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FFT Special

Misty Stenslie
A Shining Star in Child Welfare Reform

by Kim Phagan-Hansel

In 2004, Misty Stenslie co-founded what would become a national organization for former foster youth. Foster Care Alumni of America was the fruition of Stenslie’s work and many of her colleagues at the time to have not only her own voice heard as child welfare legislation was being crafted, but also that of countless other foster alumni. Before her death this May at age 43, Stenslie had led the organization for six years, encouraging foster alum to share their stories as they worked to make changes in the system to benefit children in care.

It was a personal cause for Stenslie who grew up in foster care herself. Before her death, Stenslie shared this about her early childhood: “I had an extremely difficult childhood. I was the victim of severe neglect and abuse in my family of origin, resulting in emotional and physical challenges throughout my life. I spent much of my childhood in foster care, kinship care, shelters and group homes. I spent most of my teen life as a runaway, doing whatever it took to survive, then as a ward of the juvenile justice system in detention, hospitals and state reform school.”

Eventually, Stenslie ended up in her final foster home with the Stenslie family, whose last name she later claimed. That family helped Stenslie see new opportunities for her life and encouraged her to set higher educational goals for herself. Ultimately, she went on to college where she not only earned her undergraduate degree, but also a master’s degree in social work.

In the July/August 2009 issue of Fostering Families Today, she wrote this about her early years, “Through my years of bouncing from one placement to another, one set of losses and questions to the next, the only constant in my life was that I was good at school and could find a place to fit wherever I went as ‘the smart girl.’ Being good at school saved my life a time or two — pulled me from the brink of suicide as a 12-year-old who desperately needed something to grasp, brought me positive attention as a 14-year-old caught up in dangerous situations at my home, on the streets and in the juvenile justice system. Though I never successfully found a forever family during my journey through the system, I did find a love of learning and people who took interest in me, occasionally told me they were proud of me, through my academic achievement.”

Stenslie ultimately became a true champion of change for children in foster care. For more than 20 years, she worked in child protection, clinical social work, as a nationally-known trainer and foster care advocate. Not only did she help to co-found Foster Care Alumni of America, but she also created a curriculum for child welfare professionals called “Better Together” that is still in use around the country today. She testified before a congressional committee in 2008 about the overmedication of youth in foster care and never gave up her fight to improve the lives of children in foster care.

In addition to her professional work, Stenslie was also a foster parent to several teens and a mentor to countless others.

In 2005, Nicole Dobbins first met Stenslie at the “It’s My Life Casey Family Programs” conference and continued to work with her during Dobbins’ tenure as executive director of Voice for Adoption.
“Misty left a legacy we can all be proud of,” Dobbins said. “She was so genuine. She was a connector; her sweet smile, warm spirit and inclusiveness brought people together like I’ve never seen. Misty Stenslie’s contributions to the world, especially the world of foster care alumni inclusion, will live on and we thank you for her for her incredible impact.”

In the March/April 2009 issue of Fostering Families Today, Stenslie shared this about parenting teens in foster care: “As a foster parent, I’ve only raised teens. My own experience of being all alone in the world as a teen and young adult, of skipping my college graduation because there was no one to invite, of not having anyone to ask to walk me down the aisle at my wedding compelled me to make this different for my three foster children.”

For former foster youth Lupe Tovar, meeting Stenslie was empowering and life-changing.

“I met Misty in the early 2000s when she was doing interviews with groups of alumni all over the country,” Tovar said. “She visited a group of us in Arizona and from the moment we met, a sort of magic sparked a feeling of sisterhood in us. She mentored me since then and even invited me to sit on the Constituency Engagement Advisory Board for Casey Family Programs and for the last 10 years on the board of directors for Foster Care Alumni of America.”

Their relationship blossomed over the years and Tovar credits Stenslie for teaching her important things from it being OK to eat dessert first to being brave and intentional in building positive connections in your life. Lupe went on to help found several chapters of FCAA in various states and continues her work with the organization today.

“To me, she was the example I needed to see, to hug, to learn from and then to love in return during a time I felt so isolated and alone in the former foster care struggle,” Tovar said. “She gifted me with forethought and the ability to dream beyond foster care.”

As part of her work with Foster Care Alumni of America, Stenslie wrote a regular column for Fostering Families Today, sharing the developments of the organization and about her own challenges as a foster parent.

In the September/October 2008 issue, she shared that, “The reality of foster parenting that day was wrenching. Now nearly 10 years later, the memories of watching Chris’s heart break, of hearing him scream his rage, and holding him as he cried are still so vivid I can feel it in my chest…In my work, I’ve talked with thousands of people in and from foster care and have learned that just as there are predicable struggles, there are also predictable ways to find the best that foster care has to offer — love hope, peace and an expanded sense of family. It is time for us to reframe the ‘realities’ of foster parenting. It is time to claim the rest of the experience — the part where the young people we serve bring at least as much to our lives and families as we provide to them.”

In 2011, Stenslie received a Casey Excellence for Children Aware from Casey Family Program for her work. Her legacy lives on through Foster Care Alumni of America and the “Postcards From The Soul” book that was created by foster care alum during Stenslie’s tenure at FCAA.

On May 4, Stenslie passed away peacefully in her home after suffering for several years with tick-borne illness and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Stenslie’s dedication to helping others and growing the voice of foster care alum is part of the reason Fostering Families Today editors wanted to add her voice to the publication many years ago. Believing that we all learn best by listening to those who have walked the realities of foster care, Fostering Families Today continues to include Foster Care Alumni of America in almost every issue of the publication. It is our hope that Stenslie’s work will continue to live through all the lives she has touched along the way.

Foster Care Alumni of America has created a legacy page in tribute of Stenslie at www.fostercarealumni.org/board-of-directors/misty-stenslies-legacy. It shares Stenslie’s story, her beliefs, a timeline of her contributions to the FCAA community and child welfare field and more. To donate to FCAA in honor of Stenslie, visit http://www.fostercarealumni.org/product/honor-misty-stenslie.

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