Fostering a Better Future (with Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez and Lisa Guillette)

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When young adults leave the foster care system they’re left trying to find housing or employment on their own. Oftentimes, the thing they yearn for the most is family. In this special episode, Gloria chats with the president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation, Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, and CEO at Foster Forward, Lisa Guillette. Our guests discuss how they’re helping youth aging out of foster care age into an ecosystem of belonging. Whether it’s legally creating ‘soul’ families or providing affordable homes, they tell us the ways they’re working with former foster kids to break the cycle and achieve stability.

This episode was made possible with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization devoted to building brighter futures for all children, youth and young adults, and ensuring they have the family, community and opportunity they need to thrive. Learn more at Views expressed in this episode are solely those of the participants.

No One is Coming to Save Us is presented by Neighborhood Villages. Neighborhood Villages is a Massachusetts-based systems change non-profit. It envisions a transformed, equitable early childhood education system that lifts up educators and sets every child and family up to thrive. In pursuit of this vision, Neighborhood Villages designs, evaluates, and scales innovative solutions to the biggest challenges faced by early childhood education providers and the children and families who rely on them, and drives policy reform through advocacy, education, and research.

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Sandra, Lisa, Gloria Riviera

Gloria Riviera  00:09

Hello and welcome to this episode of No One Is Coming To Save Us from Lemonada media. This podcast was co created with neighborhood villages a systems change nonprofit working to realize a future in which all families have access to affordable, high quality early education and care. So, listeners, we have spent the majority of this podcast talking about early education and childcare. But what about those kids who the system is failing later in life, just a moment of personal reflection, I grew up with several siblings, my next immediate oldest brother was adopted. And our family adored him, e was like my brother, he has since passed, but my whole life, he was my brother, plain and simple. On my maternal side, my mother grew up with many foster siblings on a farm in eastern Washington. And actually at family reunions, sometimes it doesn’t really remember, maybe it’s because she’s in her early 80s, who is a relation and who’s not because she felt so close to her foster siblings. That’s my background, we’re lucky today because we have two experts. But I just want to say to everyone listening, we all remember how hard it was to transition between adolescence and adulthood. But most of us had at least someone maybe more if we were lucky, right, like a sibling or a relative to lean on. Now imagine trying to navigate that change from adolescence to adulthood without the support of a traditional family. That is the case that is the reality for countless young people aging out of foster care. Research shows that young people in these situations need a lot of guidance, right, we all do. And that includes permanent, meaningful relationships with supportive and reliable adults. So in 2021, here’s a number for you there were more than 147,000 kids between the ages of 14 to 21 in the foster care system nationwide, that number is actually lower than what it was back in 2006, a drop fueled by COVID-19 that led to fewer reports of abuse and neglect. But even though the overall number of young people in foster care has declined, the teenagers and young adults still in the system are really deeply struggling to achieve permanence. And I want to ask our experts today, what that phrase really means achieving permanence. Thankfully, there are people out there who are prioritizing helping adolescents thrive in this post pandemic world. We want to thank the Annie E. Casey Foundation for making this conversation possible. And now to our guests, I’m so excited to welcome you both. I wish our listeners could see Sandra’s hot pink, blazer and attire today. She is Sandra Gasca Gonzalez, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s center for systems innovation. Sandra is in charge of overseeing the national and state reform efforts related to child welfare and young people transitioning into adulthood. Also joining me is foster care innovator, I love that phrase as well, Lisa Guillette. Lisa is the CEO of Foster Forward, an organization focused on supporting young adolescents and adults who are currently or formerly in the foster care system, she has an incredible story. both Lisa and Sandra are doing truly amazing work. They have been doing it for a very long time, helping foster a better future Sandra, Lisa, thank you so much to you both for being here.


Sandra  04:08

Thank you for having us, Gloria. We’re so excited that you’re talking about this very important topic.


Gloria Riviera  04:15

I’m so excited that I’m talking about this very important topic. And Lisa, not only have you been in this work for a very long time, but you have a really beautiful personal story. That is part of your life now, can we start there? Can you share it with us and tell us about Bianca?


Lisa  04:32

Sure, so um, you know, I came into this job before I met Bianca and one inspiration there was my godfather was a foster parent who took in teens. So that was kind of part of my childhood experience. And it was really the only connection I had to foster care when I interviewed with the board of directors and started at what was then called Rhode Island foster parents association. We rebranded in 2012 Foster Forward but a few years into that journey, we started a program called real connections to help young people who are most in danger of aging out of foster care without permanent adult connections and to pair them with volunteers in the community adults who are willing to connect with them for at least a year no matter what, and really help them build their social capital and their community connections. And I was recruited by our coordinator who runs that program, Cape Runner, and she said, Listen, we have a young woman named Bianca. She’s in high school, she’s a junior. She goes to school right near your house, and we think that you would be the perfect mentor for her. She wants to go to college. She’ll be the first person in her family to do so. And so I met her at a local restaurant over lunch, and Kate made the connection and her school social worker was there. And that little group, her school social worker, and I have now seen her through high school graduation, college graduation, she did a Year of Lasallian service as a volunteer in St. Louis. We helped her when her mom passed to bury her mom, we’ve helped her through a number of family tragedies. We helped her move to Florida, she enrolled in law school, she’s completed law school now we were together at her graduation. And she’s become a member of our family. And she’s also become part of our Foster Forward family with these extended community connections, and today, she’s a kinship caregiver to her 16 year old niece. And she’s also you know, having her sister live with her her brother, who you know, was was with her for a little bit too. So she’s really holding down an entire family. And she became a permanent part of our family, shortly after we got connected. She became homeless when her mom ended up going back to jail. We had an extra bedroom and bathroom in our home and we invited her to move in, it just made sense she really just fit in with us. And she’s been a part of our family ever since. And I I never knew when I took this job that it would so profoundly changed my life. But it’s incredible to have a daughter I married a guy who had two sons. So I’m both a stepmom and essentially an adoptive mom to Bianca.


Gloria Riviera  07:25

That is so wonderful and beautiful and having had two boys and then a girl I completely understand it’s it’s a whole new experience. And it makes me happy, I have a big smile on my face just hearing that story. It’s it’s a it’s a really wonderful story. So Sandra, now, I want to ask you, both of you are deeply involved in helping these kids, right. And they all have different experiences. Be it positive, negative, whatever the experience was, when a young adult is at the stage where they are ready to leave the foster care system. What are they looking for when they get out? And can you talk a little bit about the different? You’ve used the word Cliff before? And how it varies from state to state? Someone might assume okay, 18, that’s it but that’s not always the case. What is someone looking for when they’re ready to age out? And how does that number shift state to state? And are there positive? The negatives to that?


Sandra  08:27

Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think it depends on who you ask how they will answer that, because that that question is so personal to a young person. But the one thing that I think there’s a difference in how system, people see what the answer is, versus what young people see what the answer is. And the one thing that we resoundingly hear from young people all over the country, is that they look for family, they are always looking for family, when they get separated from where they’ve been, whether it’s their family of origin or somewhere else. They never stop yearning for having that connection to their family. And so that’s the number one thing I would say, that is what young people say, and system leaders and system, people will agree to that. But they’ll also say we really have to start preparing them for independent living, they need to go to school, they need to have a vocation, they need to go to college, they need to have a place to live, all their basic needs need to be met. And oftentimes in the system, the way it’s structured, is that there’s such a focus on the basic needs so that they can thrive into adulthood, that it overlooks the underlying need that young people say they want, which is family, and that’s really the thing that we’re trying to shift these days, but there are a lot of systems doing great work to help prevent that cliff that you’re talking about that that what I would call the basic needs cliff. It’s not the family cliff and so the basic needs cliff is yes, young people in I guess about 40 states now can choose to stay in an extended foster care, which provides tuition waivers provides help with housing education. It’s different in every state what how they’re structured, but that there is something available to them so that they can start to thrive from a basic needs perspective. But I would want to emphasize that the system stops focusing on legal permanency and I know we’ll probably talk about what that word means. But legal family once they turn 18, that’s really when it stops.


Gloria Riviera  10:45

Okay, let’s pause right there because I am very interested in this idea of soul permanence, do I have that phrase?


Sandra  10:51

Yes, you do.


Gloria Riviera  10:52

Okay so, this is interesting to me, because I had not heard of this. I did not know what that meant. Can you talk to me about what soul permanence means and when it came about and maybe, Lisa, you can start with that?


Lisa  11:05

Sure so I was fortunate to be part of a conversation that was convened by a group of young people and supported by Sandra and her team. And they were young people who are nationally recognized leaders, their young fellows from the National Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. And we started an exploration about the inadequacy of our current child welfare system in the types of permanency we have, you know, we, when we talk about legal permanence in child welfare, when children come into foster care, more often than not their case plan goal is reunification. So reunification with their birth family is a legal permanency. If they’re not able to return to their birth family, then adoption used to be the other form of legal permanence. During my tenure here, we recognize that adoption wasn’t culturally appropriate for many families, because it required a legal severing of ties with birth family, and there are many families that don’t look at permanency that way. And so the, the advent of guardianship provided us another legal option for families to pursue. And then the last disposition, which is not considered permanence, but is what was happening was young people were aging out of foster care, or they were basically closing to care when they reached the age of majority in their state, without permanency having been achieved. And so this conversation with young people was incredibly illuminating, about their lives didn’t fit neatly into those boxes. And that in many cases, our pursuit of a permanent option actually left them more disconnected from the people and the communities that they had been a part of. And that in some ways, I, you know, sitting back as a professional, who was focused on the cliff focused on the physical and tangible supports that young people needed, realize that we were doing a tremendous disservice to both young people and to their families, by not really acknowledging the complexity of those relationships, and the importance of doing everything possible to uphold and support and nurture them. Because what we’re finding on the other side is kids were leaving foster care, and they were completely alone. And you know, when you you know, we think of today are the we call, we use the term eco mapping, most people have about 300 living relatives. So you know, and you started this, the story talking about family reunions, everyone should be able to go to a family reunion, everyone should have someone in their life, during times of crisis during, you know, times of triumph and, you know, we have put a lot of energy into a child welfare system to, you know, produce foster parents and you know, other resources kind of create alternate solutions. And actually, when we invest in, in the strengths of families, and in the strengths of young people to determine who are the important people in their lives, that’s when we really help them build durable relationships that will help them avoid these cliffs on housing and workforce and you know, all of the other things. So we need both of these things and that’s, that’s kind of how I came to really understand this new.


Gloria Riviera  14:31

Lisa, it’s so interesting to hear you say, the phrase durable relationships, right, because we’re talking about what is strong enough to propel a young person forward and I need to give a shout out to our producer Donnie who wrote the phrase ecosystem of belonging, right that you’re seeing because in my research on the two of you, I learned a lot about housing instability and food instability. But I also learned a lot about this desire or to belong as being so foundational for young people to take that next step to make that transition out of foster care. And Sandra, I saw you wanting to get in there. Was there something that you wanted to add to what Lisa had to say?


Sandra  15:15

I was just gonna say that the way we got to the conversation that Lisa talked about, is the biggest part of the story. And that is that young people themselves when we looked at the data with them, and we saw 22,000 young people aged out of foster care every year, they are the ones that said, how do we solve that problem? What are the solutions that are out there, and I told them, there isn’t one, but you can create one. And they literally came together and for three years, they were the ones that develop the sole family permanency option. And basically what they did, it meant stripping down to the bare of their souls to talk about what happened to them, so that it wouldn’t happen to other young people, they said, you know, I didn’t want to get adopted, because that meant I had to talk to my parents about them losing their parental rights, when I’m 16 years old. I also knew that if the parental rights were severed, that meant my siblings were no longer legally my siblings. So they had some very rational, realistic reasons. And they took those reasons, and they designed, what would work for them. So the thing I’m most proud of about soul family is it is 100% designed by young people, and the stories they shared and what they experienced and their legacy of wanting to end that for other young people and so that’s the other part of the story that I wanted to make sure because we really try to elevate the not just the voice of young people, but the ideas and the solutions that they have.


