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.
Sheila Ryan, Focus Team Coordinator
Sheila is especially passionate about working with adolescents and young adults as they transition into adulthood. Sheila understands the importance of helping young people find meaningful connections and to develop roots in their communities. She has over 30 years of experience working with children and adolescents through the Department of Children and Families, and as a Service Coordinator at Berkshire Children and Families.
Sheila began working at Friends of Children in 2018. Her passion and experience is a wonderful fit for our FOCUS program matching mentors to adolescents aging out of foster care. Over the years, Sheila recognized that children were aging out of foster care without the skills they needed to thrive and the relationships they needed to feel supported. She understands that the smallest of gestures can make a huge impact on someone’s life, and sometimes just being present makes a big difference.
Sheila also has personal experience being a mentor to a foster care alumni who needed a little support, kind words and a listening ear. She is excited to be a part of making a change to this long-term problem.
Sheila is a recipient of the 2003 Kathleen Phillips Child Advocacy Award through Friends of Children.
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.”
June Ameen, Director of Policy
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 The Children’s Union. 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 The Children’s Union 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.
Brianna Owen, Youth Services Coordinator
Brianna Owen graduated with a B.A. in Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. While on campus she served as a research assistant for the Department Chair of Legal Studies where she studied judicial decision making. While specializing in legal research and coding, Brianna also served as a judicial associate for retired Judge Judd Carhart where she observed court cases in Western Massachusetts and analyzed areas for improvement in the criminal justice system.
Additionally, she represented the Legal Studies department in the Academic Fellows Program as the Diversity Fellow. The Academic Fellows Program is designed to provide specialized opportunities for underrepresented students in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences at UMass. As a Diversity Fellow Brianna coordinated events and advocated for disadvantaged students to locate resources on and off-campus.
While serving as an advocate for student success and working on campus, she was awarded the Social Justice Award in 2019 in appreciation of her ability to create a space that promotes inclusivity and diversity in building a community at UMass. She was also awarded the Paul and Lynn Hohenburger Scholarship and the UMass Honors-to-Honor scholarship for academic excellence.
Outside of academics, Brianna is passionate about helping foster youth, as she has experienced the foster system first hand. She understands that every adolescent experience is different and understands the value in community action. She hopes to combine her personal and professional experience to help maximize youth recruitment in FOCUS.
Our Board of Directors
Susan Karas, Board President
Jeff Masarjian, Vice President
Arielle Ortiz, Secretary
Spencer Fox Peterson
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, 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: