The Unlearning of Child Welfare podcast is a six-episode series that highlights key points from a three-part webinar series conversation, which explored how we can transform systems so families can thrive. The Unlearning of Child Welfare webinar series featured thought leaders with lived and professional experience sharing progressive ideas and solutions for how we can transform systems so families can thrive. Hear from leaders and committed disruptors in the field about how they got their start, why they are committed to family well-being, and the disparities they see in the current system. This podcast series examines why the nation should support early innovations in the field, create a child and family well-being system, and advance a more just and equitable foster care experience. Join this important national conversation on family well-being and reimagine what’s possible for America’s families.


Why should we create a child and family well-being system? Here we explore the current system and why we need to imagine and create something new to positively affect families across the nation.


This episode features Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation; Shrounda Selivanoff, Director of Public Policy at Children’s Home Society of Washington; David P. Kelly, JD, MA, Special Assistant to the Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau; and Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America.



[00:00:00] Hey everybody. I’m Jaquia Wilson, an advocate, a professional, and an alumni of the Child Welfare System. This is the first episode of the Unlearning of Child Welfare brought to you by the Institute for family. In the fall of 2020, I hosted a three-part webinar series on the very topic of this podcast name. It’s an important conversation. So, we turned it into a podcast for students to inspire America’s next generation of professionals to improve outcomes for families. In this first episode, Sandra Gonzalez, vice president of the Annie E. Casey foundation and I facilitate a conversation with leading professionals about their origin stories and why it is important for them to advance family wellbeing in their work. You’ll hear from four others. Shrounda Selivanoff, public policy director at the Children’s Home Society of Washington; Melissa Merrick, the CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America; Matt Anderson the director at The Institute For family; and lastly, you’ll hear David Kelly, the special assistant to the associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau. See you at the end of the dialogue and enjoy.

Jaquia Wilson: [00:01:19] The Institute is a brand-new platform where parents and professionals can come together to elevate family wellbeing, not just families within the child welfare system for all families. We envision a future where we have dramatically reduced our over-reliance on foster care, and families are thriving. I want to take a few seconds to really explain how important today’s conversation is. With our current focus on child safety as our main priority, our system is not prioritized family wellbeing. While our objective is to keep children safe, we neglect to listen to family voice, missing their experience and what they can teach us. We believe that family well-being should be at the center of the conversation. Today, we will talk about why we need to advance a family well-being focus and how we can believe in and empower families. I’d like to kick it off and pass it to our co-host, Ms. Sandra Gonzalez.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:02:13] Thanks. And let me just say, I love being a co-host with you. It’s an honor. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you’re trying to accomplish at the Institute for Family and what you said about communication and family, and I wanted to just say a little bit about why I come into this work the way that I do. Because, you mentioned the word ally, and I appreciate that. That means a lot to me, and I do see myself that way. And on any given day, I might fall short of being an ally, but I sure will always put myself out there to be an ally for youth, for children, and for families. And the way I come to this work really is from a shattered dream that I had, which was, I originally decided to be an outpatient therapist decades ago.  And my first caseload was with youth, children and parents who had been separated. And so, at the age of 20 something, I was sitting in four walls, in an office counseling families who had gone through some pretty significant challenges. And I was shattered by the stigmas that we were required to put on families and the children when there was so much more social context that was missing. And the reasons that they might be depressed or traumatized were less about the reasons they became separated to begin with. It was about the harm that was being done through the system by keeping families apart. But the thing that always has struck me is the resilience and the strength that families brought into that office and bring every day as they’re experiencing the system. And what I experienced decades ago in that role in a different state, that’s all in my rear-view mirror. But what is in front of us today really is the same. It’s pretty similar, and we have to change that. And that’s my why.

Jaquia Wilson: [00:04:06] Wow! Sandra, thank you so much for laying that out and for being willing to help facilitate this conversation with me. I think for me, the why really takes part in how I was raised and the things that I saw within my own family. Now that I’m a little bit older, I have two dogs and how I communicate with them is really important. They’re just a small part of my family, but they really are who I consider to be my family. And so, I’ve been learning how to train and how to communicate. And I think today here on this platform, we’ll have some very interesting guests who can explain to us and share their experiences to their why, why they’re here today to have this conversation with us. I’ve shared a little bit about why I’m here today and I want to share just a little bit more as we dive into our panelist responses. So, I really want to learn today how I can change, like I said, my own family’s future. I want to break those generational curses of lack of communication. When tragedy struck and hit my family, we, in part, failed to stay connected due to the lack of communication. And so, when I have children, I want to make sure that they’re equipped with the skills that they need to not just survive during tragedy, but to really thrive and to be a well off even after. So, with that, I want to really focus on why we should move towards child and family well-being system. What are the benefits? So, I’m going to ask our first panelists, Shrounda, what is the foundational experience that taught you that you were, that we need to build something new that focuses on prevention and addressing the conditions that families face.

Shrounda Selivanoff: [00:05:37] So, first thing I’m just going to start off by saying language matters. And we have this system in place that says child welfare. So from the onset, you can disregard me as a person who needs care, because we were saying that the child needs to be the focus in the center. A family wellbeing system essentially says, we’re going to look at the whole family. Family is sacred and it means something to each and every one of us and it looks different to every one of us. And so, my experience has really taught me that, you know, I came from some conditions that were not necessarily favorable to a healthy development, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have redeemable qualities and I don’t have strengths and beauties about who I am, even coming from those conditions. As I look at it as moving towards a family wellbeing system, what I recognized is that we see worth in each and every person in that family. I’m always baffled the way that the system will operate, because I wonder how we instill hope and worth in children when we remove them out of everything that they’ve ever known. And I questioned, if you don’t have worth for my family, how do you have worth for me? And I think that there’s those unsaid messaging that we don’t necessarily want to confront because we have a way of seeing that we’ve done something good by removal. Your data says something completely counter to that. And so as we move towards the child welfare being, what I’m recognizing is that we want to really keep each member, siblings, aunts, uncles, community members at the center of our work. We recognize that each person has an importance and value. We want to have that be a reminder and as we move towards the center of family wellbeing, I want to just say, we have to really recognize the conditions. And now the conditions that folks are living is, does that support wellbeing? And if it doesn’t, how are we moving towards that? So historically we have very little investment in families. We have a high end of investment on the other end, rehoming families and putting them in places so that they can receive those supports there. So, as we move towards a family wellbeing system, what I can tell you is that we should be really focused on our investment, keeping families together, knowing that each person has an important role in the development and overall societal importance. And we want to really start to generate that for not just the family, but society as a whole.

Jaquia Wilson: [00:08:10] Wow. That’s powerful. And Melissa, would you like to respond?

Melisa Merrick: 00:08:12] I would love to. And actually, I just want to pick up on something that Shrounda said and it’s the word conditions. Because I agree that language matters, but it’s important that we understand to what conditions we’re talking about. I think so often we think about physical conditions without thinking about the socio-political conditions. We know that there are some policy strategies that help children and families reach their maximum health and life potential and others that really just don’t do good enough. So, I came to this work really similar to kind of what Sandra shared, but my PhD is in child psychology. I was on a postdoctoral fellowship in a child protection team in mind and I was a young mom. I had a nine-month-old baby so probably had my own mental health things going on in that time. But had lots of support around me, had family close by, had resources, other kinds of conditions that probably supported me and my family. And into my office came a young family, probably teen parents, a nine-month-old baby. And the nine-month-old baby had some bruising. And I was just struck by the fact that this family had touched many other systems before that we could have prevented this harm from occurring in this family had we had a child and family well-being system. Had we not been a system that only once this young family found themselves in crisis, could we provide services or were they identified. And this was a family who only spoke Spanish, had no family close by. Mom was working two or three jobs, dad was unemployed. So many challenges that really made me understand that families cannot solve these challenges on their own, right. This is all of us together across sectors, across community, across agency that have to work together to have families be strengthened and recognize that children are safer with their families than from their families when their families are supported. So, it was really for me and eye opening and very humbling to experience on the fact that we had a same age child, but our experiences were so different and the conditions within which we had to navigate those experiences and either overcome and thrive or continue to struggle and really wanted to be part of a child and family system. And so, I’m just so thankful for even this conversation today.

Matt Anderson: [00:10:58] I’ll jump in here and I’m struck. I was going to start as a therapist as well in my career. It wasn’t what I was meant to do. And the reason I love this question, Jaquia, about what is our origin story. And we think about our origin stories for why we do what we do, I think it can help us find what our purpose is. I think our purpose and our origin are very much connected. And I think we have to know our purpose in this work. We have to know why we’re doing this because we’re all here on this webinar, I think for one reason. We want to embark on an effort that can take us in a very different place. Shrounda used the best word I think we can use, which is the conditions that families face. How are we going to start addressing the underlying causes that lead to child welfare involvement? What are the conditions, not the families or the parents themselves, but the conditions that they face? And it’s going to be difficult. I think it’s going to be really difficult. I think it’s going to take time. I think it’s going to take years, if not decades, for us to see the kind of real progress that we want. And so, to endure that, I think we want to stay grounded in our purpose. I think we all can go back to our origin story and find our purpose. And for me, I think it was pretty clear in 2007. And I took a new job as an independent living case manager. I was working with Cody and Rafi and it was Mandy and Micah and Raelynn and Kristen. It was specific kids who I worked with and I built relationships with, and I really got to know their experience and I got some of their story. And these were kids that I was supposed to help them age out of foster care and become independent adults. And I had a bunch of realizations in that work that all happened really fast. One, independence shouldn’t be the goal. We don’t want 18-year-olds to be independent. We want them to be in community and relationship and family, but my job was to get them to be independent. I didn’t think that was going to work. The other realization, which was the big one for me, that I think is what cemented for me that this is my purpose, which was I had this realization or this belief for me anyway, that when we remove kids from their parents and place them in foster care, I believe we make a promise to their family. We make a promise to their family that we can do better for your children than you can at this moment. And on the day that they age out when Cody, Micah, Ray, Mandy, when they were going to turn 18 on that day, I felt like we failed in that promise. And that honestly, that realization that I had 13 years ago has been what’s been driving me. And it’s cemented for me that my purpose is, for the last 13 years, it’s been how do we make the foster care experience the best it can be? How do we make it better? How do we improve it? What is foster care reform going to be? All of those kinds of things. And I’ve worked with some really amazing people and we’ve done some incredible work. I think we’ve really made an impact. I think we’ve done some really good work over those years here in North Carolina and others in many other places. Yet, in North Carolina, we’ve seen a 50% increase of the number of kids in foster care, over the last five years. So despite our great efforts and our desire to make foster care the best it can be, we’re getting more foster care. You know, what I’ve realized this past year, really that, and this has become my purpose tied to my origin story is the goal isn’t to make foster care the best it can be, the goal is to prevent it in the first place. And it doesn’t mean that it’s going to go away forever, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to need child protection and temporary foster care, I think we probably will. But I think that we need to focus our efforts on family. We need to live up to this promise that I think we’ve made to families. And I think we can, I think there’s a lot that we can do to help strengthen families, to see the conditions that they face, to understand what’s happening in community and to redirect our efforts. I’m excited about that work. I know it’s going to be difficult. There are a lot of people that are, I think, ready to move in that direction and excited to do this work and I’m excited about it. I think that it’s in part what the Institute for Family wants to contribute to is moving towards how do we see families in a way that can help us strengthen families and to Shrounda’s point, address conditions. But I’m so thrilled for this conversation today in this group coming together and the work ahead of us. So, I’ll stop there.

