spend the next year meeting with journalists across the country, finding local stories relating to the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, and convincing editors to write about them. The law passed two years ago, but in order for states to get federal funding, individual states have to pass their own legislation implementing it. While that's going to take time, Heimpel believes that the more stories that are written, the more the public will know what's really going on in foster care--and the quicker change will happen. So instead of just being one writer telling the story, Heimpel wants to recruit hundreds more. "I want to create an army of reporters," he says.

Heimpel's interest in the foster care system began while working as a referee at youth lacrosse games during graduate school at University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He came across a team from South Central Los Angeles that always lost but were extraordinarily gracious losers. Heimpel wrote a series of stories about the team, and then became their coach. His favorite player was Christopher Lango. "He was kind of like I had been in high school," Heimpel says. Except Chris was a foster kid living in a group home.

Heimpel became Chris's mentor, and together they go hiking, running, and out to eat. "He's done a lot for me," says Chris, now 19. "I speak to him when I have any problems. He's kept me out of trouble." Through Chris, Heimpel met another foster youth named John Kyzer, who he mentored, too. Heimpel wrote a series of stories for LA Weekly about his experience mentoring these teens.

That series earned Heimpel CWLA's 2010 Anna Quindlen Award for Excellence in Journalism in Behalf of Children and Families. "Daniel is somebody with a lot of heart, and a lot of passion for these issues," says Linda Spears, Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs for CWLA. Spears selected Heimpel for the award.

Instead of just putting the award on the shelf and moving on to the next story, Heimpel set off across the country to convince other reporters to write the type of stories he was writing. His goal is to go to every city he can in the United States, feeding editors and reporters story ideas about the foster care system. The hope is to get other reporters to care about fixing foster care as much as Heimpel does. If he's successful, they won't just write one story. They'll write a dozen.

"He really wants to change the way reporting and media are used as tools to create awareness around these kids," Spears says. "He's trying to engage people. In this age of new media and changing media delivery it's really important to have somebody like Daniel who gets it."

Working with Heimpel as he travels the country is cameraman Eytan Elterman. They've been friends since they were 14. Heimpel told Elterman about Fostering Media Connections last September, just after Elterman quit his job in San Francisco's financial district. Elterman worked in television--producing sports and reality shows since 2004--but decided to join Heimpel as his media and public affairs coordinator. The two have worked together and traveled together before. In 2005, they backpacked across Eastern Europe and filmed a documentary before Heimpel went to journalism school and Elterman went to business school. Later, they filmed a story about foster youth in Los Angeles County that was nominated for Best Short News Piece in Los Angeles in 2008. "Daniel and I are a good team," Elterman says. "We want to show people what foster care is really like."

With funding from the Stuart Foundation, Heimpel and Elterman started in Seattle in March. "They're very progressive in their foster care approach," Elterman says of the state of Washington. "They're kind of ahead of the curve. It made sense." In Seattle, Heimpel and Elterman scoured the area for untold stories. Then Heimpel called and e-mailed editors and reporters at every publication he could find, from the Seattle Times to the Kitsap Sun. When an editor asked if he could just send a press release, he said no. He wants to talk face-to-face about why these stories are important, why they need to be told, and give editors a whole list of ideas with 10 to 15 different angles. He asked them if he could take them to lunch or coffee or just sit down and talk.

Heimpel gave a seminar to the journalists he met, getting them up to speed on what exactly the Fostering Connections Act does. He talked first about the law at the federal level, then the state level, and then the local level. "It's complex material," Heimpel says. "I gave them a primer." He told Seattle-area reporters about the local Native American tribe, the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, located on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula. It's the first tribe to apply for federal funds through the act. "This little tribe is the vanguard of tribal welfare in the country," Heimpel says.

When he spoke about the law's educational advocacy component, he told reporters about a local nonprofit called Treehouse for Kids. He told editors about a teen he met, Tyler, who had been homeless since age 1. Tyler lived on the streets with his dad until child welfare workers noticed the boy hopping around, after his father broke Tyler's leg. Tyler was taken into protective custody when he was 7. "When he came in, he was like an animal," Heimpel says. "He didn't know how to live in a house." But because of educational advocates who fought for him, Tyler was able to make up three grades in one year. Now 16, Tyler tells his story eloquently. In the media packet Heimpel gave journalists, he listed contact information for the Treehouse for Kids, Tyler's educational advocate, and Tyler's foster mom. "The idea is--hopefully--we give them so much prepackaged material that they're compelled to say, 'Why wouldn't we take it?' That's the plan," Heimpel says.

One hurdle Heimpel's encountered is that a lot of editors and reporters working with smaller staffs don't have a lot of time, or interest, to meet with someone they don't know. Not everyone responded to his repeated calls and e-mails, so he and Elterman went to visit them anyway. With the camera rolling, Heimpel went to the office of every editor that didn't respond to his repeated requests. "We had to," Heimpel says. "We're trying to get something done."

In some cases, Heimpel's persistence paid off. It was Heimpel's "enthusiasm" that convinced Steve Shay, a reporter at the West Seattle Herald, to go to the media-mixer Heimpel threw with 25 child welfare advocates and a few reporters.

Before he met Heimpel, Shay says he had no idea that about a third of foster youth who age out of the system become homeless. And he had no idea the new law provides help for these kids. The day after the mixer, Shay went to a local tent city. Child welfare advocates he met at the mixer introduced him to a 21-year-old former foster youth who, with the help of the YMCA's program, now has her own apartment. "She seems to be on the right track," Shay says. "She's one of the lucky ones." At press time, he had written two articles about the foster care system since Heimpel's visit.

Heimpel left Seattle, then traveled to Washington, DC, for a symposium, then his next stop in northern California. He plans to hit 14 major media markets in the next year, spending about three weeks in each place. His goal is to spend about 10 days in each area hunting for stories, talking to every child welfare advocate and foster kid he can find--then convincing editors and reporters to write the stories he finds.

The goal is to paint a more accurate portrait of what is going on in the foster care system. "My job is to kind of tweak the message in a way that de-sensationalizes child welfare," says Elterman. "The news is so sensationalized. It's about 'a child died today... another foster parent is potentially liable for their death.' Or, you know, 'the child welfare system is broken.' Those are the messages out there in the news. As opposed to messages of hope--messages that it's a fixable system, and if we do fix it we'll be better off as a society."

Elterman says the more he's learned about the foster care system--just in the past month--has made him want to do more to help change it. He epitomizes a step toward Heimpel's greater goal--he believes that the more people know about what is going on, the more they will want to join in and help make things better.

Heimpel wants to create a movement. If more reporters like Shay write more stories, then he believes states can get the public momentum to implement the Fostering Connections Act. In the meantime, he's blogging for The Huffington Post, writing about his journey on www.fosteringmediaconnections.com, and writing op-ed articles in publications such as the San Jose Mercury-News.

"I hope it works," Heimpel says. "I think it's going to work. If you plant this many seeds, something's got to grow."

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