Berkeley natives tap media to speed foster care reform

When Daniel Heimpel and Eytan Elterman were back in town recently, they hit nearly every media outlet in the Bay Area and beyond, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Sacramento Bee, appointment or not.

The team behind Fostering Media Connections, a media-centered, grassroots enterprise aimed at hastening the implementation of foster care reform, was spreading the word about a system that often gets a bad rap.

Of course there has been rejection, frustration and stress. But for every story printed and clip streamed, the pair’s social justice endeavor is validated.

“Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is not only innately Jewish, but humane,” said Heimpel, who has covered child welfare issues for Newsweek and the Huffington Post, among others. “I want to be counted as a human who spent his time trying to help.”.

Five years ago, the Berkeley native was a graduate student at University of Southern California when he started coaching the lacrosse team at Manual Arts High School, located on the outskirts of south Los Angeles.

He bonded with 16-year-old Chris, a player on the team who was living in a foster care group home. One visit to Chris’ residence, and Heimpel had a story.

“I realized, OK, this is a big issue,” Heimpel said. “I kept digging deeper and deeper, and I started understanding [the foster care system]. It taught me a lesson on how county, state and federal government works.”

In May 2009, the 31-year-old launched Fostering Media Connections (, a project of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Three months later, he was joined by Elterman, also 31 and a native of Berkeley, who attended Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito.

By leveraging the media to publish as many stories in as many outlets as possible, the pair hopes to inform the public on how the foster care system works, while presenting it in a positive way.

FMC received a grant from the S.F.-based Stuart Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection, education, advocacy and development of children. Heimpel, who received the 2007 Child Welfare Award for his stories about Chris’ group home and the lacrosse team, rents a workspace in the foundation’s San Francisco office.

Heimpel and Elterman — both of whom had their bar mitzvahs in Israel (Heimpel in Tel Aviv and Elterman at the Western Wall) — will visit 14 large U.S. media markets over the course of this year.

They’ve been to Seattle, the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Next up are most likely Florida, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Texas and New York.

“It’s a big, organic project,” said Elterman, who previously worked in the public relations department of the Israel Consulate in San Francisco. “Strategy-wise, it’s already changed a lot since Seattle.”

During the first week of a three-week timeline, they “intensively roam” their locale, researching stories that illustrate their message, according to Heimpel. He interviews subjects for articles, while Elterman captures footage for multilength videos.

In the second week, Elterman, whose San Francisco apartment doubles as an editing room, creates visual presentations to bundle with three written pitches.

Week three consists of scheduling appointments with, or sometimes dropping by, media outlets to propose their menu of stories covering child welfare issues.

At the end of three weeks, Heimpel and Elterman host a mixer for media professionals, where they update attendees about the latest foster care reform.

In California, it’s the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush. The act, which individual states must legislate in order to receive federal funds, is slated to help thousands of children find permanent homes by increasing opportunities for adoption.

It also will better prepare older youth for adulthood by extending federal support for transition programs to age 21.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to invest in foster youth,” Elterman said. “We want this project to empower enough people to raise awareness to implement that law and affect the lives of children in a tangible way.”