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What happens when a foster parent learns about an early learning center that’s willing to try a new approach?


That’s the story Kate Audette tells about a child placed in her care by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), the state’s child welfare agency.

It was 2020, in the middle of the pandemic and after George Floyd was murdered, when Audette, who has been a licensed foster care provider since 2017, accepted the placement of an infant whom we’ll call Jordan to protect the child’s privacy. 

Audette was working from home at the time and planned to keep the baby home “until it felt safe for them to go to school.”

But she did take the baby to a neighborhood rally in support of George Floyd. The event was organized by Dorchester People for Peace. It was outside. Everyone wore masks. It felt safe.

It also turned out to be life changing.

“After the rally, the head of the Epiphany School, a woman named Michelle Sanchez, came up to me because she had heard me say, Oh, this is one of my foster children,” Audette recalls. “I was wearing the baby at the time, and she said, ‘If any of your kids of any age are ever interested in Epiphany, please let me know.’ And I said, ‘Funny you should say that – I need to think about care for this little one at some point.’ ”

Founded in 1997, Epiphany is a school for economically disadvantaged families in Boston. Today, Epiphany has an Early Learning Center, a middle school, and the desire to be a destination for more children who are involved with DCF.

Admitting Jordan seemed like a great idea. But it would be a new step. Epiphany’s early learning model starts prenatally with programs for parents that expand to embrace infants once they are born.

In addition, Jordan had health challenges and special needs that Epiphany would have to be responsive to; and, due to the pandemic, Jordan hadn’t had exposure to other children or to other adults besides Audette.

“We had always talked about adding children,” Emily Centeio, Epiphany’s Family Engagement director, says. She began working with Audette on the admissions process. “And when we talked about when and how to admit a new child, toddlerhood seemed like the right time.”

Epiphany took time to get to know Jordan through a virtual playdate and an in-person visit. Then, in November 2021, Jordan enrolled in the program. In a classroom full of kids who had already bonded, Jordan had to be, as Audette says, “the new kid on the block.”

Fortunately, Epiphany wrapped itself around Audette and Jordan, even providing a space for Jordan to have regular meetings with biological relatives and with DCF social workers.

Providing this space, Audette says, “is another example of Epiphany’s commitment to my little one’s social emotional learning, to including the biological family, and to minimizing disruptions and trauma.”

In addition, as children do, Jordan has learned from the other children and has become a more active member of the classroom community.

Audette praises Epiphany’s approach, from attentive mindful teaching to the high quality of its food to an app the school uses to provide parents with regular updates on students. There’s a gym, a greenhouse, and outdoor space. And, she says, “There’s just this deep sense of community.”

As for Epiphany, it found that it could successfully rethink its own rule and accept a new child into its early learning cohort, even after that cohort had formed.

“Our mission is: Never give up on a child,” Centeio says. “So, when we founded the Early Learning Center, we instilled this in our work with families. We really push for consistent attendance and engagement with children. Because if children are receiving consistent care from ages zero to five, we can achieve our goal of addressing the achievement gap and supporting school reading. Despite whatever is going on, Epiphany is here every day for kids.”

Here’s the sad part: Epiphany can’t help as many children as it would like to. It can’t say yes to every parent who calls. And, of course, not every foster parent has the advocacy skills that Audette has as a professional social worker; and not every parent has the time and resilience to work with a school over time to ensure a good fight.

Fortunately, this story does highlight opportunities.

Centeio’s work shows how important it is to have a family engagement staff member who can work with children and families.

Philanthropies could invest grant money to fund more partnerships between DCF, foster parents, and high-quality early education programs. 

Audette also points out that foster parents deserve more respect.

“The term that I’m trying to socialize is ‘licensed foster care provider’, because I think much like early education and care teachers, foster parents are seen as glorified babysitters. I hope to amplify the professional aspects of what we do and the essential role we play. We’re foster care providers. There is rigor in our licensure and there are quality and safety standards that we are required to adhere too.

“This perception problem is rooted in our nation’s history of slavery,” Audette adds, “when troupes such as ‘mammies’ or ‘nursemaid’, were used to describe women of color who were mandated caregivers for their white slave master’s children. The modern-day implication of this dark history is that many early childhood teachers and foster care providers are women of color. And we are still being marginalized. We get diminished. We get undervalued.

“So, it’s really important to me to uplift teachers and uplift the women of color who are running centers and teaching in early education classes and doing this work as foster care providers. It’s important to show that we are highly skilled, essential, front line care providers to the youngest members of our communities.”

Most of all, as Audette says, all children deserve what Jordan has at Epiphany, a high-quality early education and care program where all their needs, from lunch to learning to family challenges can be seen, respected, and addressed.