Have you heard the Sleep Train commercials urging you to donate to foster kids, under the slogan "Not everyone can be a foster parent, but anyone can help a foster child?"
There are more than 400,000 children in this country in need of foster care, but they are virtually invisible to the rest of us, which is part of the problem. But I do know a bona fide foster care expert: Lily Dorman-Colby, a former foster child herself.
Lily not only overcame the odds – only a small percentage of foster kids graduate from college – to get a full scholarship to Yale, she's now a third year student at UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School, where she's devoting her career to advocating for better foster care policies.
"I appreciate what Sleep Train is trying to do, but I have mixed feelings about that slogan because I want people who are qualified to seriously consider being foster or adoptive parents as a way of expanding their families," she says.
"For instance, both at Yale and after Yale at law school, I've had professors come and talk to me about being foster parents, and they thought they weren't qualified! Some of my favorite teachers, the ones who go all out for their students, were afraid to become foster parents. It was preposterous to me because these are precisely the people we need – people who are or could be dedicated to helping their children physically, emotionally and educationally."
And she's practicing what she preaches. She and her fiancé Scott have already fostered two children, for which they were honored as "Unsung Heroes" on Dec. 9 by the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.
And she remembers all too well what life as a foster child was like.
"They say that moving is very traumatic on children, and that's when you're moving with your family. Think how much worse it is to be moving without your family! So foster kids not only have to endure abuse and neglect before they enter the foster system, they have to experience the trauma of being torn from the only family they've ever known.
"And with a huge gap between the number of kids needing foster homes and the number of homes available, the social workers can't afford to be choosy. Basically, all they're looking for is a bed."
What these kids need more than anything else is someone like you. If you'd like to explore the possibility of becoming a foster parent – or, even better, adopting a foster child – Lily recommends going through an agency rather than contacting the county directly.
"They're better at certifying somebody and supporting them than going through the county," she says. "They'll train you and license you and help you get higher reimbursement rates."
She says there are "a ton" of good agencies out there - including senecacenter.org, aspiranetadoption.org and agapevillages.org - but I'd recommend doing your own Internet search and choosing the agency that feels right for you.
And if you'd like to donate to the Youth Law Center, visit ylc.org or send a tax-deductible check to 200 Pine Street, Suite 300, San Francisco 94104.
"Parenting is described by many as the joy of their life and the most difficult thing they've ever done, says Lily. "And that's true of foster parenting and adoption, too."