You Want to Educate Your Legislators? Implement a Foster Doll Campaign
Legislators are rarely specialists on child welfare issues. They are generalists on a huge variety of topicsthe environment, education, taxes, transportation, and many more issue areas. In order to influence the political process, parents of special needs children must educate their elected officials on foster care and adoption.
In Minnesota, we used the foster doll project to educate our legislators on general adoption and foster care issues. But at one point during the legislative session, a bill was introduced involving adoption subsidy for our special needs children. Because we had the project up and running and the infrastructure created, we were able to get the subsidy bill passed the first year it was introduced.
Why Use Dolls?
On any given day during a legislative session, hundreds of lobbyists are camped out at your state capitol trying to get the attention of legislators. The Foster Doll Project is a creative, unusual campaign that catches people off guard. Trust us
when you show up with hundreds of dolls at the state capitol, people stop, stare, and ask questions. You have a captive audience of highly influential people.
How to Organize the Dolls
1. Collect as many dolls as you have legislators (more if you want to distribute sibling groups). Consider asking fellow adoptive and foster parents, friends, day cares, church community members, neighbors, etc. Hint: Consider the population of children in care in terms of race. Be sure to seek dolls of color.
2. Give each doll a name and a history. In Alabama, parent leaders wrote an individualized story for each doll, including family history, the reasons why the doll came into care, siblings, etc. In Minnesota, each of the 201 Legislators (plus the Governor and Commission of DHS) received a single doll or a sibling group of two dolls.
Dolls were divided into categories:
Girls ages4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16
Boys ages5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15
In this way, coordinators knew immediately the sex of the doll if they knew the age. Additionally, each doll in a specific age group had a similar "story" in foster care. For example, all dolls aged 4 were females and had a younger sibling and had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. We placed similar "labels" on each dollthe familiar special needs of foster care and adoption, like DD, FAE, MR, Attachment. Each doll also received child labels like "misses mom" "likes cookies" and "contagious giggle." In this way, the dolls were more real to legislators because they could identify with the kid labels if nothing else. Our labels were attached to the doll using tape. Plastic name tags were pinned to the dolls (similar to conference name badges).
3. In both Alabama and Minnesota, parents showed up on the capitol steps wielding baby strollers and wagons. Both groups started the morning with a press conference, and then pairs of parents walked the halls of the legislators' offices distributing the dolls. Legislators were told about the project in advance, but on the day were given the doll, a packet of information on their foster child, and told that they needed to carry the doll with them throughout the day. "Foster children should not be left alone!" Surprisingly, many policy makers complied and carried their dolls under their arms onto the Senate or House floor or into committee meetings. The foster and adoptive parents definitely had center stage that day.
4. Throughout the educational campaign, volunteers distributed information to legislators about why children come into care and the characteristics of children in care (average age, race, and their special needs). In Minnesota, we spent six weeks providing key information on foster care issues, then sent an order from the Court of Make Believe that the child's permanency plan had changed: the child would now be adopted. And for the remaining six weeks, we shifted our educational information to adoptionwhat is an adoption subsidy, the difference between the state's foster care maintenance rate and the subsidy payment, who is a typical adoptive parent, what do children need after they are adopted (post-adoption services).
5. At the end of the 12-week campaign, volunteers once again converged on the steps of the capitol and collected the dolls. We came prepared with adoption papers just in case the legislators were attached to the dolls and needed to keep them. Eleven legislators opted for adoption.
How to Get Started
What's your Message? This is your #1 decision. Are you trying to increase the knowledge base of legislators and decision makers, generally speaking. Are you covering basic issues of foster carewhy children come into care; what special needs do these children have; who are foster parents; etc. Or, are your goals more specificWe want to increase adoption subsidy rates in our state. Discuss foster care rates, adoption subsidy rates, USDA estimates of the cost of raising a child in the U.S. (differs by region), and how this amount is higher than the adoption subsidy rates. Discuss extreme needs of children. Or, cost benefit analyses of the cost of keeping children in foster care versus placing them for adoption with a subsidy.
Find partnersparent groups can do the doll project alone. It's a given that we can do anything we set our mind to! But, consider the impact of numerous groups joining together to undertake an educational campaign. Instead of foster and adoptive parents standing alone, wouldn't it be better to say nine different groups support this project? In Minnesota, our partners included the American Indian Family and Children's Services, African American Adoption Agency, Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota, Downey Side, Minnesota Foster and Adoptive Care Association, National Foster Parent Association, North American Council on Adoptable Children, Professional Association of Treatment Homes, and the Transracial Adoption Network. We had power in numbers!
TimelineIn Alabama and Minnesota, coordinators estimated that three years were needed to undertake the goals that needed to be achieved. Educating policy makers and state administrators takes time, and requires that a lot of ground work be laid. Take baby steps.
Identify Volunteers in Key DistrictsAll constituents are important. This is a given. But if the chair of an important committee receives four calls from foster and adoptive parents in her district regarding a specific bill, your bill is getting visibility in the right places. In Minnesota, we obtained a list of every foster parent in the entire state and used an Internet site to find parents whose legislators served on the Health and Human Services Committees (both policy and budget). These two important committees hear all bills relating to foster care and adoption.
Be Sure to Thank VolunteersFollow up with parents and other advocates by acknowledging their efforts. You can use an e-mail list to make broadcasts to all volunteers. Or, send personalized cards. People will volunteer again if they feel appreciated. And, if a legislator sponsored a bill or signed on as a co-sponsor, be sure to send a note of thanks.
Involve Parents with Different ViewsAdoption is supported by Republications, Democrats, and Independents. It's a bi-partisan issue. So work to find volunteers to represent all political viewpoints. Individuals with different views can help reach elected officials and offer great suggestions during the planning stages of your educational campaign.
Make it EasyOccasionally, you may need to organize a large group of constituents to contact their legislators about a specific bill or policy issue. Make it easy on parents. They have little time to spend searching for who their specific legislators are and the contact information to reach these individuals. Parents appreciate you doing the work for them.
Whenever you send out a request for parents to call their legislators, include a list of the legislators' names, district, and phone numbers. Also, state government will have a specific local and toll-free number for constituents to call to determine who their legislators are.
MailingsOne way to cut down on the cost of mailing information to legislators is to drop them off at the capitol. Often, if you alphabetize each bundle, include a return address, and secure with a rubber band, the post office for the House and the Senate will distribute your envelopes free.
Keeping TrackConsider creating a database of information on each of your elected officials, and a separate file on all of your volunteers.
It is time-intensive to create these databases, but once you do, the benefits are great. You can run labels, create form letters, keep track of your progress and write notes regarding private meetings with legislators or what a particular parent volunteered to do. It's worth the effort if you can enlist a volunteer with strong computer/database skills.
For more information on Alabama's Legislative Foster Doll Project, go to www.afapa.org