Gloria Riviera  17:16

Can you help me understand the before? Was there a period in which severing parental ties? Why would that be an attractive option to a young person transitioning out of the foster care system, what would compel a young person to want to do that?


Sandra  17:34

In order to be adopted, parental rights have to be severed at legally severed, and so you know, there’s a point in time when young people have to decide if they’re, you know, they’re living with a foster family, and they want to be adopted, there has to be a legal process to terminate their parents rights, they don’t want that, typically at the age of 16 and then or older, you know, there comes a certain age, that they just don’t want to do that. And it’s personal to each young person. The other factor with that, though, is that if a young person becomes gets adopted, they lose all their benefits, all those basic needs, benefits that they’ll need into adulthood, tuition, waivers, housing support, all of that goes away. So they basically have to decide between a family or future supports to live in the world. And that is another thing they fixed it through soul family, it’s no longer a choice between a family and resources. It’s a family and resources as they grow older into adulthood so so like, that’s the reason that they don’t want to get parental rights terminated. But Lisa, I know you have a lot of experience in that too.


Gloria Riviera  18:52

Yeah and Sandra, I want to say thank you, because that really helped clarify for me what it looks like to be between a rock and a hard place, right? You want the belonging, you want to be in that ecosystem of belonging, but the costs and the costs, one could argue, you know, sever your belonging that you’ve the only belonging you’ve ever had, right? With a sibling or if you’ve had a parent, a mother or father and I do want to talk about paternal kin care, those ties would have to be broken. That sounds like a very difficult position at least I know you had some experience with that.


Lisa  19:28

Well, just that we have not legally formalized our relationship with Bianca yet. She was pursuing higher education and then going on to law school. And so folks who knew about the scholarship opportunities advised us that you know, she was better off going into that process. unattach and so we did that. But you know, interestingly enough, just a bout a month ago, she called and I still have The paperwork to go to probate court and do an adult adoption. And she said, you know, I would really like to do that, you know, now that I’m done with law school, I still want to do that. And I think the the important part about this is that we just we created a system that was really binary, and it doesn’t, it doesn’t work, you know, for, for people, it doesn’t work on the emotional end of this. You know, Bianca is very connected to her bio family, and always will be, and we do ourselves a disservice if we create this separation, you know, we’ve always done our best to embrace her and her entire family, we didn’t want her to have to choose between her family connections, as complex as those relationships are, and it can, it can get messy. I mean, I’m, you know, I’m a professional in this work, and I support families who are doing it every single day. But when you’re a caregiver for somebody else’s child, it’s a delicate dance to walk. And I think we you know, sometimes we create very rigid rules, because we’re trying to control for things that really aren’t controllable. And young people were really caught in the crosshairs of that, in that they’re leaving foster care in many cases, without having fully explored relationships that have been strained, having been kind of protected from relationships. And so they leave and they’re off on their own, and they’re going through this cliff, and they’re also just trying to navigate, you know, why was I separated from my parent? Why was I separated from my siblings? You know, who came into care for stood? Do you know, why did this family member not come and get me. And they’re exploring all of these questions that they’re holding, at a time when they have the least supports around them. So I think what we realized all around, when we put young people at the center of the conversation and heard about their real experiences and why it wasn’t working for them, it gives us a whole new world of options, to explore with them on how we could make this right and better. And, you know, for us, we’ve tried to model in our relationship with Bianca and her family, what you know what the best practice of the system should be. But I can see were operating within the system on a day to day basis, it’s still not calibrated to support that kind of flexibility and success and that’s what Sandra and I are doing around the country with young people kind of leading the conversation and work to change policy and practice. So that this really makes sense from a human perspective, because at the end of the day, all the successes and supports we’re going to talk about are really important, but it’s about relationships.


Lisa  20:59

Absolutely and so, Sandra, tell me what the sole permanence. What does that do legally for a young person?


Sandra  22:48

Yes, so what it does is it the easiest way to think about this is that what Lisa just said, there are many relationships that young people have established while they’re in the foster care system, or people that they know that they want to deepen their relationship with, and actually legalize it. It’s called chosen family. So they will actually have the opportunity to use their voice, as Lisa said, and consent to and find the family that they that they want to be legally connected. And then the other thing that it does is that it also ensures that they still continue to get all of those supports that we talked about, so that they’re not going off the cliff. They have the love and the support of the people they choose to legally be connected for the rest of their life. And the supports they need to thrive into adulthood, like we all needed when we were at that age.


