Published February 19, 2013
Volume 21, Number 2

AFS: The Gathering Place Provides Homey Setting for Foster Visits       
Agency Offers Assistance Aimed to Reunite Splintered Families

Jennifer Harper (left) and Debbie Lignell of AFS.   (photo credit: Creatability LLC)

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

New Hacienda tenant Alternative Family Services (AFS): The Gathering Place delivers a very valuable menu of services to an especially sensitive constituency—youth in foster care in Alameda County. The ultimate goal of the private mental health, adoption, and foster family agency is to reunify youth with their biological families. This is not something that happens without effort and commitment. The agency offers a variety of assistance for the entire family, including therapy, life skills, and job creation resources for parents, with the aim of restoring stability so children can return home.

A child’s entry into the foster care system is typically triggered by some type of family crisis—for example, a lost job, an unstable home environment, or substance abuse. “Children in foster care are the product of circumstance. They didn’t do anything to get there,” observes Jennifer Harper, AFS Director of Development and Marketing.  It is not “a positive pathway,” she notes, and for many a bleak future of incarceration or homelessness awaits. 

For years, the Alameda County Department of Social Services had been developing an innovative but very grounded approach to help reverse the trend, using the family visit as the pivot. Typically, foster children maintain relationships with their biological parents through visits held in county offices, most likely in their caseworker’s cubicle.  It is a stressful setting lacking in both comfort and privacy. 

As a solution, the county created the model of a home-like environment for the visits. The idea was to put both children and parents at ease so they could relate more normally and practice the skills needed for reunification. In 2010, AFS won the contract to operate the first Gathering Place, which opened near the Oakland Airport in 2011. It was such a success, accommodating some 200 families a year, that the county brought the concept to the Tri-Valley, settling in to a scaled down space at 5627 Stoneridge Drive.

“The model includes a kitchen, dining room, and age-appropriate playrooms so it really feels like a family setting,” says Harper. “We want to get everyone going in the right direction early in the process, healing and empowering the children for success so they do not end up in the same cycle. The positive environment really helps them with a good start.”

AFS also offers several philanthropic opportunities for businesses and individuals. Serving close to 1,500 foster youth annually in 17 counties, including roughly 25 percent of Alameda County’s total, the agency regularly partners with community members on holiday gift drives and back-to-school campaigns.  While county funding pays for agency operations, it does not cover things that can be so important for the children—summer camp, braces, senior portraits. “The agency and foster parents spend almost $100,000 a year on diapers alone,” Harper notes. “There are many ways to support our activities.”

For more information, call Harper at (510)759-1271 or email jharper@afs4kids.org.

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