Jen Lilley: Foster Care's Au Courant and Exciting Voice

Q: You made the choice to be a foster parent, can you tell me more about that and what led you to that decision?

A: When I was growing up, my dad was a judge and my mom was a director for women and children’s charities. I believe that by law they were not allowed to be formal foster parents. Instead, we were kind of always a safe house. So many times throughout my childhood and adolescence, we had someone living in the house because they fell on hard times. My parents would offer that. I was already familiar and acclimated to the idea of somebody living with me. My husband, like 51% of surveyed Americans, incorrectly thought that children in foster care were associated with the juvenile delinquent system. While over 70% of kids who end up in the juvenile delinquent system were from foster care, they are not in foster care because they’re juvenile delinquents. They’re in foster care because they are victims of child abuse and neglect through no fault of their own. If they are given stable loving homes, they won’t end up in the juvenile system.

I became a celebrity ambassador for an amazing organization called Child Help. They are one of the largest and longest running non profits in the United States for child abuse prevention and neglect. They have an amazing program called Special Friends for the children who live in their villages. They have villages in Texas, Virginia, and here in California, and their villages are for children who have gone through foster care and they are the cases that make the paper. If they don’t end up at the Child Help village, they will end up in juvenile delinquency. Child Help created these villages to give these children five different forms of therapy, and really heal them and really love them well. All of the doors at the Child Help village say, “All who enter here will find love.” They’re an incredible organization. The founders, Sara and Yvonne, are currently nominated for their eighth Nobel Peace Prize. They’ve rescued over ten million children in sixty years.

So I was a special friend to their program, it’s very much like big brothers and big sisters. I was a mentor to this amazing girl named Lariah, whose case closed so I can finally say her name, and we are still in touch. My husband became very attached to her as well. We really became this little family unit. One day she expressed concern that she may be going back into the system, so we decided to sign up to be foster parents. Sadly, we did not get to foster or adopt Lariah. However, she’s been reunified with her grandmother who is a rockstar of a lady. We keep in touch and it’s great.

Q: What do you think are some of the challenges that foster children are facing currently?

A: False perceptions. I think that’s the biggest obstacle. What children in foster care are, what they look like, that they’re people, they’re not numbers. The other obstacle that they’re facing is a lack of permanency. We don’t have enough good foster parents. There is a misconception that “oh they’re a foster parent, they’re doing it for the money” but anyone who’s fostering knows that there’s not a lot of money. If anyone’s actually making money off of it, that’s a huge red flag for child abuse. I think the challenge that they’re currently facing is not enough people being educated on what foster care is and being willing to join the fight, which is something I am constantly trying to dismantle. If we had good foster parents, honestly it would solve the crisis.

Q: Being a mom that has biological, adopted, and foster children, you’re about as blended as a family can get. What challenges do you face as a blended family and how do you overcome that?

A: I think one challenge is making adoption a positive narrative, versus something that should be shameful. That’s something I’m walking out everyday. My son Caden, he’ll be four in May, he doesn’t really understand it. But I do thank God every night when we say our prayers that I get to be his Mommy and that we got to adopt him into our family. And I want to continue that dialogue with him as he gets older just to let him know that he had four parents who loved him, not two. You were not rejected, you just fell into unfortunate circumstances and your biological parents were not able to make the decisions needed to keep you safe, but they love you. They wanted what was best for you. They just didn’t know what was best for you because they didn’t have a model. Flipping the narrative is one thing I try to do.

And also loving all of my children equally. Making sure that my middle son who is still in foster care, and we’re so excited we get to adopt him--what a privilege and honor--that’s Caden’s biological brother--we’re so happy, but I call him my son. I don’t call him my foster son. I don’t call Caden my adopted son unless I’m answering a question like this where I have to break it up for people so that they understand the differences. Making sure that they (my kids) all know that they are loved, that I don’t count them differently.

Q: If there’s something that you could change about the foster care system, what would you change about the system?

A: I would change the narrative. Make it positive. Thank our social workers. So many people think social workers are the enemy, and they’re so amazing. Maybe if they aren’t amazing, maybe they’re just burnt out. I would flip the narrative to how can we love better? How can we make this less scary? How can we make this positive? That’s what I would change. Because if you can change that, I think you can change the system.

Q: For kiddos that are coming to you that are coming from a traumatic situation or background, do you have any advice for how to get through that or how to overcome that?

A: It’s definitely biased advice, but it’s the only advice I can give. For me, I have my faith to fall back on, and my faith is my foundation. I’m a Christian, so I believe in something that the Bible calls the Fruits of the Spirit which is love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. There’s a super famous verse in Corinthians where it defines love and it says that God is love, and it says love is patient, it’s kind, it does not seek its own, it’s not jealous, it’s not self-seeking, it observes all things, it bears all things, it believes all things. So I try to go back to the foundation of love. Which regardless of people’s faith, if we use love to measure everything against, then you’re going to fall in a good place. Because maybe you say something in love and it doesn’t land well. So what do you do? You pick love back up and you try again. So I think if you’re doing everything from a lens of love, it’s pretty hard to fail. That’s in the end of the verse, love never fails. That’s something that anybody could apply to their life, regardless of their background. But for me, that’s definitely where I draw strength.

