When children are removed from fractured families and sent into foster care, siblings are often separated and lose touch with each other. Lynn Price is reuniting siblings, nurturing their relationships, and changing the way siblings are supported by foster and adoptive parents, the child welfare system, and communities.
The New Idea
Lynn Price founded Camp To Belong (CTB) in 1995 to reunite siblings separated by the foster care system. The camps, initially established to help separated siblings jump-start a bonding process and then sustain a relationship, have become the cornerstone of a year-round program to change the way the child welfare system and communities view, preserve and support these sibling relationships. Their success has helped Camp To Belong become the backbone of Lynn’s effective lobbying force for the rights of siblings as well as a national benchmark for nurturing siblings through the tumultuous foster care system. Since most children in foster care are separated from a sibling, Lynn believes that changing the way siblings are addressed will ultimately change the broader system.
Lynn wants to see a Camp To Belong summer camp—with a corresponding year-round community support organization—in each state or region of the United States and in other countries. She also plans to establish an international, year-round “haven” for reunited siblings of all ages. Camp To Belong is spreading across the country and into Canada. With the collective power of CTB affiliates, their communities, and coalitions of like-minded organizations, Lynn aims to convince policymakers, child welfare professionals, and caregivers to avoid separating siblings, and to help separated siblings reunite.
Lynn’s newest idea is to establish the Sibling Connection Initiative (SCI) to prevent siblings from being separated when families break apart—or help them reunite when separated. She intends to achieve these goals by educating social workers and foster/adoptive parents, and by changing public policy. The Sibling Connection Initiative organizes grassroots community groups and supports their efforts, individually and collectively, to call attention to the individual and societal impact of siblings separated by the foster care system. Lynn views her summer camps as a catalyst for new legislation on sibling placement and visitation, recruitment of more foster and adoptive families to embrace siblings, and enlightened, sibling-friendly practices among child welfare professionals. She envisions a day when the camps are not needed because all siblings in out-of-home care will be living under the same roof or have an accountable, consistent connection plan in place.
Of the 580,000 youth in foster care in the U.S., 75 percent are separated from at least one sibling. When children are removed from their homes, the child welfare system focuses on rehabilitating the parents so the family can be reunited, but little attention is given to the bond between siblings before or after these placements are made. As a result, many children in foster care experience the trauma of early, extended separation not only from parents, but also from siblings. In addition, the foster care system does little to encourage sibling visits or communication. Research shows that a greater number of former foster care youth are searching for siblings than are searching for their biological parents. And these efforts are thwarted by name changes and lack of access to records.
A National Center for Policy Analysis report notes that the average child in foster care will live in multiple homes, and will live apart from at least one sibling. Few return to their birth parents. Many will not make successful transitions to adulthood. In 2005, the University of Chicago reported that among 19 year olds coming out of foster care, 37 percent had no high school degree; 33 percent were on public assistance; 27 percent of the young men had been incarcerated; and as many as 25 percent had experienced serious physical victimization. They were far more likely than other youth their age to be pregnant, unemployed, and unable to pay rent. 50 percent of the youth in homeless shelters were formerly in foster care. The resulting financial cost of shelters, welfare and the criminal justice system is greatly exceeded by the cost of lost potential and broken lives.
The Muskie School of Public Service describes the separation from siblings as “an extra punishment, a separate loss….” and states:
When youth are separated from their family by court order, they should have a right to continue to live with their siblings… Sibling contact provides continuity and stability during the separation from home and family. Brothers and sisters can provide advice and support, and talk about current issues without having to give history or background. They are able to enhance healing… as they have shared history related to the trauma… They share the same heritage and biology, unlike any other relationship. The sibling relationship is unique and should be fostered.
Research finds that siblings separated in foster care have more trouble healing, forming attachments, and developing a healthy self-image. A Pew Commission guiding principle states: “Children must have continuity and consistency in care-giving relationships, including healthy ties to siblings and extended family.” Some agencies try to keep siblings together, but too few foster families accept siblings.
Lynn is approaching the issue of sibling separation through a multi-pronged strategy, working on legislation, public relations, and disseminating best practices within the foster care system. Lynn and the leaders of Camp To Belong’s local affiliates are often called on to testify, support policy-making efforts, and educate various constituencies. Twenty-six states are now passing or evaluating laws regarding sibling relationships. In Colorado, Lynn served as the spokesperson for a coalition that introduced House Bill 1108, requiring court documentation of efforts made to avoid separating siblings placed in foster care. Because little data is available, the Sibling Connection Initiative (SCI) is collecting data comparing separated siblings to other youth aging out of the foster care system and is conducting a follow-up study on CTB campers. In Maine, Lynn worked with the Muskie School of Public Service and local partners to achieve “The Sibling Bill of Rights” and obtain state funding to start a Camp To Belong program. Lynn co-authored a Sibling Practice Curriculum with the Hunter School of Social Work, a guide to and justification of sibling-friendly practices. Because many CTB supporters are motivated by the importance of their own sibling relationships, Lynn drafted a resolution for a National Sibling Connection Day which Senator Salazar and Senator Ensign will cosponsor. Her strategy is to promote attention to siblings in foster care by focusing attention on siblings in general.
Camp To Belong is not about summer camp, but about creating lasting connections. The camps reunite siblings separated by “the system” and give them a chance to play, laugh, and share memories. The children also benefit from being among others who understand their stories. In each state, licensed camp operators host the program and offer typical camp activities. CTB provides trained counselors (one for every two campers) and special programs. For older campers, a Life Seminar addresses post-foster care education career planning, and adult living skills (conflict resolution, anger management, diversity tolerance, and relationship building). Special help is provided to children whose relationships have been strained by separation. Unable to share birthdays during the year, brothers and sisters enjoy a birthday celebration complete with cards, gifts, and cakes. The children learn to be their own best advocates, to let their foster families and caseworkers know that they need to be connected to their siblings and to be prepared for the day when they are on their own. One-fourth of the children come to camp more than once, and some return as counselors-in-training. Camp counselors include former youth in care, teachers, child welfare professionals and community volunteers; many of them are inspired to become child advocates, foster/adoptive parents, or to pursue social work careers.
Camp To Belong has affiliated programs in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Ontario; camps will open in Nevada and Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska in 2006. Camps based on the CTB model have opened in Maryland, New Jersey, Montana, and Ohio. Affiliates receive intensive start-up assistance for the first few years for a fee of US$25,000 to US$35,000; then the annual fee is US$7,500. CTB helps each affiliate develop the community support needed to organize and run summer camps, promote awareness of sibling issues, and recruit foster and adoptive families who will accept siblings. The national office offers a manual, media kits, and templates for advocacy, awareness campaigns, statewide kickoff events, and grant proposals; it also provides state and national databases, a shared Web site, and publicity. A local CTB coordinator, volunteer or paid, is the liaison to the national office, and works with agencies, schools and youth programs to identify campers, and provides pre- and post-camp guidance to the campers’ caregivers and caseworkers to help them understand and support the siblings’ needs to maintain ties with each other.
To launch the Sibling Connection Initiative, Lynn is moving from a largely volunteer organization to a national umbrella organization with the infrastructure and staff to support a growing number of affiliates. Because Camp To Belong gained national attention on Oprah and in major media, its US$500,000 budget (a 40 percent increase over last year) includes a marketing person to re-brand the effort as “more than a camp.” Strategic partners include America’s Promise and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. To strengthen the board, Lynn has added Steve Nagler, Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, and David Neu, Senior Vice President, AmeriSource Bergen.
Lynn grew up in a loving, middle class family in Skokie, Illinois. Her father, a Holocaust survivor, owned his own business. Lynn’s parents doted on her, but when she was eight years old they told her, “We’re not your real parents.” When she was an infant, her birth father had abandoned his family. Unable to cope, her birth mother was institutionalized. Lynn, just eight months old, and her 2-year-old sister Andi, were placed in foster care with two different families. Lynn’s foster parents revealed this to her when her birth mother, now recovered, not only wanted to meet Lynn, but expressed interest in taking both of her children back. From that day until adulthood, Lynn led two lives. She lived with her foster family and had supervised visits with her birth mother and her sister. She had two names and two sets of relatives. She lived mainly in the world she’d always known, and recalls a “great elementary and high school life.” Still, she was often confused about where she really belonged. At 18, Lynn began forming a close relationship with her sister that continues today.
At the University of Illinois, Lynn organized sororities and fraternities to work on the prevention of child abuse. With a degree in communications, Lynn’s career took her to Atlanta, where she helped launch the ESPN cable network; she went on to open an ESPN office in Dallas. She joined Group W (Westinghouse Satellite Communications), playing a key role in expanding their cable TV business. She and her new husband moved to Denver for this job; they were expecting their first baby at the time. When her boss and mentor died unexpectedly, Lynn chose to go out on her own. She founded Price & Associates, a communications firm overseeing new business development and operations. The Denver Business Journal announced: “Marketing Maven Envisions Niche Leading to Fortune 500.”
In 1994, Lynn sold her business and moved to Las Vegas where her husband’s new job allowed her to be an “at home mom” for their three young children. She became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and volunteered at a children’s shelter. As a CASA she helped separated foster care siblings get an approved visitation plan and attend a family reunion. At the shelter, Lynn saw a little girl staring at a boy on the other side of the campus; it turned out to be her brother. Lynn asked herself, “What can I do to ensure that these brothers and sisters share times together in their childhood?” The answer was Camp To Belong. She got the names of separated siblings from the Department of Children and Family Services, called on CASA colleagues to be counselors, and in three months welcomed the first campers. When her family moved, she opened Camp To Belong in Colorado. As the program gained national attention, she began helping communities across the country organize around the sibling issue. She saw that Camp To Belong could be a platform for something much bigger: the Sibling Connection Initiative.
Lynn has served as a foster mother to several children. She formed a special attachment to Jesse and Bryan, two brothers who came to the first camp. She stayed involved with them, trying without success to become their foster parent. When Bryan turned eighteen, Lynn adopted him. Today, as birth mother of three teenagers, and the adoptive mother of a young adult, Lynn devotes her life to helping siblings connect with each other and experience real belonging. Lynn is the author of Real Belonging, Give Siblings Their Right to Reunite® and a member of the National Speakers Association.
In 2015, Camp To Belong is celebrating 20 years! Over 9,000 siblings separated through foster, adoptive or kinship care have been reunited at CTB summer camps and year-round programs. The Camp model is represented through Member Camps in over 10 states and Australia with more planned. Not only do siblings create memories and build confidence, the significance of the sibling bond now has greater impact in legislation, family recruitment and best practice in child welfare. [ed. note: Lynn is also featured in Ashoka Fellow Ken Banks' 2013 book, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator]