Foster-child project recasts concept of 'family'

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It's Friday night, and the pepperoni pizza has just arrived.

The kids race to claim their slices and load up on the homemade macaroni salad.

The grown-ups are in the dining room, guffawing and joking, stopping to refill a plate or juice cup when a kid wanders in.

It feels like a typical family gathering, complete with big kids who scoff at the baby movie being shown and adult gossip about the mom who is not there. They barely pay attention to me; they've been at this for years and have their routines and shticks.

But none of these people are related by blood, and the entire gathering is orchestrated by the D.C. government.

The six adults are all foster parents; the seven kids were all removed from their birth parents by social workers who suspected abuse or neglect. The gathering is part of a quiet, 40-child experiment by the Mockingbird Society, named for the destruction of innocence in Harper Lee's classic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The concept, pioneered in Washington state and recently expanded to the District and Kentucky, creates clusters of foster families around a hub parent. Just like an extended family of cousins and uncles and sisters and aunts, with the familiar matriarch in the middle.

Last Friday night, the gathering was at Diane Barnes's home, who's been the hub parent here for three years.

She keeps a schedule for swapping out child-care duties, having kids over to her own apartment in Southeast Washington so the foster parents can get a breather.

And at their monthly gatherings, or trips to the circus or Thanksgiving dinners, they talk about birth-parent issues, family visitation, therapy sessions and social worker visits.

Many of the kids come to them double-traumatized, at the very least. They might have endured some type of abuse or neglect, and while a court decides whether their parents are fit to take care of them, they are taken from the only family they know.

So in a Mockingbird cluster, they hang out with other kids who are going through the same stuff. And sometimes, there's comfort in that.

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