David Kelly: [00:15:01] So I suppose I’m last. And I would say as to the why, to me, it couldn’t be more simple. And it’s that families matter. All families, not just those that look like mine, no matter how they’re configured, no matter where they’re from, family matters. It’s where we get our sense of belonging. It is a vital connection for our wellbeing, and it’s time we started acting like that. Because if we don’t, we’ll simply be on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of justice. And my origin story I’m coming to understand is really one in having my eyes opened to privilege I did not earn and privilege I’ll never know what it’s like to exist in the world without.  And I was most directly confronted by that as a young 20 something year old student teacher who was working on the edge of the Saint Regis Mohawk reservation. And I got a sense then in ways that I never would have imagined how unfair conditions can be. Seeing families that were struggling with normal familial challenges, things that I had family members that struggled with and neighbors had struggled with, families that absolutely loved each other, treated completely differently. And this replicated itself and has and continues every step of my career. When I worked with homeless and runaway youth in Newark, New Jersey, I saw the same thing play out again. And it’s a destructive pattern that we’ve got to own and take on, you know, simply by being born black, brown, or native American in this country, your family shouldn’t have less of a chance to be together. You shouldn’t be valued less. And if you’re poor, you shouldn’t have less of a chance to sit together, either. I think we just have this critical moment to come together during a time of great division in the country around the one thing I hope there’s more than one, but one thing I know that we all have in common and that’s that we have families, and we should all coalesce around doing everything that we can to celebrate, support, strengthened, and acknowledge just how important family is to all of us.

Jaquia Wilson: [00:17:27] Wow! That’s really powerful stuff, guys. I am hearing this common theme of conditions and wanting to really understand those conditions and the things that our families we serve face. And I’m also hearing a lot about what you guys learned earlier on in your careers, this theme of 20 something that you guys keep throwing around. And so, I guess my hope for today is really that everyone who’s in their 20 something moment realizes this earlier on so that they can do work with a very great impact.


I know the conversation ended quickly, but it continues in episode two. In the meantime, take a moment to think about what is, or will be your origin story or purpose for seeing this work differently.

How will you approach this work differently? Now join us in episode two, so you can hear what myself, Sandra and the rest of the panelists have to say about this conversation on why we need to advance a family wellbeing focus.


What are the conditions that families face that can lead to child maltreatment? The conversation delves into how our systems are currently responding to these conditions and what families need to thrive.


This episode features Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation; Shrounda Selivanoff, Director of Public Policy at Children’s Home Society of Washington; David P. Kelly, JD, MA, Special Assistant to the Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau; and Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America.



[00:00:00] Hey everybody. I’m Jaquia Wilson, the host of the Unlearning of Child Welfare Podcast. In this episode, Sandra and I continue our conversation with Shrounda, Matt, Melissa, and David on what we need to unlearn and why we need a family wellbeing focus. Let’s dive back in!

Jaquia Wilson: [00:25] I want to have a little discussion around what is really required of leaders or frontline staff to make this happen.

Shrounda Selivanoff: [00:00:31] I’m just going to go off of your comment there of the 20-something referencing and looking at foster youth, and then this magical age and then we say, poof, you are into adulthood. You no longer need support. I want to just move that to a parent who’s 20 something, who’s young, who’s still figuring some things out, that doesn’t need, or doesn’t have those supports that have been put in place. I don’t care where you’re at in life. You will always need support. I don’t care if you’re 80 years old, you still need support. So the way that we are framing this, and we are seeing the value of each person and attributing this time clock, that changes things is I think what puts us a bit in the predicament that we don’t see that each one of us is just on our life and we’re having these experiences. When I go back to my own story, what I can tell you is that when I got sober, I was like 38 and I was about a 15-year-old mentally. And what I think about are all the people that came into my life and how they nurtured me and they saw me, they didn’t see the 38-year-old woman. What they really saw was this girl, this child, and they nurtured me. They didn’t say you’re 38, Shrounda, you should have figured it out by now. They came at me with so much love and compassion and commitment to my development, and they recognized that I had missed some things along the way. And so when I think about our leaders that are put in places to do things differently, the main thing is that we shouldn’t be looking at the number, we should be looking at the experiences. And what are the experiences that have contributed to the trauma, to the lack of development, the numbing, the checking out, the stressors, all of these things that say, I can’t deal with how my life has come and manifested. No one wants to be poor. Nobody wants to be in child welfare. Nobody wants to be removed from their family. Nobody wakes up one morning and says, that’s what we’d like to be able… Those aren’t the dreams, right. We all have the same dream for the most part. My question is, how does my dream end up looking different than yours? And why did you then attach that I no longer deserve the same things that you also desire? And when we look at our leaders, we need to be very clear about the direction and how we see families. See my family, like you would see yours. Invest in my family, like you would invest in yours. And if we started to really approach it from that place, we wouldn’t just see a stabilized child, you see a stabilized mama, you see a stabilized sibling group, you see a stabilized community, you see a stabilized society. We’re not separate, we’re in this together. And so our leaders need to drive us in that place and remind us, and lead us to a destination of wholeness and of worthiness and that there’s no less there, right. The journey here really is that we’re in this together and we should be moving and grabbing all of our folks and taking them alongside us, wherever we find them.


