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Seeing Their Voices: Friends of Children Sheds New Light on Foster Care

Friends of Children, Inc. is a nonprofit organization in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts with a goal of providing safety and hope for children in the foster system who have been either abused or neglected. The organization commands attention by speaking "the truth on behalf of vulnerable children, no matter how difficult it is to hear."

Perhaps the most critical Friends of Children activity is its Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program, which trains community volunteers to act as individual advocates for vulnerable children. Jane Lyons, Executive Director of Friends of Children, says, " We ensure children who have become vulnerable due to abuse and neglect are given the opportunity to have an independent advocate investigate their circumstances and make educated recommendations to decision makers about their placement and care. Kids need champions when the adults who should be those advocates are unable or unwilling to do so. "

But sometimes the needs of foster kids go further than just advocacy. The group's Foster Dignity Project works to provide kids with what Lyons explains are "necessities and comforts that many take for granted," from toiletries to winter coats. It also provides funds for enriching childhood experiences like horseback riding lessons and class trips.

"In every advocacy act we accomplish, we feel the support of the community," says Lyons. "We are lucky to have such a capable volunteer pool, because the work isn't easy! Through Foster Dignity, we rely on support from individuals and groups that provide the items we need to make children in foster care feel supported. And, when asked to help support our work, the community shines in its varied contributions, including individual and corporate donations, attendance at a special event, or in volunteering as a Board member or CASA."

One of the more creative ways that Friends of Children has advocated for the children of Pioneer Valley is through Seeing Their Voices, a multimedia exhibit that was hung in the State House to give a voice to the youth who have experienced foster care. The goal of the project was to raise the public's awareness of the foster care system and benefit the children who are both in and out of foster care.

"Because confidentiality laws protect the reality of their lives, they rarely have opportunities to feel heard and to educate the public on the realities of foster care," says Jane Lyons, Executive Director of Friends of Children. "In our experiences as child advocates, it's become clear that the general public has limited understanding [of] the need and impact of foster care."

After recognizing the lack of awareness regarding children in the foster care system, Friends of Children developed Seeing Their Voices to give the power back to the kids. The children that participated were given the opportunity to photograph what was important in their lives. The result was a remarkable multimedia exhibit featuring self portraits, photographs of objects that reminded them of visits with their families, and images of belongings that helped calm them down.

"The young people who participated offered reminders of how typical they were of any youth and how different their lived experiences have been," says Lyons.

To complement their photographs, each participating kid wrote short narratives or poems that elaborated on their visuals. One child, who is now 18 years old, was in nine different homes before the age of nine. He submitted a photo of several stuffed animals with the caption, "These are my go-to guys when I'm upset. I just snuggle with them until I calm down." To go along with his photo is a brief but telling narrative. In two simple sentences he describes two uncaring parents.

"Children and youth experience foster care through no fault of their own and need to have a constituency of educated supporters to make certain that their best interest needs are well-supported," Lyons says. "We got a lot of great feedback from the youth who participated saying that they enjoyed being able to share feelings and accomplishments in a group and how relieving it was to be able to share with people who understood."

The Friends of Children Seeing Their Voices exhibit was hung in the State House and displayed for two weeks in 2013. Lyons says this was another moment that added to the feeling of empowerment, not just giving children in foster care voices, but ones that are heard. Friends of Children plans to reinvigorate Seeing Their Voices in the next 12 months to continue making an importance difference in these children's lives.

"The importance of this project is twofold: youth esteem is enhanced as they are empowered to convey their own truth in a safe environment and be in control of what they want to share; and, Friends of Children is able to educate the public about the issues impacting thousands [of] children and youth who experience foster care every year," Lyons says.

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