Gloria Riviera  23:43

I just want to take a step back, because in doing my research for this, I kept thinking of the word logistics, right. And I’m thinking about housing and food instability and employment. And so I just as we move out of this section on the challenges that young adults face as they transition out of the foster care system, um, Lisa, can you talk a little bit about let’s go with housing, because I know you’ve been on the forefront of how to solve that problem.


Lisa  24:08

Yeah, so originally, we were doing our state aged young people out of care and at age 18. And we were part of a model it was really just, you know, a practice innovation to say we know that when kids leave the system at 18, many of them not yet finished high school. In our state, our graduation rate among 18 year olds who are aging out of foster care is only 44% by age 18. So when you think about what a young person would need to face to provide housing for themselves and meet all of their basic needs, leaving care with without even a diploma or GED is really not a sustainable situation. So at the time, it was like you know the the mid 2000s. We had a voluntary after Care program for young people aged out of care where they could get, you know, up to $600 a month, that was a very modest amount of money and that would help them find a landlord to rent to them and, you know, they could get some Case Management supports, and we would help them enroll in other subsidy programs. But it really was it wasn’t an entitlement, it was a block grant. And finally, you know, we were able to fight to get an entitlement to age 21 for young people. But, but even at that time, and even when the entitlement passed, we were very reliant on landlords in the community and open market housing. And we are in a housing crisis in this country today, and those open market solutions no longer work. Even young people during the pandemic, we were very successful on the policy front youth aging out of care, led a national movement for subsidized rental support called FYI, or Foster Youth to Independence vouchers. Their federally issued vouchers through state’s public child welfare agencies in combination with the local housing authority, and they entitle young people to 36 months with subsidized rental assistance at the HUD, fair market rental rates, which are not bad rates. But they also require that a landlord has an apartment that meets a minimum housing standard. And unfortunately, because we have such a lack of affordable housing, landlords are charging far in excess of HUD fair market rates for rents. So young people were getting with this huge policy when they had the subsidy, they were holding it in their hand. And it was like a winning lottery ticket that they couldn’t cash because they couldn’t find landlords. So we set to task first to identify ways to help young people that were leaving foster care bridge that gap. And I sat down with our board of directors and I said, I don’t see a path forward where we don’t actually acquire units ourselves and read directly to young people we serve. And we had some generous donors who jumped in the mix to help us with the first acquisition, we got a little more savvy on figuring out what state subsidies were available to organizations that were doing development for affordable housing. And we knew we needed about 110 units, we, in two years, bought three properties and have nine units, but we need to scale. So we started working with community development corporations and partnering with other nonprofits. And now we’re part of a project that’s going to build 144, 1, 2 and 3 bedroom units in one of our cities in in Rhode Island. And those units will be available not only for young people leaving foster care, but families who are child welfare involved who could get the child welfare system out of their life if they had stable housing, veterans, and then just other people who need affordable housing. So I mean, my goal, were, you know, getting shovels in the ground in April, we won’t give people their keys until 2026. Because it takes that long to actually build. You know, we know that costs are rising more than the wages are rising. And so having housing subsidy is one way to deliver back guaranteed basic supports to families and help them through and those are the kinds of investments we really need to make. So I’ve been so excited about our year away home program, because it’s doing so much more than just providing housing support to young people leaving foster care, it’s really creating a blueprint for how our state, and really how jurisdictions throughout the country could take a new approach to creating durable, supportive and affordable housing for all.


Gloria Riviera  28:44

Sandra, as you listen to Lisa, explain that is it prominently on your radar to expand this program in other states? And I also want to ask you about, you know, where we are with the foster care system and whether or not the pandemic specifically, you know, with child care, I always say the pandemic put everything into Technicolor did the same thing happen, the problems in Technicolor did the same thing happen in the foster care system? And are we at a point where we’re ready to remake the system?


