First off a confession. My family goes to Maine in the summers, to the North Woods, so I'm always looking for Maine stories.
About a year ago I read a profile in an online newsletter, called Connect for Kids about a high school girl from downeast Maine who had lobbied to create a special foster care law for sibiling rights. There was a picture of this lovely girl, Kala Clark, and the governor at the bill signing. I thought it seemed like a nice story, so I proposed it as a possible feature. We didn't do it at the time, but earlier this summer I spoke with Kala and Penthea Burns, who works for the University of Maine's Muskie School of Public Policy. Penthea talked about the importance of empowering children in foster care, and mentioned that Maine has a camp for foster care siblings called "Camp to Belong." It's one of seven camps around the US that bring together separated siblings for a week or two in the summer. We thought this would be a perfect way to tell Kala's story and those of other siblings in foster care.
It's estimated that three out of four siblings in foster care are separated, and foster care children tend to come from large families. Many times the siblings are the ones who forge the strongest bonds, taking over the roles of mother or father as needed in dysfunctional households. Kala lived in an abusive home until she was 12, then entered the foster care system, placed with a family she now considers her own. Back then, her younger brothers remained with her biological mother. It was difficult for Kala to get visits, in part because the boys were in a home she couldn't go to. She says the judge agreed with her, that there should be scheduled visitations, but said he had no authority to order them.
Kala grew frustrated and angry. A high school assignment to write a letter to the governor about an issue of importance to her was the catalyst. So Kala wrote the governor, pointing out this gap in the law. Governor John Baldacci said he was impressed by Kala's story, saying it couldn't help but tug at his heartstrings. He wrote back and Kala's letter started its route through governmental offices, With Kala's help, the governor himself sponsored the legislation that was signed into law April 2006. It basically gives judges the authority to order sibling visitations. By this time Kala had "aged out" of foster care, so the law came too late to help her. But she hopes the law helps others in maintaining and nourishing those sibling bonds. And even more important, it's allowed kids in the system to have a voice and to be heard alongside the policy makers, social workers and judges.
Our time in Maine included a picture-perfect morning for a boat ride to watch Kala and her (foster) dad haul lobster traps. Airline cancellations prevented Kelly Wallace, our correspondent, from traveling to Bar Harbor to interview Kala. So Kala came with us to Camp to Belong outside Portland.
It was her first visit to the camp, even though she'd done fundraising for it and knew many of the staffers and counselors there. Kala even got a ride in a water tube (she wiped out at the end) and the kids gave her a special camp cheer at lunch. It was an emotional and difficult day for Kala, especially as she had to tell her story and bring back some ugly ghosts. But I think it was an inspiration for the kids there. Camp to Belong is, for some of them, a rare week for them to actually live in the same place as their brother or sister, and many of them have become so attached they are now asking to be placed near each other to be able to see more of each other.
And Kala, now in a loving family, is a foster care success story.