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A Utopia of Foster Care Inspires Copies

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A Utopia of Foster Care Inspires Copies

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A Utopia of Foster Care Inspires Copies

A Utopia of Foster Care Inspires Copies

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West of Boston, a new community is taking shape that matches young families with troubled foster youth and elderly residents who'll provide wisdom and support. Called the Treehouse Community, the program is seen as a model for how to help foster families cope with the challenges of helping abused children. Karen Brown reports.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For foster children who never find a permanent home, the statistics are depressing. Half will never finish high school, a third will go on welfare and a quarter will become homeless when they leave the system at 18. That's why one new housing development in Massachusetts is trying to create a community that will help both the children and the families who take them in.

From member station WFCR, Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN: Pam and Ned Slavka had long wanted to adopt a child from state custody, and six weeks ago they did.

Ms. PAM SLAVKA: What do you want? What are you playing? What's up honey?

BROWN: They knew that neglect and abuse early in life can lead to behavioral problems later on. And with a seven-year-old birth daughter already at home, they didn't think they could handle the challenge alone. Even with a monthly stipend offered by the state.

Ms. SLAVKA: Do you need your diaper changed? Would you be more comfortable with a fresh diaper?

BROWN: What eventually convinced the Slavka's to take in this two-year-old girl was the Treehouse Community in East Hampton, Massachusetts.

Ms. SLAVKA: We were really drawn to the idea of creating a village, because that's one of the things that's missing in modern society, is we don't have communities that are supportive of each other.

BROWN: Treehouse is a quaint neighborhood of newly built duplexes that share yards, driveways, common land and a community center, two hours west of Boston. But what sets it apart from your basic subdivision is that it centers around 12 families who are raising foster or adopted children from social services. Ned Slavka says they're all likely to face the same sorts of challenges.

Mr. SLAVKA: I think there are patterns within the system of kids that are abused and neglected. They exhibit some of the same things and go through the same things. I always thought it was good to bring that together.

BROWN: And if the stress gets too much for the young families, there's a second component to Treehouse, 48 low income senior citizens recruited to live there as foster grandparents. The idea is that they'll have the time and inclination to mix with the children and offer families their life lessons.

Ms. JUDY COCKERTON (Founder, The Treehouse Foundation): I think a lot of it is based on common sense and humanity.

BROWN: That's Treehouse founder Judy Cockerton.

Ms. COCKERTON: You take children and parents and elders and you live in a multi-generational community - the way we used to live - and people care about each other.

BROWN: Cockerton modeled her utopian vision on a community in Illinois called Hope Meadows, where for 10 years now foster families have lived among seniors on a former Air Force Base. Cockerton - herself an adoptive mother - teamed up with a private developer and went about duplicating the project. This summer the young families and their elder counterparts started moving in.

Ms. LYNN KNUDSON: But this is my sanctuary.

BROWN: Lynn Knudson is decorating her new senior apartment. The 74-year-old divorced grandmother is here because she doesn't want to be isolated in her old age and she was drawn to the Treehouse mission.

Ms. KNUDSON: I know the story of what happens to most foster children and it's very, very tragic. And I think here these children, they're all going to end up going to good colleges and having a good background, I'm sure, because they'll have a lot of people that care about them.

BROWN: In many ways, Knudson embodies the idealistic senior that Treehouse targets. She plays guitar and invites over the neighborhood children for sing-a-longs. But she wonders if she is more of the exception than the rule.

Ms. KNUDSON: I've met a few people who have no interest in working with the kids. They've come here for completely different reasons because maybe it was less expensive than another apartment or because they could park more easily.

BROWN: Housing laws forbid the developers from discriminating across anyone. They can only give priority to families and seniors connected with the foster care system. But Judy Cockerton says she's not worried.

Ms. COCKERTON: I haven't met yet anyone who didn't look me in the eye after hearing me speak to them about my dream, my vision and not buy in on some level.

BROWN: Even the state Department of Social Services has bought in. The agency is paying for two social workers to be on hand at the Treehouse community with the hope it will become a model for other towns.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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