Sandra  29:15

I would say absolutely, yes. I think that it was actually during the pandemic, that we realized the importance of moving quicker and being more nimble. And you know, it soul family was incubated during the pandemic, like everything went to zoom, and we were able to zoom a whole lot more with young people and everyone was sheltering in place. So we plotted and plan the whole time that’s what happened. And I think with Lisa, not to speak for her but yes, we need to Lisa Guillette in every state because you know, she the way that then there are leaders like her who think about what are the solutions that need to happen, but she takes it to the next level. Well, she, she is someone tells her no, she is going to go until she finds a yes, and continues to make that happen. And there are innovators out there like this. There, you know, the the economy, the way things are set up with the housing industry right now is really a challenge that goes way beyond foster care. It’s something that I know a lot of people are trying to work on. But for our particular population, it is service providers who are becoming landlords, that’s actually starting to solve that issue for for this particular population across the country. I do think overall, though, people are trying to find new solutions, I will say one, one other thing is the the realization that we need to focus more on making sure that families have what they need. So they don’t get involved with the foster care system to begin with, is exactly the shift that has happened as part of the pandemic. And Lisa referenced that, you know, by the by virtue of the fact that she’s opening up her housing stock when it’s available to families. That’s amazing, because so many issues that are related to neglect, which is the number one reason children come into foster care, it’s not abuse, you know, a lot of that is is regarded and housing, like where they’re living place matters. And if they don’t have a home, that sets the domino effect for everything else.


Gloria Riviera  31:31

Right, and that makes me think of I touch base with someone who’s become a friend, David Ambrose, and his book is called a place called home and the housing instability that he experienced as a young person eventually led him into the foster care system. So the fact that that’s such a clear priority for both of you, is encouraging to me hearing it from where I sit, which is not within the problem seeped in the problem and finding my way out of it. So that is encouraging, another thing that I found to be very encouraging was this conversation around paternal kin care. And at the beginning of this conversation, a number was cited 300 relatives, you know, for generally for every person, but that that paternal side in particular had not been in the past fully explored. Can you talk a little bit both of you, Sandra, Lisa, about what’s happening with paternal in, do I have that phrase, right, paternal kin care is that that’s correct. And so what is it? What what happens?


Lisa  32:32

Yeah, so kin care generally. But I’m so glad you brought up the paternal side, because, you know, we are part of a system that is rooted in it has racist origins, it you know, our system has biases, it’s always had practice biases, and one of our practice biases, was making an assumption that when children came into foster care that there were really only maternal resources at play, the mom was there. You know, historically, some, you know, child welfare, didn’t explore dad’s side of the family, or they maybe asked the question, you know, what, where’s dad? If the answer was dad’s in jail, or dad’s unknown, there wasn’t, you know, there wasn’t a lot of effort to to look at paternal resources, right and, you know, I helped Bianca map her do an eco map. When we started working together, she found her paternal relatives, and just like Antoine Fisher, in the movie, Antoine Fisher, she probably need not have spent a day of her life in foster care, because she had family in Atlanta, Georgia, she had people that, you know, went down and met a grandmother there and was embraced and, you know, probably could have been going to family reunions for years. And it was because of the biases of the system, those resources were never explored so, you know, and child welfare systems historically, were biased against family members, they made assumptions that if you know, if parents had kids coming into care that there probably weren’t any fit or willing family members, and they looked for non relative caregivers. We know that every child has resources, and that when we can successfully support kinship caregivers, and set them up for success with the right resources and with parity for a very long time. If you are a non relative foster parent and you took in somebody else’s child, they gave you a monthly board rate, if you or grandma got tapped on the shoulder to do that. They didn’t give you anything. They gave you the kits and said good luck, you know, and so part of our work has been creating parity so that families are truly empowered to take care of their own and are equally supported in that endeavor by the systems.


Gloria Riviera  35:13

All of this makes me think of IGN who who is very involved in domestic helper work and the care economy. She says that phrase a lot. And one thing I want to ask you about Sandra is how we think in an innovative way about compensating social workers, because that is the backbone, my own family has experienced this, like social workers are changemakers. And they are impact creators. How do we think creatively about compensating, retaining and attracting more people into social work?


