Throughout the United States, more than a half-million children are being raised in foster care. Whether it is because of abuse, neglect or other family problems, children are placed by the Department of Children and Family Services into the temporary custody of people other than their parents. Although foster care was created to support children of abuse until they can be reunited with their families or achieve alternative permanent placement, it often fails the children it seeks to protect. Adding to the trauma of being separated from their parents is the separation of thousands of children from their siblings.

Unlike traditional foster care programs, Neighbor to Neighbor, a program of Jane Addams Hull House Association in Chicago, has designed a model that keeps siblings together, while working intensively with birth families and foster families to successfully reunite or permanently place children.

Vanessa Lankford, Director of Foster Care at Neighbor to Neighbor, says that she has her mother to thank for her desire to take action. There wasn’t a time during her childhood that her mother, Willie Anderson, wasn’t reaching out to help strangers in need, even if it meant moving them temporarily into her home. At Neighbor to Neighbor, Lankford has managed to help more than 500 children.

“When I joined Neighbor to Neighbor I was relieved to see that someone had [developed] a creative and innovative way of fostering,” she says.

That someone was Gordon Johnson, the former head of the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois, who had witnessed a need for siblings to stay together while also maintaining a connection to their birth parents. In 1994, he founded Neighbor to Neighbor with three main principles in mind:

Siblings were to be kept together, and placed within a five mile radius of their initial home. Foster parents were to work with the birth parents to provide them mentoring and modeling of childcare. The goal would be to reunite the children with their family, or strive toward adoption or guardianship.