The biggest day on Los Angeles' child welfare calendar shows what foster care is really about.
When many people think about foster care, their thoughts immediately go to the heart wrenching headlines they read in the newspaper.
The system is broken, we are taught to believe. Child protection's primary goal is to rip families apart, we think. When children enter foster care, they are doomed to fates much worse than those they would have faced at home, we assume.
But the loudest headlines tell only a fraction of the real story of foster care.
And this past Sunday, Mother's Day, the true foster care narrative was on full display.
The setting was Willows Community School in Culver City, California, in the heart of L.A. The school's indoor auditorium was lined with rack upon rack of clothes, free for the taking for the scores of boisterous children and their parents perusing the aisles. The outdoor basketball court had been converted into a stage, the asphalt making a dance floor flanked by banks of round tables where families -- foster families -- sat and enjoyed lunch. In every nook and cranny of the city-block-sized campus, you saw children playing amusement park style games, getting their faces painted and dressing in costumes for fun family photos.
This was the seventh edition of Foster Mother's Day, an idea thought up by Jeanne Pritzker whose Foster Care Counts has become a force for good in Los Angeles County, supporting dozens of programs and non-profits that serve foster youth.
All told, this year's event welcomed 2,000 children and their families, an enormous feat that involved coordinating hundreds of busses bringing guests in from all corners of vast L.A. County.
This was my fourth year attending the event, which has since grown so popular that it can't be contained at the Pritzker family home anymore.
Next to the area where families were choosing costumes, I found myself talking with Philip Browning, the director of the county's Department of Children and Family Services, the biggest child welfare system in the country, as well as Mayor Eric Garcetti's wife Amy Wakeland, and David Ambroz, a former foster youth and the executive director of corporate citizenship and social responsibility for Disney's ABC Television Group.
Wakeland, who alongside Garcetti, has fostered a number of children, talked about what it means to be a foster parent. She spoke of how, long after the fostering is done, the commitment remains, and said that she is working to draft a "foster parent bill of rights" to help guide prospective and current caregivers through the inevitable questions that come up when taking on such a great and important challenge.
Ambroz, busy at Disney and running a massive public awareness campaign called FosterMore, which is helping change the negative perceptions of foster care I referenced above, offered to help Wakeland with her foster parent bill of rights. And Browning, who has been buffeted by headlines decrying the dearth of available foster homes, shared his thoughts on the unique challenges and opportunities that come with being a foster parent.
A few feet away, I ran into Zaid Gayle, the executive director of Compton-based Peace4Kids, who is working feverishly to finish building a "Mobile Village" that will bring healthy cooking opportunities to underserved communities. While speaking with him, Jennifer Perry, the executive director of the Children's Action Network walked up. Perry is the force behind CBS' annual "A Home for the Holidays" celebration, which has helped get hundreds of children adopted out of foster care. Perry has also has adopted two children from foster care herself.
It was, in a 20-minute span, a large part of what Foster Mother's Day is all about. Pritzker's idea of a day to celebrate foster mothers has also become a venue for a lively exchange of ideas between people who come at this issue with a sincere desire to make the system better.
All around you could hear the peal of children's laughter, and see smiling families- far from the first thought that is typically conjured up when thinking about foster care.
And it was this picture of foster care that dominated the headlines of Los Angeles media on this Mother's Day. All the local television stations, including the Spanish speaking newscasts, aired stories about Foster Mother's Day.
And for one day, foster care was more than the worst the system has to offer. It was the best.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.