It's extremely deceptive. In a county where the economy holds its own with a major university and thriving small business paired with a perpetual flow of progressive ideas, alternative lifestyles and communal spirit, you wouldn't think a lack of balance between foster children and homes would be an issue. But Jennifer Trotter, regional director of the Judson Center, a nonprofit human services agency in southeast Michigan, knows as well as anyone that it's a reality; not necessarily because people want to hide the problem, but, instead, because of a lack of awareness. That's why the Center recently launched the campaign Ignorance is Bliss, a focused effort (complete with a satirical title) to spread knowledge about the more than 200 children from Washtenaw County currently in foster care and the numerous others who have been shipped to other counties because of the lack of available placements.
"We know that Washtenaw County is a generous, giving and nurturing community and I think it's about lack of awareness, so we wanted to bring attention to it," says Trotter. "Foster care is one of those topics that people are unaware of unless it's happening to their family or the people that are closest to them. It’s confidential and people don't typically broadcast that kind of information."
A new approach
The old-school public relations tactics weren't working — their networking techniques were outdated, meetings were scarce and the problem was not visible in one of the cleanest cities in the Midwest. It was time for a change.
"Traditional recruitment efforts for foster homes haven't been working, so we decided to approach and educate the community on the need for foster homes, so we came up with the Ignorance is Bliss Campaign," says Trotter. "We wanted to find a way to capture an audience. Traditionally, for foster home recruitment we would go to the library or the PTA and post flyers saying, 'Come listen to our talk about foster care.' And usually we had a very low turnout. We decided that instead of trying to bring people to our event, we would go where the people are."
And where better to find your target audience than high-school sporting events. Twice in December — the month of the campaign's kickoff — representatives from the Ignorance Is Bliss spoke during halftime of local basketball games, bringing a brief, 60 to 90 second, PSA-like live commercial to several hundred people and then handing out 200 glow sticks, to represent every child that's in need of care. The thought is: In a gym full of parents supporting their children, someone might have interest in investing in the life of a struggling child. And keeping the program concise, non-invasive, and informative is the perfect way to plant the seed.
Now comes the question of truth (and really the only one that matters): Is it working? That's an indirect and complicated yes, because before you find the children homes you have to make the potential foster parents aware the children need homes. That part has been a success — there's more interest in the program, more people willing to help, instant reactions from the halftime shows, all lifting the curtain off a devastating issue.
"We've been approached by several parents after
our presentations that have said things like, 'I had no idea that there is a need and what can I do to help,'" Trotter said.
Keeping it in the community
The Judson Center makes helping an easy process, whether you want to foster, volunteer, or just find more information. The Center not only recruits and trains families that are able to develop the children, but also provides ongoing assistance. Their main focus is keeping children in the communities where they have ties; they've already been abused, neglected or abandoned, so being placed in an unfamiliar location exacerbates an already rocky transition.
"Perhaps it's recognizing that a lot of our kids are being placed outside of the county, and perhaps we didn't pay attention to that stat, but now we recognize that if moving kids from their parents is traumatic, then to take them away from the community they know and love and are familiar with is even more traumatic — it's adding to the trauma."
The only thing that will beat this problem is enhanced knowledge to fuel this project and find the people who are able to step up and provide relief to these children. Ignorance isn't bliss, it just prevents many from making an impact on the world and doing things that make a community truly proud.
For more information, FAQ's and resources, visit www.judsoncenter.com or call 734-528-1720.