The art of family reunification

Pilot program uses art spaces for foster child meetings

THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES and the Massachusetts Cultural Council – two agencies that would appear to have little in common – have launched a pilot program with the goal of using art to make supervised meetings between foster children and family members living in separate homes more enjoyable.

The pilot grew out of conversations between the two agencies initiated by Lauren Baker, the governor’s wife. Officials from the two agencies sat down to explore whether they could help each other, and their focus eventually shifted to siblings and family members who are living in separate foster homes, and how best to keep them in touch. They zeroed in on the actual meetings themselves, which typically take place across a desk in a gray government office.

“Everybody’s lightbulb went off in their head,” said Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “We were, quite frankly, appalled to learn that these sibling reunions very frequently take place in the DCF conference room, one just like the one we were sitting in, which was very cold and sterile and unfriendly.”

After some brainstorming, officials from the two agencies decided to explore whether these meetings could take place in more artistic settings, such as museums and theaters.

Rep. Paul Donato, who was a foster child himself and recently learned about the pilot, said it makes sense to him. “Now not only are they going to have an opportunity to commiserate with each other, but more important they’re in a setting that is not just a DCF office where they have to sit down in a chair and look at each other and start talking,” he said. “Now you’re in a setting where, whatever the setting may be, you’re more comfortable, and you’re talking about not only what is important to you as a family, but – just as important – some of the things in the surrounding area.”

The pilot launched in July, and so far there has been a lot of enthusiasm but little action, except at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, which jumped in with both feet, again at the urging of Lauren Baker.

The gigantic museum in North Adams now hosts “Sibling Saturdays,” where children in the foster system can meet in Kidspace, a child-centric gallery; receive guided tours; and make art of their own.

MASS MoCA has also hosted more than a dozen supervised visits between parents and their children who are in foster care, and there have been some powerful responses to that, according to Jodi Joseph, the director of communications.

Last week, a boy who was on a school field trip at the museum was delighted by what he saw, and returned that night for a supervised visit with his parents, whom he excitedly led around the museum, according to Joseph.

Tim Okamura. Expectant Guard. Oil on canvas, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

In another instance a mother who was pregnant went to the museum for a supervised visit with her two children, and was struck by a painting by Tim Okamura called Expectant Guard, which is part of an exhibit called “Still I Rise,” showcasing women of color through history. The painting depicts two visibly pregnant women, one with her hair in an Afro and the other in braids, holding samurai swords, wearing camo pants and looking out toward the viewer. When she saw the painting, the mother, who is a woman of color, stopped in her tracks and said, “That’s me,” according to Joseph.

Funding for the MASS MoCA program comes from a grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, according to Joseph.

According to many of the participants in the early discussions, the idea for blending art and foster care started with a conversation between Lauren Baker and Nina Fialkow, the chair of the Cultural Council and a filmmaker. Falkow won a Daytime Emmy in 1994 for her work on This Old House, and she has produced some notable documentaries about current events, including The Great Hack and The Fourth Estate.

Fialkow and her husband David are friends with the Bakers, and in the years between his unsuccessful 2010 run and his victorious 2014 campaign, Charlie Baker worked as an executive-in-residence at David Fialkow’s venture capital firm, General Catalyst.

Lauren Baker, a board member of the Wonderfund, a non-profit that helps children in the care of the Department of Children and Families, facilitated the introduction between the two state agencies and then backed off. Walker said that Baker “became our bridge,” helping to arrange a meeting in Springfield last October that convened Cultural Council staff, social workers, and the people who run local arts institutions to come up with ideas for how to serve children in state care.

There was a second meeting this past February with cultural institutions and DCF staff, and then the launch of the pilot in July. The Cultural Council plans to evaluate the pilot this winter and then again at the end of 2020.

To participate in the program, cultural institutions must have ample space and activities, flexible availability, and a point-person at the institution to coordinate with DCF social workers, according to an outline by the Cultural Council. The social workers and families would be responsible for transportation.

Jane O’Leary, director of the playwright mentoring program at the Barrington Stage Co. in Pittsfield, attended the meetings about the pilot program and is excited about the possibility of hosting a meeting. O’Leary uses theater as a way for youths to write through and process their trauma, and she said it is easier for them to write lines for a scene than to speak more straightforwardly about the difficulties they are experiencing.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

As O’Leary envisions it, the theater campus would offer more than just a space for foster children to meet with their family members. The theater, which puts on a range of performances in addition to the youth program that O’Leary runs, would also offer foster children a theatrical experience, such as tickets to a show.

O’Leary likes the concept. “It seems very doable and kind of the first step in partnering with these families that so deserve support,” she said.