Q: If you could say something to prospective foster parents, what would you say to them?

A: First I would thank them for even considering it. That’s a huge step, and I don’t want to make light of the fact that they’re even considering it. That’s a really big deal. The next thing I would do is tell them what I told my husband Jason--you are allowed to say no! You don’t have to be a foster parent. You don’t have to be an adoptive parent. You don’t have to take on this mantle. If you take an introductory class, get the info, you’re allowed to say no if you have the information as to what you’re saying no to. But don’t say no to something blindly based on a misconception--you don’t even know if it’s definitely correct. Thank you for entertaining it, get the information, then make a decision.

I would also add, there is no convenient time to become a parent. We are always busy. We live in the busiest times in history. With our smartphones, we’re receiving so much information from every angle, ain’t nobody got time for anything! You could wait forever, you could wait for your circumstances to change, you could wait for your house to change, you could wait for your finances to change, it’s never going to be an ideal situation to parent. So just get the information and jump on in. And then contact me on instagram because I absolutely live for the foster care community.

Q: Mothering, work, foster care--all of these can present really challenging situations. What do you do to destress?

A: I drink coffee! And I laugh a lot. I choose laughter! I don’t take breaks at all which is something I’m working on. Family day is Saturday so I try to put my phone away and my computer away and just focus on the kids. I choose to laugh, I choose joy! I’m trying to always put things into perspective, not making a molehill into a mountain, that’s how I destress. Will life go on? Yes. Life will go on if I don’t answer this email, I’m fine.

Q: BWell is about wellness from a whole perspective--mind, body, and bowl. You probably keep a really busy schedule. What do you do to stay healthy?

A: I take Mother Theresa’s advice. Not to be preachy, but the woman’s inspiring regardless of your background. I want to change the world so bad. I want to solve the foster care crisis so bad that I take on that weight myself. I often take the weight of the world on my own shoulders, as if I am the sole responsible person for changing it, which is super unhealthy. And so I take one of her quotes to heart a lot, I think about it daily. She says, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” And I love that. Because obviously very few people in the world have had such a profound impact on the entire globe than Mother Theresa. So if that woman can change the world, and she truly did, and she’s telling us to go home and love our families, then I’m going to take her advice to heart. So that is one way that I balance everything, just focusing on my family and really having dedicated time, making sure that I am not missing out on my kid’s moments because I’m focused on saving children I have yet to know. And living in the present is really healthy. Learning from the past, grieving when painful things happen, have an appropriate time of grief, give yourself a break, give yourself some grace. But then not dragging that into the present with you, into the future with you. Heal from something, remember it, honor it, and then keep pressing forward.

Q: Are you working on anything right now?

A: I am. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and May is National Foster Care Awareness Month. Back in the Fall of 2018, I released a single from my upcoming album called King of Hearts. 100% of my initial proceeds went to an amazing organization called Project Orphans to give a boy named John in Uganda life saving heart surgery. We did it, it was freaking awesome! It was amazing! Then I got pregnant, so I decided to focus on my family. But my whole goal, and my whole narrative, since October 2018 has been music that gives.

In the month of April, I am going to release my album with 100% of my share of the profits going to form Project Orphans USA, which is going to be a neighborhood based model that should very much help solve the foster care issue. We create a village model, and it’s a neighborhood in the United States that will focus on giving orphans and children in foster care safe, loving, stable homes with a focus on permanency and adoption. So I’m hoping to create that model in one state and then after 5-10 years, implement it in all 50 states as a way to really be the answer as to why orphanages did not work, but with a village approach. Every parent in the neighborhood will be a foster or adoptive parent. You have a support group built in. It’s a village model, but it’s a neighborhood. I’m going to partner with Project Orphans to create a Project Orphans USA branch.

How I’m going to tie my music into that is in April, I am going to launch an international talent search contest where anyone can enter for free and they can enter in the categories of musician, actor, dancer or hidden unique talents. Because I believe that everybody was created on purpose and with a purpose and has been given unique and incredible gifts that they need to share with other people. So people can enter this contest, and then they are going to rally their fans, followers, friends, family to vote for them. All of their friends and family get one free vote. Whoever receives the most amount of votes is going to earn $10,000 in cash prizes, press prizes, and career specific prizes. How we’re going to raise money for charity is their fans can purchase a voting bundle for $10. If they purchase $10 worth of votes, which is 10 votes, then they are going to receive my album, Lilley. If they donate $25, they’re going to help their contestant, they’re going to receive an autographed album from me, and they’re also going to give back to orphans! This whole thing is to raise awareness and money in order to create Project Orphans USA. I’m super excited about it! April is going to be the call to entry month. Any time during the month of April, people can enter. The judging and elimination rounds are going to be in May, in alignment with Foster Care Awareness month.

The contest is called Voices that Give. It’ll be up on my website, It’ll have all the info up there on the home landing page.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

A: I’m also launching in April a podcast that’s called Foster Hope. That is going to be on foster care. I’ll be interviewing anyone from the founders of child help to other foster parents. For anyone that’s already in the foster care fight or is curious about it, they can listen to Fostering Hope. That’s launching April 6. Keep tuning into Hallmark Channel, and talk to me on instagram!