Two girls with their mom and dad.

Why?

Legislators are rarely specialists on child welfare issues. They are generalists on a huge variety of topics—the environment, education, taxes, transportation, and many more issue areas. To influence the political process, parents 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 assistance. Because we had the project up and running and the infrastructure created, we were able to get the adoption 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 surprises people. 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. 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 a story for each doll, including family history, the reasons 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 ages—4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16

    Boys ages—5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15

    In this way, coordinators knew immediately the sex of the doll if they knew the age. In addition, each doll in a specific age group had a similar story. For example, all dolls aged 4 were females and had a younger sibling and had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). We placed similar “labels” on each doll—the familiar special needs of foster care and adoption, like developmental delays, FASD, intellectual disabilities, or attachment challenges. Each doll also received child labels like misses mom, likes cookies, and has 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.

  1. 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 they 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. 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.
  2. 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 common disabilities and challenges). 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. Then for the remaining six weeks, we shifted our educational information to adoption—what is an adoption subsidy, the difference between the state’s foster care maintenance rate and the adoption subsidy payment, who is a typical adoptive parent, what do children need after they are adopted (post-adoption services).
  3. 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

Determine Your Message

This is your first decision. Are you trying to increase the general knowledge base of legislators and decision makers? Are you covering basic issues of foster care—why children come into care, what special needs these children have, characteristics of foster parents; etc. Or, are your goals more specific—We want to increase adoption assistance rates in our state. You might want to discuss foster care rates, adoption assistance rates, USDA estimates of the cost of raising a child in the US (differs by region), and how this amount is higher than the adoption subsidy rates. You could cover the serious needs of children who have experienced trauma. Or you might discuss the cost benefit analyses of the cost of keeping children in foster care versus placing them for adoption with a subsidy.

Find Partners

Parent groups can do the doll project alone. But you might 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, NACAC’s 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, Professional Association of Treatment Homes, and the Transracial Adoption Network. We had power in numbers!

Identify Volunteers in Key Districts

All 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 Volunteers

Follow up with parents and other advocates by acknowledging their efforts. You can use an email 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 Views

Adoption is supported by Republications, Democrats, and Independents. It’s a non-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 Easy

Occasionally, 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.

Share Information

One 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.

Keep Track

Consider 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.

The Foster Doll Project is not a simple one, but it can have great results. Be sure to be patient In 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 groundwork be laid. Take baby steps.

Categories: Advocacy, How to Advocate For Support

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