People’s Choice Award Winner: Chanel Boutakidis
She’s working to move 20,000 kids out of L.A.’s foster care system by 2020
Photograph by Emily Shur
When Chanel Boutakidis began treating preadolescent girls as a therapist for the foster care agency Five Acres in 1999, the mother of two wasn’t just saddened by what she saw and heard—she was shocked. “Some children had been in the system from age three or four, some even younger than that, and they had been in so many different placements,” she says. “I didn’t realize that experience existed.” To get to the root of the problem, Boutakidis transitioned from adviser to advocate; she became CEO of Five Acres in 2011 and now focuses on helping foster kids find safe and permanent homes. That means lobbying for protective legislation and having employees actively search for children’s relatives, a step that increases their odds of adoption but one that isn’t paid for by the government departments that hire the agency.
Looking ahead, Boutakidis, 42, has set her sights on reducing the number of families split up by the system in the first place, a feat that’s going to require the state to distinguish parents who are abusive from those who simply need resources—such as affordable child care, transportation, and fresh food—to take better care of their children. “Ninety percent of the children who enter the system do so due to neglect,” she says. “Maybe they look underfed, aren’t properly supervised, or are missing a lot of school. But that looks no different from a child growing up in poverty with a family who loves them.”
Because foster homes are often temporary, encouraging Angelenos to adopt locally ranks high on her priority list, too. “We have more children than we can serve,” she says of the 20,000 kids currently enrolled in L.A. County’s foster care system; the entire state of New York has about the same number. “Many people do international adoptions. But there’s such a great need in Los Angeles. Lots of beautiful children are just waiting.”