Matt Anderson: [00:03:31] I have to jump in here, Shrounda, because you’re giving me goosebumps as you talk. You’re saying some really important things, especially when I think about it from a leader’s point of view. So I had a different thought and then I’m hearing you talk and I have a new thought. I think probably many people on this call know Brian Stevenson and his work and his book just mercy. And I think we all, as leaders should read that book or, you know, watch the movie. It’s a good movie, too. What he talks about is this idea of getting proximate or just getting close or building relationships, really getting to know people’s experiences. As leaders of large organizations or small organizations, it’s really easy for us to get pretty far away from the people that we are here to serve. And that I think can be dangerous, actually. I think if we’re not in a relationship with people, we really don’t truly understand their experiences and we don’t see them all the time for the strength, the hope, the resilience, dignity, potential. I would encourage all of us to find ways to get into communities where we serve families and get closer to the families that we serve and get to know their experiences and ask them. I had a CEO of a large organization say to me the other day that we’re really good at talking about the things that we do as organizations, but do we know what families need us to do? Are we stepping back and asking families, what do you need? And if we ask those questions and start to build relationships, I think we’ll start to see our organizations and our work differently.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:04:48] Thanks for sharing that, Matt, I have a question for you on that really is what do we need to unlearn or do differently to reduce that risk of creating something new in the image of the old and Shrounda I’d like for you to take us to church again.

Shrounda Selivanoff: The first thing is we have to stop blaming parents, period. I think that when we blame parents, that’s the scapegoat. So we don’t have to do any work. They’re the problem, if they were okay, we wouldn’t be in this mess. And that’s just not true. So the first thing we need to unlearn is there’s plenty of blame to go around for a lot of people, a lot of systems, a lot of the historical piece. There’s a lot of blame. And I want to just get out of blame, I want to just get to a solution. So what’s learned can be unlearned, right. We start off the world as a blank slate. So everything we have that we’ve obtained, we’ve learned. Somewhere along the line, someone has given us the information. I’m hoping that we unlearn that parents are not redeemable. I hope that we unlearn that family separation is the answer to families that find themselves in a state of crisis. Propelling someone into a crisis that’s already in crisis, just doesn’t make much sense because then I’m just trying to get through the next crisis. When I really need to get to a place where I can mobilize, get my thoughts together and get moving. When you remove children out of your home and you don’t know where your child is, you just tell me how you would be able to mobilize yourself, right? You would be raged, where is my child? So, family separation is not the answer; families that are experiencing crisis together can heal together. So, we need to also recognize that we can keep families together, that we can infuse support and resources, and we can get very creative about the ideas on how to keep families together. The other thing we need to unlearn is that my family’s different than yours. Once again, I’ll reiterate the statement that I made. We all have the same desires. We are far more alike than we are different, the problem is that we just try to assign those things, so then we try to elevate ourselves. And it’s really self-serving, right. I’m going to elevate who I am and diminish who you are, so I can feel it better about who I am. Get rid of your hierarchical ladder, it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t really truly exist. When you really try to get down to the depth of humanity that we’re just trying to make it through this thing, and the more that we can join mission and force of really embracing each other, because walking through life is really hard. And it’s hard to walk through it alone, it’s hard to walk through it childless, it’s hard to walk through it in poverty, it’s hard to walk through it in homelessness. And the separation that we do to each other doesn’t just harm me, what it really does is it harms you too. You just haven’t connected to that. When I see someone who’s homeless, right. That’s not my child, but that’s my child. Like I’m connected to that person. I’m connected. So, I want us to unlearn that we are disconnected because we’re not, right. I want us to walk together in this. I want us to recognize that when we remove children and you place them in a stranger’s home, think about this. You place them in a stranger’s home, and you say, you are going to be alright. And you don’t even know the home you placed them in. Let’s also add that piece to the story too, because that’s a hard truth too that we like to dance around. That you’re rehoming these children and they’re better off, because that’s just not the truth either. So, what I’m hoping that we will continue to do is that we will absolutely look at the information and we’ll actually do something with it. It tells you a very clear path out. And what we’re doing right now is not working, it’s not helpful, it’s incredibly harmful, it creates pathways to outcomes that are dismal, all wrapped in the premise of, we care about you kid, right. And we want the best for you.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:09:02] You are in church, we’re all there. We’re all there with you. I think joining forces and unlearning that we’re disconnected, spot on.

Melissa Merrick: [00:09:10] I want to add a couple of things here. We have to unlearn that we have all the answers that will work for every family out there, as opposed to, we need to listen to families. We have to listen to people with lived expertise that know their many assets and know their many struggles. We have to move from a nation that still has a dominant narrative, that poor mother is to blame or that poor family or that black, brown, indigenous community is to blame versus recognizing that we all have a role to play in keeping children and families strong. Another thing that we have to really lift up is that children do better when their families are doing better. So, this idea that we are a child focused field, and we can put the child in a different place or setting and that they’re going to thrive, we know that’s not true, we know based on science, that’s not true. So just like we know that early adversity can affect our health and wellbeing, we know that early positive experiences can balance that. So, we then need to be about coming together to provide help to support families in communities to have those strong experiences. What really drives me a little bit nuts is that we think in the field of child abuse and neglect prevention, that birth to five is the only time that relationships matter and that we need to invest in children and families. When we know that prevention is lifelong, that it’s never too late, that we can always buffer risks, we can always put in protective factors at each level of the social ecology that will help outcomes. But I think all of those together is what we mean when we say we need to be about a child, family, community wellbeing system. We need to be keeping families and communities strong and help them access support when needed, because we all need it. Come on, guys. Parenting is challenging year-round, but parenting during a global pandemic, acute racial and civil unrest, it doesn’t matter how many resources you have, in this time of physical distancing we need emotional and social connectedness to keep every family strong and thriving.

Shrounda Selivanoff: [00:11:35] So I just want to say before David and Matt jump in here, we just heard the CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America state that prevention goes beyond the age of zero to five. And that is something I wanted to just highlight because so often prevention is seen as something for only younger children, and that’s how we end up perpetuating a system that’s not designed for older youth.

Matt Anderson: [00:11:58] This conversation is really grounded in why we should be having the conversation, not just this group, but around the country. We really need to be mobilizing, catalyzing this conversation about moving towards child and family. Centering on family, centering on equity, centering on strengthening families. I’ve spent most of my career in child welfare and I think that one of the things we need to unlearn in addition to what has been said already about, we are not the experts, we have to listen. So those things, but I also think we don’t need to think that child welfare is going to do all of the work that is required here. As one sort of field, one system, one set of organizations, public and private. And again, this unlearning it’s just the work of child welfare to prevent child maltreatment. I don’t think it is. I think having Melissa on here representing Prevent Child Abuse America was intentional because I think we need to at least, you know, the prevention field and the child welfare field coming together. But we have to see where is the space that this work of strengthening family’s needs to exist. Who are the stakeholders? What are the systems that need to come together? I was thinking about this a lot today, getting ready for this. Should we really be thinking about why don’t we have somebody from the criminal justice system on this webinar? Maybe that was an oversight. We have a long history of policies in this country that have impacted specific communities and specific families, largely families and communities of color that have really been disruptive to communities. And I think child welfare is a downstream result of some of those policies. And so maybe we should be thinking about how does criminal justice reform help to strengthen families and strengthen communities. So, for me, I think that’s a big one. There’s lots of things that we can unlearn and do different that would help us not replicate the same old as we create the new, I think there’s a lot that we can do, but I think really considering who are the stakeholders and the partners, what’s the coalition that needs to come together to create this new space where we can do this kind of work, I think is an important question for all of us. So, it’s exciting to see everybody thinking about that today.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:14:02] Jaquia what do you have on your mind?

