Friday, February 16, 2001

TV ad seeking foster parents tugs at heart

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A nearly $2 million ad campaign of emotive TV commercials and haunting Sarah McLachlan lyrics did the trick for Dwynella Reatherford, 38, of Harrison.

        The ads, sponsored by the Hamilton County Department of Human Services, inspired her to make a call, receive free training to become a foster parent, and get her home licensed as a haven for abused and neglected children.

        She and her husband, Woodford, became foster parents to two young brothers in September.

[photo] TV ads inspired Dwynella and Woodford Reatherford to become foster parents. Two boys now share their Harrison home with daughters Sara, 2, and Erica, 17.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        “I watch (the TV ad) all the time,” Mrs. Reatherford said. “I feel for these kids.”

        Human services officials say the agency's barrage of newspaper ads, billboards and TV commercials was a smashing success: The number of newly-licensed foster homes tripled.

        Across the nation, agencies are struggling with recruiting enough caregivers for the numbers of children coming into the system.

        “We're extremely pleased with the campaign. It's been really on the mark,” department spokesman Mike Boehmer said.

        He calls the ad campaign launched in January 2000 a success because:

        • Calls about the requirements to be a foster parent jumped 64 percent over 1999, to an average of 770 a month.

        • Requests for information packets increased 132 percent, to 2,170 in 2000.

        • The number of newly-licensed foster homes numbered 94 in 2000, compared with 26 in 1999.

        • Foster families in Hamilton County now number 446, approaching the agency's goal of 600. The 1999 number was 394.

        The near-450 mark is an all-time high, Mr. Boehmer said.

[photo] The television ads used haunting music and heart-tugging images to attract new foster parents.
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        The benefits have gone beyond the county line.

        Neighboring agencies say they are getting more calls and, if their budgets allowed, they'd follow the example.

        The ads, created by Loren, Allan, Odioso Advertising Inc. in downtown Cincinnati, portray crying children, tough living circumstances and comforting foster parents. Accompanying Sarah McLachlan lyrics have offered an eloquent refrain for the campaign “You're in the arms of the angel. May you find some comfort here.”

        The Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children's Covington office received 35 calls officials directly attribute to the campaign. Hamilton County cannot work with foster parents from other states, so it redirects Kentucky callers to the Cabinet's Covington branch.

        Mary Jo Kasak, who handles foster care matters in the Covington office, could not pinpoint how many callers ultimately became foster parents.

        But the new interest made her wish that the Cabinet could afford similar TV ads.

        “Foster parents really are angels for the foster kids,” she said. The TV commercials “are very nicely done. People see this ad and think about it. The more people you reach with the ad, the more impact you're going to have. It's just a very effective way to get the message out.”

        It's an aggressive approach to a national problem, said a spokesman for the Child Welfare League of America in Washington, D.C.

        “If that was successful for them, that's terrific,” said Millicent Williams, league foster care director. “That's a lot of money to spend on recruitment. It certainly says they value children that they were able to spend a million.”

Greater Cincinnatišs eight-county region is struggling to keep pace with the growing number of foster children. County agencies now oversee foster care settings for almost 2,000 abused and neglected children.
Hamilton: 895
Butler: 394
Clermont: 156
Kenton: 124
Warren: 120
Dearborn: 42
Campbell: 34
Boone: 5
        When launching the campaign, county Human Services Director Don Thomas called it a million-dollar gamble.

        Faced with the pressing need to find foster homes for more than 100 children, he said it was worth it.

        Since then, the agency has spent $1.9 million on the campaign. Although this year's budget still is being debated, Mr. Boehmer thinks up to $900,000 could be used for this year's effort.

        In eight Greater Cincinnati counties, there were 3,197 foster care children in 1999, up from 2,027 in 1995, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer's annual Tristate Child Index.

        Hamilton County saw an almost 88 percent jump in its foster care placements between 1990 and 2000, going from 477 to 895. From 1999 to 2000 alone, the number of children placed went up 13 percent.

        Hamilton County's TV ads connected with Chris Schroder, 50, of Pleasant Ridge. She and her husband, Lou, have four children. The youngest is 17.

        She had been wanting to become a foster parent for some time when the TV commercials pushed her off the fence.

        “The ad campaign kept nudging me to not give up on the idea and make the call,” she said. “There's just a lot of children that need help.”

        Her home is now certified as a foster home. A 17-month-old boy with meningitis has been staying with the Schroders for a month.

        She treasures his smile and that he has become more comfortable in her home.

        “This has been a joy,” she said.

        “If you like kids, kids are a joy wherever they're from. He's a beautiful child (and) a sweet innocent little guy. It's a challenge but rewarding.”

       For information on becoming a foster parent, Hamilton County residents can call 632-6366. The county will send a package of information. A training period of about six months is required before certification can be obtained.


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