5 Acres: Breaking Conventions To Nurture Healthy Families

Chanel B. & Matt L.

Five Acres CEO Chanel Boutakidis and actor Matthew Lillard

A conversation with Five Acres’ CEO Chanel Boutakidis on the past/present foster care system & building a future of permanency for children in need.

November is National Adoption Awareness Month and Five Acres CEO Chanel Boutakidis wants to turn the foster care system on its head by getting you involved to build healthy families.

There are approximately 800,000 children nationally who come in contact with the foster care system annually. Despite more than a decade of intended reform, the nation’s foster care system is still overcrowded and rife with problems. Taxpayers are spending nearly $22 billion a year — or $40,000 per child — on foster care programs, according to Boutakidis.

Further break down of the numbers reveals the troubling reality that these children face. The average age of a foster child is 10 years old, with half under the age of 10. About 40,000 infants are placed in foster care every year. About 126,000 children are currently available for adoption. On average, children stay in the system for almost three years (31 months) before either being reunited with their families or adopted, almost 20 percent wait five years or more.

On average, children have three different foster care placements. The frequent moves in and out of the homes of strangers can be seriously unsettling for them. It is not uncommon to hear of children who have been in 20 or 30 different homes. Many have been separated from both their parents, and their siblings. Sadly, more than 20,000 children each year never leave the system — they remain in foster care until they “age out.”

Children who “age out” of foster care continue to lack the vital structure that a family provides throughout their lifetime. And, in the U.S. 30 percent of the homeless population and about 25 percent of those in prison were once in foster care. According to Boutakidis, not only does the lack of a stable environment during those developmental years means these children will never be taught how to function as an adult, but the lack of support for higher education leaves these children without the academic/career prospects of their peers.

It’s very expensive to develop and implement the types of programs Boutakidis hopes will forever change the lives of children who are at risk of entering or already in foster care. Therefore, fundraising is crucial and this past Spring Five Acres had the help of actor Matthew Lillard (aka Shaggy) and KTLA TV reporter Wendy Burch lent their status and support as emcees for the Voices for Five Acres – 2014 Annual Swingin’ on a Star Gala. Lillard has been a dedicated supporter of the organization for a number of years, and his wife Heather also got involved this past Spring by serving on the Gala committee.

Though galas and celebrity appearances are extremely helpful in fundraising and building awareness, Boutakidis is all about breaking away from conventions and the status quo. And, she wants caring members of the community, like you, to step forward and give these children what they need most, a home and love. That’s all.


In the following Q & A, Chanel Boutakidis reveals how she became the CEO of the oldest nonprofit in the San Gabriel Valley, and how her plans for its future involve you.

Effie Magazine  What’s been the greatest change at Five Acres since you became involved?

Chanel Boutakidis  I got involved with Five Acres fifteen years ago, when I started as a case aide for the residential program located in Altadena. I was inspired by the organization and the work they did with vulnerable children. At the time Five Acres was much smaller, serving only a few hundred children a year with services focused predominately on children in the foster care system. There was a warmth and culture in the organization that felt safe and homelike for the children, which is what they need to begin feeling safe enough to begin working on the trauma they had experienced prior to entering the program (safety is the first thing you need to begin healing and transforming.) Once the child was no longer in a “fight or flight” mode, the mental health needs and resources for positive well-being come’s next. I love being a part of that process and so while employed at Five Acres I also pursued my secondary degree and licensure to better understand and enter the clinical domain.

As I began to work directly with the children as a therapist, there was a piece missing for me. At the time we noticed that the children coming in were feeling safe and receiving the supports for healthy well-being but many of these children did not have a family to go to so they resided in our program much longer than they needed to. This was not a healthy movement for them. So over the years, as an organization, we began to explore permanency for children. We brought in consultants, attempted pilots for family finding and thought more holistically about the needs of the children we served. We thought, how do we promote a safe, healthy and forever family for every child? Through this exploration, I became energized by the innovation of an organization that has been around for over a century and I grew in leadership moving from a therapist into administration as a program director.

Over the last fifteen years, I have watched Five Acres grow and transform from being a provider of intervention programs to thinking out of the box, expanding in prevention and exploring innovative services. In 2011, I was honored to be appointed by the Board of Directors, with the assistance of Morris & Berger, as the Chief Executive Officer of Five Acres.

EM  When you took over leadership of Five Acres, what was the thing you wanted to tackle, right away?

CB  I wanted to develop a strategic plan… a smart direction for Five Acres. When you have an organization that has been around for over 125 years, particularly one that has grown tremendously from a small “mom and pop” organization to a 33 million dollar organization you need to assess its history and the mission review the high and low impacts areas for service and financial sustainability. Within the assessment, what you usually find is a mission drift, areas of inefficiencies, and a status quo culture.

In our industry, which is working with vulnerable children, I think nonprofits need to maintain a sense of urgency. When organizations become comfortable with status quo, mission drift and inefficiencies arise and it has a direct impact on client service. We work with a population in need…children who lack safety, well-being and permanency, so urgency is crucial.

In my first 6 months, we engaged in a deep dive strategic planning retreat that started with the executive board and senior leadership team narrowed down to 150 staff members at all various levels of the organization. Since we launched our strategic plan we have increased our workforce by 10% with over 400 employees and five office locations. We have increased our service capacity by 57%, and today we serve over 8400 children and their families annually. We have become more active in the area of advocacy and public policy by started community awareness raising events as well as launching our first national campaigns. It is exciting and truly a privilege to work for such an intelligent organization.

EM  President Obama declared that May 2014 was National Foster Care Month, what does that mean for Five Acres and/or the foster care system in the grand scheme?

CB  It is important to recognize that a child in the foster care system is an issue. When Obama declared that May was National Foster Care Month it was a great start to raising awareness about the needs of the vulnerable children, nationally.

EM  Is the educational or economic background of a family in any way related to whether a child is removed from their home and placed in foster care?

CB  That is a great question. It’s tied. In a LA County 90% of the children who were removed from their home and placed into the foster care system, were removed due to neglect. Neglect usually looks like a child that is malnourished, lacks proper adult supervision, and may not be regularly attending school. Was there an attempt to harm on the part of the parent? This is really a difficult judgment call.

Keeping children safe is a priority, but the assessment is difficult and the circumstance to make that judgment is not black and white. For example, let’s say there is a parent; a single-parent and they have two children, the parent is working but at minimum wage; they struggle to find access to low-cost childcare. They do not have medical insurance. Transportation is difficult. They may lack the resources for fresh produce and healthy foods. Add on top of that the stress a parent may be experiencing. So you have a situation where a parent is lacking essential resources to provide for their children. Is there a true intent to harm or is the parent doing the best they can, with what they have?

That is why at Five Acres, we have invested in the expansion of our prevention programs. We believe that if we can assist a family that is at risk for disruption, and help them to connect with community resources, parenting skills, and mental health services we can try to keep the family healthy and safely together while preventing the child from entering the foster care system. Of course, I need to make sure that I reinforce that there are circumstances where there is a real safety risk and a child cannot stay in that family environment safely – that is a higher level of intervention.

EM  November is National Adoption Month, who is the ideal adoptive parent?

CB  We are looking for safe, loving and permanent families that are willing to provide the resources to our children so that they can be safe and thrive.  We don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, marital status, gender, age or income.

There are 20,000 children in LA County alone that need our help. There are sibling sets, babies, toddlers tweens and teenagers; each with their own unique personalities and in desperate need of a safe, loving and forever family. You can help by either taking the steps to become a foster family to give these children temporary respite while they are in waiting or if you have an interest in becoming an adoptive parent please contact us.

EM  What would you say to people who fear that they would fall in love with an adopted child only to lose custody back to the biological parents?

CB  As a parent, I don’t think anything will ever completely prepare you for the risks and opportunities connected to parenthood. May that be an adoptive parent, IVF or biological. Once you make a decision to become a parent, the love, the loss, the heartache and the happiness you may experience from a child and from parenthood is mostly driven by chance.

EM  What should the LGBT community know about foster care and adoption?

CB  Making the step towards fostering and adoption is a big commitment. I want the LGBT and LGBT friendly community to know you can help in many ways based on your current ability. If you only have a few minutes a day you can sign up for our newsletter and be informed about the needs and how to advocate for change. If you have an hour a week you can come to Five Acres and volunteer as “a special friend/mentor” to a child. If you have a month come and commit to a project. If you have a year, think about becoming a foster parent or respite parent for a child waiting for permanency. And if you do have a lifetime, become an adoptive family for a child who needs to be loved and deserves the opportunity to  thrive.

EM  Five Acres has a distinctly different approach, is there any hope that your model could be adopted by the foster care system or other agencies?

CB  I think for 126 years Five Acres has done a really great job serving the children that walk through our doors. However, we have recognized that we have so much more to offer. We are the oldest nonprofit in San Gabriel Valley. We have dedicated resources to our research department for over 30 years. Every single program and service in our organization has included data collection and an evaluation process to see if he service and our program works worth it doesn’t so that we can learn from it.  In the past few years, part of strategic plan and in the coming years we have decided to be much more involved in community engagement, information sharing, publications and research evaluations. Using the information the knowledge base that we have to inform public-policy and community awareness that way Five Acres will not only influence the children that come through our doors for direct service, but all children in need.

EM  Five Acres just celebrated 125 years in 2013, what do you hope to achieve in the next 25 years? What do you hope will be achieved by the time Five Acres celebrates 200 years?

CB  Our goal is to expand our reach to national. We are looking to expand programs and services specifically focused on prevention and permanency. We are finding new ways to campaign nationally and raise national awareness about the issues related to children need for a safe healthy a permanent solution. We are looking at expanding our research department so we may produce information that would be helpful for public-policy. Our focus is promoting a safe healthy and permanent family solution for all children, may that be in the form of direct service, pilot programs, research, public-policy, and/or raising community awareness. All efforts will be tied to our mission to promote safe, healthy and permanent family solutions for all children.

EM  What’s the solution to preventing children from entering the foster care system? Family therapy? Pre-parenting education? Contraception?

CB  Start with assessing the basic needs of what a healthy family needs, and then grow from there. Connecting a family with community resources, such as low cost child care, food banks, job training and placement to ensure that the basic needs are covered is a good start. Complement that with parenting skills and mental health services and we can try to keep the family together safely and in a healthy way to preventing the child from entering the foster care system. When you look at your own community… are those resources available?

For more information on fostering or adoption, please visit www.5acres.org.

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