Sandra  35:49

That’s a great question. And that is probably the number one issue that everybody in this country is dealing with right now is the recruitment and retention of social workers? And there’s a couple of ways to answer that question. You know, first of all, many social workers are not paid a livable wage. And I think people would be surprised to know that so start there, pay them a livable wage, it’s inconsistent across the country. I think, if there was an expectation that everyone who was a social worker had a livable wage, just as a starting point, that would be one thing. I think that there are other things that are not financial, though, that have to be addressed as well. And there are things like the use of technology, I have to bring that up, because so many systems in this country are still operating off a very antiquated systems like data systems. There’s one other thing I want to say, too, that I have been getting more concerned about over the years. And that is that there are states some states have laws, that if there is a child fatality, in in their system, that the social workers supervisory director, the whole chain of command can actually be prosecuted for that child fatality. And if you let’s think about this, the one thing about child welfare we know is guaranteed, unfortunately, is that there will be child deaths. That is the business of child welfare is protection from child abuse and neglect. So when you are set up that way, and that is what you do. There, there, this is not a perfect system, things are going to happen. And there’s no grace for that in some states that are actually prosecuting social workers. Think about that if you if you’re a 17 year old thinking about wanting to work in child welfare. And in your state, you’ve heard all the stories about how someone went to prison because they made mistakes, their caseload were high, right? They couldn’t get to all of the visits, they couldn’t see all the people and something happened. There you have it, nobody wants to work in a system that’s going to punish you for doing your job when you’re not resourced to do it effectively.


Gloria Riviera  38:15

Sandra and Lisa, both I have to tell you, and then least I want to hear what you have to say about this. But this is not a headline when you think about foster care that social workers are subjecting themselves to possible prosecution in the event that the worst of the worst happens. Right? That is the deal you make. I mean, the phrase that comes to my mind is that’s the deal with the devil you make when you get into this work. And something has to change, to better protect the people who are willing to do what is fundamentally human, empathetic, caring work. I mean, it just it makes my head explode. And I’m so glad that we’ve arrived at this point in the conversation because if there is anything Lemonada media does, it is talk about the hardest things that are happening in our world. You know, their motto is to make life suck less, which people say with a little bit of a you know, a half smile, but we got to make life suck less for people who are willing to do the very important job of Social Work.


Lisa  39:26

100% Yeah, no, it’s it’s everything that’s been said. I mean, the piece on living wage is so, so crucial and, you know, I don’t think we always take stock and where we are right now in our state and Rhode Island. A third of our households in Rhode Island are housing cost burdened, meaning that the families spending more than 30% of their income on their housing costs and close to 30% of Rhode Island households are experiencing food insecurity. So where we’re at point where the starting point is, when somebody walks in the door to be a social worker, the chance that they’re in that third with what we know, or the pay scales, you know, for, for social work is very high. And so we do need living wages in the system and we do need, you know, you don’t have the wherewithal to go in and meet with people in crisis every day and help them solve their most perplexing challenges. If you’re going home to the same kind of insecurities that that they’re dealing with, right, we need to, we need to be able to come at it because as Sandra said, case, loads are high. The threat of prosecution today is very real, the burden of all of these challenges for for workers is immense. And if you’re not able to at least come to the table, knowing that your children are cared for that your mortgage is being paid. That’s, that’s a problem, you know, and so when we think about other ways to incentivize it, I mean, we need the living wage to start off, if we could find childcare subsidies for families, that could be an incentive in the sector, if you could drop your child or children off in a safe place that you’re going to work, if you were getting, you know, a return on investment that you made for your education and getting student loans covered. You know, that’s, that’s a great place to start to incentivize. And we need to provide this real supports, but not real, real supports, instead of those other things. You know, I hear people say, oh, you know, we’re so worried about burnout in the workforce this year so we’re gonna focus on wellbeing initiatives for staff, that’s great. But if you’re not doing these foundational things, then we’re treating symptoms and not not the real challenges here. So, you know, I, I still have hope that there are going to be more people going into the field of social work, just two nights ago, I accepted a $20,000 check from a philanthropy class at a college in Rhode Island where 18 students came together, to write an RFP to examine social challenges there, they were resource to actually make funding awards, and they funded three nonprofits in the state with a total of $50,000. And you know, and these are young people who are going into public service and into social work. So, you know, we we do have a pipeline, and we have to make sure that when young people leave school or get their credentials, that we have a workforce opportunities that are ready for them, and that will afford them an opportunity to bring their talents and skills to youth and families, because I think we’ve established with this is complex work, and we need great people doing it, and that they will be compensated and supported. And hopefully it won’t suck less. Hopefully, it’ll be really great. Because, right, you know, I love this career, I it’s, you know, it’s the most powerful thing that I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of next to my family. You know, it, it feeds my soul and, you know, I think that there, we need to make this a doable proposition because if I started in this career today, and not 30 years ago, I don’t know that I could have made it and I made it with a bachelor’s degree. And you know, a decent amount of privilege from a family of origin that was the would make sure you didn’t fall through the cracks if the car broke down, and it was something that I couldn’t afford to repair my father, you know, I knew I could count on my parents to come through for me. And I worked a second job right up 10 years until I had an MBA and 10 years of experience and finally got a job that I could give up my bartending. I don’t know that even with two or three jobs, that young social workers today, you know, with the same or less privileged than I had, are able to make a commitment to this field. And that’s sad, because we need the best people in this work, we really do.


