Justin is the inspiration for Bells of Hope: Ringing in a Brighter Tomorrow for CT’s Waiting Children, now in its third year.  Last year over 160 faith communities and schools across CT agreed to ring their bells and offer prayer to call attention to the children in the CT foster care system waiting for permanent homes.  The idea for Bells of Hope came to me in early spring 2009. I was working on ideas to increase adoptions in Connecticut and kept coming back to thoughts of my son’s brother, now 20, who had never been adopted. For purposes of confidentiality I call him Justin.

        Justin is my son’s biological older brother. I am the adoptive mom of three boys, all of whom were adopted through the CT foster care system, and one biological son.  I had tried to adopt Justin, but, as a single parent of four boys, I was not considered an appropriate resource for him. He needed more than social workers felt I could give to another special needs child. Truth be told, I secretly shared their fears, and although I did come forward and offer to be a resource for him I knew their decision was the right one for my family and for Justin.

      I met Justin when he was 9. He was a handsome young man living in a group setting. I would often bring my son, his brother, to visit him. And I also frequently had him to my home for the day. Our whole family came to love him and consider him a member of our extended family.  At one point when Justin was hospitalized, a social worker called me from the hospital. You see, Justin had told her that I was to be his adoptive mom soon.  He had our phone number memorized, which made it easy for her to believe him. That situation nearly broke my heart. Here he was in the hospital, vulnerable and lonely and reaching out to me.  This kind and understanding hospital social worker and I had many long talks about Justin’s future. She counseled me to continue as his “beloved aunt” because, she said, he needs a consistently loving adult in his life and if I were to ignore the wise advice of the social workers he could end up with no one – a disrupted adoption and feelings on both sides that might not heal well enough for our relationship to continue.

       Well, Justin was never adopted. He moved from placement to placement for 10 long and lonely years.  When he turned 19, his worker found an aunt to care for him temporarily while the state looked for a transitional life-skills program for him to attend and reside at. After having lived in congregate care for so many years he would need some help navigating the world. Unlike typical children, he had never had an allowance; his own room; regular chores to learn from; increasing responsibility and freedom to explore the world from a safe place; the ability to make mistakes and learn while being loved by a family. So, he was vulnerable to making mistakes once released into the world.

                Justin did not stay with his aunt long. He found family rules confusing and stressful. For instance, he could not figure out why his aunt was angry when he ran up a cell phone bill of over $150 for ring tones! So, he ran away and joined a gang. He called them his new family. He claimed they accepted and valued him. From time to time he would return to his aunt’s home for brief stays but each time he would return to the streets where he felt more comfortable.

      Our family spent time with Justin during the 2008 Christmas season. He spent a week with us. While doing his laundry during his visit, razor blades fell out of his pockets into my washer. He said he needed them for protection on the streets. My heart broke. Shortly after his visit he went back to the streets.  Last year  he was arrested.  We have tried to maintain contact but it has been very difficult. 

      I hope he’s okay. I think about him all the time. His little brother misses him and worries about his safety. We hope he will find someone to help him transition away from the streets and find a better life for himself – one he can be proud of.

      The truth is: far too many teens in foster care age out of the system. Nationally about 28,000 youth “age out” of foster care every year. “Teens who are emancipated from foster care have higher rates of incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, and dependence on public assistance than non-foster youth. In fact, one in four will be incarcerated within two years of leaving foster care; one in five will become homeless at some point after age 18. Moreover, many studies have documented a bleak outlook in education as well: only 58 percent of foster youth who aged out of the system had a high school degree at age 19, compared to 87 percent of non-foster youth; and less than 3 percent of emancipated foster youth over the age of 25 earned college degrees, compared to 28 percent of the general population.” *

      In fact, many studies show that approximately 50% of all youth who have been in foster care will become homeless at some time in their lives. I do not want to think of someone I love as one of these statistics. And I do not want to think of all of the other youth who age out of foster care continuing to make up these statistics. That is why I came up with Bells of Hope.

      The idea for “Bells” was shamelessly stolen from the Special Olympics. Back in 1995 the Worldwide Special Olympics Games were held in New Haven. My adopted son, a Special Olympian himself, was asked to do the honor of ringing the bells in our church to mark the Opening of the Games. He was thrilled and it was exciting for the whole family! Church bells rang all over Connecticut as the Games opened. What a beautiful sound! And we felt a part of something larger than ourselves.

       My son was so proud to be asked to ring those bells. So I thought why can’t the bells be rung for foster kids? Surely this is a worthy cause. And wouldn’t adopted kids get a kick out of being the “bell ringers?”  So the seeds of Bells of Hope were born. Others have helped to tweak the idea and help bring it to fruition.

       Last year some town councils issued proclamations declaring the day the official Bells of Hope Day. Some congregations held candlelight vigils while the bells rang. Others simply rang the bells. But everyone heard them.  My goal was and is simply to get folks to think about the kids – and hopefully a few will come forward to adopt or become foster parents – because these kids are our kids – our Connecticut kids – and at the very least they deserve a few minutes of our time on a Sunday in November.

         As we did the past two years, this website will post a listing of the 2011 bells ringing in your community as well as the www.bellsofhope.org website. As we receive word from churches and schools they will be added to the list.  On or around October 29, we will post the official number of times the bells should ring.  Faith communities that can will ring the designated number of times at 6 p.m. on Sunday.  Churches that have less control over their bells may choose to ring at a different time, a different number of times or if they have no bells they can participate (and be included on the list) by placing a prayer request in their bulletins asking for prayers from their congregants during services the first weekend in November.

         Want to help? Contact me and I will be delighted to refer you to one of our regional coordinators so you can help us gain new faith partners or sign up your faith community.  If everyone does just a little, fewer kids will wait in foster care who just need a place to call home.

*To protect the identity of this young man his name has been  changed .  All other details are factual.
**Taken from Youth Aging Out of Foster Care by Sharon Landvoy

This article was written by Deb Kelleher for Foster Adoptive Mission and Bells of Hope