Friends of Children is fully dedicated to improving the lives of children and young adults impacted by foster care or juvenile-justice involvement. Our relationships with young people connect us to their stories and ground us in their perspectives.
We speak the truth on behalf of children, no matter how difficult it is to hear. We are champions of their best interests and advocate for the rights and dignity of children in and aging out of foster care. We recognize the whole child. Friends of Children commits to changing the course of their lives. Their future and our community’s legacy depend on it.
Our programs include CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Seeing Our Voices, and Foster Dignity, providing basic personal growth needs to children in and aging out of foster care. We also advocate for the lives of vulnerable children on a state legislative level through our Children’s Union. Our FOCUS advocacy mentorship program connects young people who have aged out of foster care with adult community members who are closely matched to the young person’s particular needs in navigating young adulthood.
We understand the importance of approaching our work with a broad view, while simultaneously addressing immediate individual needs in our community. Through our programs and advocacy efforts, we help meet basic needs, provide important additional tools and resources, and mentorship opportunities that help to improve the well-being of children and young adults in our community. We also ensure that foster children are not shielded from the public eye - that they are seen and heard. Our policy advocacy efforts aid in making important systemic change that benefits the lives of children across Massachusetts.
“You’ve helped me more than you know. I feel like a person who is seen and heard. Before, I was a statistic. I was always looking for someone to take care of me. Now, I’m focused on my future in ways that I believe in. I trust myself and believe in myself. And, trust me, I’m going to help other kids know they aren’t alone.”
—19 year old Friends of Children youth
Friends of Children was formed as a child advocacy organization 501c(3) in 1990. From the beginning, our advocacy mission has defined the work of the agency as it addresses the needs of high risk children who are not readily supported by systems designed to protect them and encourage their full participation in society. From the outset, Friends of Children has provided essential child advocacy services without interruption to well over 15,000 children (99% of whom are low-income).
Since our inception, we have provided individual case advocacy to children with multiple special needs. In 1993, we initiated the volunteer based Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program to serve Hampshire County. Our CASA program was expanded to serve children in Franklin County in 1994. Since its inception, the Franklin/Hampshire CASA program has trained over 530 volunteers to serve as Guardians ad Litem with an average retention rate of more than three years. The program annually serves an average of 80 abused and neglected children from these counties.
In 2002 we launched our Foster Dignity program that provides new backpacks, duffel bags, other basic needs and funds for education and extracurricular activities to foster children and young adults aging out of foster care. Throughout our history we have created and distributed several publications including “A Parent’s Guide to Special Education”, and sponsored conferences on vital issues pertinent to professionals working with vulnerable children. Friends of Children has led a variety of initiatives designed to maximize the potential of collaborations that foster improved service delivery to children and their families.
We provide various services to children and young adults across Massachusetts. Our programs and policy advocacy efforts are changing the lives of children every day.
Patriots Foundation Children’s Advocacy Award
Ellen Sedlis Award (for Children’s Advocacy)
Debi Belkin, CASA Director
Community Action Achievement Award
Jane Lyons, Executive Director
The staff at Friends of Children are highly dedicated to the well-being of vulnerable children and youth. We are committed to providing advocacy and programs that have a positive impact on the lives of foster children and children aging out of foster care. We are passionate about doing whatever it takes for young people in the child welfare system to strive. This is at the heart of the work that we do.
Jane Lyons, Executive Director
Jane has dedicated her career to children’s rights. Before joining Friends of Children, she served as a Child Advocate at the Massachusetts Office for Children, ensuring that thousands of children gain access to critical services. She received the Carballo Award for Excellence in recognition of her work developing treatment services for adolescent sexual offenders.
As the Executive Director for over 20 years, Jane’s personal mission is to expose the truth about the needs of vulnerable children and uphold their rights. She believes passionately in giving children the power and respect to imagine and build a successful future. Her advocacy leadership on issues related to public foster care is well regarded by professionals, parents and youth.
Jane is also a recipient of Community Action Pioneer Valley’s Jane Sanders Achievement Award.
Debi Belkin, CASA Director
Debi Belkin brings a deep understanding of how to effectively advocate for children and adolescents in the child welfare system. She has over 40 years of experience advocating for court involved children and adolescents in Massachusetts. As the Friends of Children CASA Director, she leads our Court Appointed Special Advocates program for Franklin and Hampshire county court systems. Debi holds a passionate belief that the state’s most vulnerable children must be heard.
Debi has a great deal of knowledge about the child welfare system and how the system impacts the lives of children we serve. She holds a Master’s degree in social work and a strong background in social work, supervision and nonprofit management. She is an innovator, having played a crucial role in advocating for the development of case practice within the Department of Children and Families to sustain support for older youth aging out of foster care with their independent living plans.
Debi understands how essential it is to create partnerships with other organizations to benefit the needs of young people. She has well-established connections in the legal and social service community and values effective communication to ensure that the needs of vulnerable children in our community are met.
Visit our CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) page to learn more about this program and opportunities to be a CASA volunteer.
June Ameen, Policy Director
June is driven by her passion to make a meaningful impact on the child welfare system to ensure children and youth that enter the system leave in a better situation than when they entered. In 2009, June transitioned from healthcare, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries to the nonprofit arena. She began her journey by serving as a volunteer Foster Care Case Reviewer, and as a big sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod & the Islands. June also trained as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) with Boston CASA.
In 2014 June began volunteering with Friends Of Children, and created our policy advocacy program. This advocacy program gives voice to and speaks the truth about the experience of children and youth in the foster care system in Massachusetts. As a consultant, June further developed the program and its direction. Now serving as Director of Policy, June strives to improve the foster care review process and advocates for transparency, accountability, and oversight of the Massachusetts child welfare system.
June holds an undergraduate degree in Nursing from Boston College and a Master’s of Business Administration from Babson College.
Visit our Policy Advocacy page to learn more about our work and supporting children and young people in the child welfare system. Learn how you can help advocate for children in foster care and aging out of foster care.
Susan Swift, Development Director
Susan comes to Friends of Children with over 40 years of experience as an educator and nonprofit administrator. As a teacher and as a school principal, she supported children academically, emotionally, and socially, providing an environment where they and their families could feel at home and thrive.
As a nonprofit professional, Susan worked with students, parents, teachers, alumni and community members, and other constituents to create shared visions to promote growth and vibrancy in educational institutions. Building relationships with the community and donors was essential to her success.
After retiring from the field of education, Susan brought that same passion and commitment to Friends of Children in her role as Development Director. When she meets potential supporters, she is always quick to share, “The work of Friends of Children is critical to the wellbeing of these vulnerable children and youth and I am honored to be part of this important organization.”
Jeffrey Rivkin, FOCUS Program Manager
Jeffrey Rivkin brings over 15 years of experience within the Pioneer Valley Community Mental Health and Child Welfare systems. While at DCF, Jeffery specialized as a Rapid Response Worker, attempting to place children that came into care with family relatives or a friend of the family with the goal of decreasing additional trauma. As a supervisor Jeffrey continued to work with an emphasis on advocating for youth coming into care as well as youth at risk for CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children). Jeffrey had the opportunity to participate and develop two PILOT programs with a focus on increasing kinship/child specific placement capacities as well as identifying ways to connect with missing or young adults at risk for CSEC. Both programs have since been implemented across the state.
Finding ways to identify and implement policies and practices for reducing disproportionality and inequity is a topic Jeffrey hopes he can continue to advocate for while serving as the Program Manager for FOCUS. Seeing young adults age out of the foster care system with no life long connections was a primary reason Jeffrey chose to work with Friends of Children, specifically the FOCUS Program.
Valerie Smart, Volunteer & Community Outreach Coordinator
Valerie Smart comes to Friends of Children after more than 20 years of working in the corporate world of marketing and communications. She brings experience in journalism, advertising and community outreach and support to her position at Friends.
Now, instead of selling products or events, she's thrilled to be selling the joy of making a difference. As Volunteer Coordinator, she's often our first point of contact for individuals looking to make a difference for families involved in foster care or the juvenile justice system. Through her experiences as a Mom she is inspired to make sure all children have the opportunity to experience the love and support needed to be their best selves. Valerie is grateful to be a member of the Friends' team where her hard work can partner with purposeful heart work.
Valerie holds an undergraduate degree from Westfield State University. She is very active in her local community of Agawam, MA.
Our Board of Directors
Jo-Anne Vanin, Board President
Susan Karas, Vice President
Yogesh Malik, Treasurer
Antonia Krell, Secretary
Spencer Fox Peterson
Dr. Karen Zilberstein
As a lifelong social worker, I have become keenly aware of the needs and challenges of children in the foster care system. And, as a parent, I know how difficult it can be to navigate the road to adulthood even when resources are available. When there is no support available, basic needs go unmet and kids have nowhere to turn. I am passionate about positively impacting the lives of so many children and working to improve the rights of children in foster care. Friends of Children provides that support and so much more and I am grateful to serve as the Board President.
Susan Karas, Immediate Past Board President
Interested in serving on our Board?
Friends of Children continuously considers volunteers for day to day activities, and for board-level service. We invite individuals who have a passion for our mission, leadership skills, and the ability to be a good steward of the organization to connect with us about board service. We welcome board volunteers from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences.
Prospective board members may submit a resume here.
Experience and skills that would greatly contribute to our mission and goals: