Journalist Uses Media to Spur Foster Care Reform
By Amy Delpo and Lauren Mogannam
Some time in 2006, while Daniel Heimpel was getting a graduate degree in journalism, he met someone whose story fired his passions and set the course of his fledgling career.
The person he met was a high school kid named Chris, a foster child, who was playing on a lacrosse team in South Central Los Angeles. Heimpel, a lacrosse player himself, had heard about a team comprised of Latino and African American kids and had gone to investigate. He became intrigued by the team and by one player in particular – Chris – who told Daniel that he didn’t have any parents and instead was living in a group home.
Heimpel began mentoring Chris and another teenager also in foster care, and the experience gave Heimpel a window into the foster care system – and inspired him to document what he observed. He wrote a series of stories about the team for Inside Lacrosse Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. And he wrote about Chris, and the realities of being a foster kid in urban Los Angeles, for LA Weekly.
“I wanted to cover this subject matter very badly. I kept following this story because I was passionate about it,” he said. “Every job I had, I tried to write about this subject. It opened up every door.”
In the years that followed, Heimpel continued writing articles about the foster care system, what happened to kids while they were in the system, and when they got out. And he wrote about the effect of a broken system on the children, their families, and society. The articles appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Daily News, Newsweek, the Seattle Times, the Huffington Post, Current TV and the San Jose Mercury News.
But it soon became apparent to Heimpel that simply writing about the system was not enough; he wanted to try to change it.
“When I first started looking at the system, my initial reaction was that it was messed up,” he explained. “But then I realized that the gap between what was wrong and making it right was not insurmountable. … I realized that I had to do something about it.”
That something is Fostering Media Connections, a nonprofit media organization that is trying to change the narrative about foster care and spur reform. Heimpel created FMC with the help of a high school friend, videographer Eytan Elterman, who has a background in social action documentaries and media relations. Together, they have produced scores of print and video stories in small and large news outlets throughout the country.
Through FMC, Heimpel and Elterman are making it easier for journalists to cover foster care issues by literally handing them the stories, the context, and the data. The hope is that when people read about the realities of the system, they will start to care, Heimpel says. And when they care, they will push their lawmakers to make needed changes.
The peg for Heimpel and Elterman’s efforts is a new federal law called the Fostering Connections to Success Act, one of the most significant pieces of child welfare legislation to come out of Washington in more than a decade. It seeks to improve the outcomes for foster youth and increase access to adoption by ensuring permanent placements with relatives, increasing incentives for adoption, maintaining sibling ties and other family connections, extending foster care to age 21, and increasing access to federal funding to promote better outcomes for Native American children. Although the act is a federal law, implementation is left to the discretion of individual states.
Heimpel and Elterman have identified 14 media markets where they want to educate journalists and place stories with the hopes of generating support for the implementation of the act on the state level. So far, they have traveled to California, Washington state, and Maryland, and they are now working in Massachusetts. California recently passed local legislation, AB 12, to implement the Fostering Connections to Success Act, and it appears likely that Washington State will do the same.
FMC uses roughly the same method in each market it visits: Heimpel uncovers stories and presents them to journalists, while Elterman documents FMC’s work through video that FMC then gives to media outlets.
“The first two weeks are spent mining the community for stories,” Heimpel said. “I then package them up and meet with people. So by the end of every media market, I give them a menu of stories which are really substantive, fleshed out, structured and basically done.”
Although the Fostering Connections to Success Act contains a number of provisions, FMC’s work has focused on the extension of care until age 21, educational stability and kinship. Even though Heimpel currently writes and packages stories, he wants to get other journalists involved and interested in the issue and expand the number of journalists providing continual coverage on foster care.
“The main goal is not for me to write, but to someday create an army of journalists willing to accept that they are not powerless anymore and can actually inspire dramatic change for kids in foster care,” he said.
Since the inception of FMC, the project has received more coverage than anticipated, and often journalists continue covering foster care even after Heimpel and Elterman have left the scene. Although he is happy about FMC’s success, Heimpel said he will not be satisfied until the federal law is implemented nationwide and foster care is a leading national issue.
“There has been some success, but I don’t have Oprah talking about this stuff,” he said. “I don’t have Anderson Cooper talking about this stuff. So until we get to that level, we are not there yet.”
The project will wrap up in December 2011, but Heimpel hopes to use the same methods to tackle other critical social issues. Although FMC will end, Heimpel believes FMC’s approach of turning the media into a tool that informs the public and empowers journalists to instigate social change can be used for other social battles.
“We are establishing a beachhead into the greater battle for social justice,” he said. “Fostering Media Connections will die after its 14 media markets, but I don’t think the paradigm will.”
Lauren Mogannam was a 2010 summer communications intern at NCYL. She is in her senior year at Northwestern University, with a double major in journalism and Spanish.
Amy DelPo is a former attorney whose legal work ranged from representing inmates on California’s death row to litigating plaintiff’s civil rights and employment law cases. Since leaving the active practice of law several years ago, she has been writing about legal and health care issues for a variety of organizations, including Nolo Press and the California Healthcare Foundation. She lives in Denver with her three children.