Gloria Riviera  43:55

Yeah, we need you. Sandra. Is there any story that you can share with us as we wrap this up? I love ending on a note that made me smile. It warmed my heart that Lisa just shared this work feeds her soul. Is there any end note that you can share with us? Why have you stayed in this work? And for as long as you have?


Sandra  44:13

You know, that’s an easy answer for me and Lisa is tearing up people can’t see that and she’s gonna make me tear up. But that is because it’s first of all, I see it as a privilege. I I did not raise I was not raised in a lot of privilege. And I’ve always said that, if I ever get to a place where I can open doors for other voices of young people. I’m going to slam that door wide open and make sure everybody comes through it. And that’s the thing that keeps me in this work is the young people themselves, the young people who every single day, no matter what is going on with them, they show up they tell us what they need. They struggle through what they’re struggling through and they come up with solutions, and to me that is the most powerful thing, I have a lot of stories about things that young people have done to create their own organization. So they can do federal and state advocacy to change the policies and practices of this world. Young people who are helping each other, find their permanent legal connection so that they can have love and family for the rest of their lives. Every day is a privilege and an honor and I just when people say, well, how many kids do you have? I say 147,000 because that is what that is my aim and that is that that’s who I love.


Gloria Riviera  45:36

Well, you are both doing important, beautiful work. And I want to thank you both because as a journalist for more than 20 years, this is the first time that I’ve thought, hmm, I want to learn more about where we are in the foster care system. And I feel so lucky that the two of you have made time for this conversation today. You’re making people like me smarter on the topic. And my job is to go out and share that expertise with anyone who is able to listen, and this is one of the most important conversations that we’ve had on no one is coming to save us. It’s really we’re at the point where it’s the domino effect and now we’re having conversations about food instability and foster care t’s all connected, and we need to do better. We need we need to make life suck less. So thank you so much to Lisa and Sandra, I want to say a big thank you for the support that we receive from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is devoted to building brighter futures for all children you heard a lot about what we hope that will look like in the future for youth and young adults in the United States. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we have incredible people who are willing to do it. Thank goodness, thank you both so much.


Lisa  46:49

Thank you.


Sandra  46:49

Thank you, Gloria.


Gloria Riviera  46:50

The views expressed in this episode are solely those of the participants.


CREDITS  47:10

No One Is Coming To Save Us is a Lemonada Original produced with Neighborhood Villages. The show is produced by Kyle Shiely and Martin Macias. Our audio engineer is Noah Smith. Music is by Hannis Brown. Our VP of weekly content is Steve Nelson. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer along with me Gloria Riviera. If you like the show and you believe what we are doing is important. Please help others find us by leaving us a reading and writing us a review. And most importantly, by telling your friends. Follow No One Is Coming To Save Us wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back next week. Until then, hang in there. You can do this.

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