Jaquia Wilson: [00:14:05] My wheels are turning over here. I’m hearing all this powerful dialogue and as someone who experienced the system firsthand, I’m super excited to know that we have the number of leaders that we do and ground floor workers, really starting to imagine and see our families as human. All families experience crisis, and the child welfare system, the foster care system is not just going to go away overnight. There’s still going to be a need for youth who come into the system and so how do we reduce that number? How do we really serve these families better? How do we really put aside our own bias to make sure that we can see people for who they are? I’m just really empowered. I feel great listening to this dialogue, and I’m really excited to see what you all go home and do differently. You know, every participant on this call, I’d be really eager to know, have you started the conversation within your organization that pushes us toward a family wellbeing system and not just child and safety focused. Children come from these families and as we are making that promise, as Matt said to do better, when we remove them from these families, how can we help these families to be strong so that when they reunite, because we do need those connections to reunite, that they are in a better position than when we first intervened. And I just think that’s really powerful and I’m super excited.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:15:23] How about we ask the audience, we’d be curious to hear from the audience about what is the number one thing, the number one thing that we need to unlearn or do differently if we’re going to get to this family and child well-being system that we’re talking about, let us know in the chat.

But we see the flood coming in. We see the number one thing; it’s going really fast. Racism. I saw racism. We have not talked about racism like we should have in this conversation. David, you started talking about your white privilege and how that has manifested. That is an area, folks.

Jaquia Wilson: [00:15:58] One of the ones that I see is culture shift from punitive to restorative. My, that was very powerful to know that we are looking through a lens of non-judgment and I’m really looking to restore and empower these families. So that’s great.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:16:10] Unlearn, systemic racism, stigma.

Matt Anderson: [00:16:14]  Sandra I would add to that, it gets really important for all of us as individuals in this field to do the work that we need to do around race and racism. You know, I think that’s somewhere that we all can start and really need to, and should start, particularly for me as a white man in this country. I have to recognize that there are biases that I have that are just inherent, you know, living and growing up in our society and I have to come to understand how those come to operate in my work and as a leader in this field and then organizations. And so that’s an important place to start. And I think that part of how we undo racism, part of how we end racism is by getting to know people that are different from you. You have to start by building relationships. And I think that’s an important step that we can take.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:17:03] A couple of minutes and I’m tempted to throw you all a curveball. So, I’m going to do it. I don’t want to move away from the race conversation too quickly. I think that one of the things that would be helpful for each one of you, Matt, you already touched on this, working on undoing racism. As leaders, how are you preparing yourselves, what’s the work that you’re doing personally to be solid in creating equitable systems and infrastructures for those that we know are overrepresented in the system and anyone can start.

Jaquia Wilson: [00:17:31] Before we do. I just want to throw out there that for our listeners, one of the big things, when we have these conversations is a lot of people go, racism, what’s that? And that’s an issue. If you think it’s not happening, then that’s part of the reason as to why we don’t understand and respect the conditions in which our families come from, that we serve. And so, I’m going to pass it along. See, who’s ready to get the ball rolling.

Melissa Merrick: [00:17:55] I’ll just say, I think we have to, as leaders become more comfortable with discomfort and having these difficult conversations. I think sometimes leaders you’re used to having answers and being very solutions focused and going straight to actions. But in a racism training, I was just in recently with Dr.  Heather Hackman and my entire network that attended along with the children’s trust funds and other big networks around the country. She says, we can’t just have a list. We have to have the lens. And it’s as leaders, you go to action. You want to check things off of the list, but really racial equity and equity of all forms needs to be the lens with which we hire staff, we retain staff, we attract staff, we implement services. It has to be in everything, who we give money to, who we support, what we do with those monies. So, it really needs to permeate everything. And I think it is going to then be uncomfortable for a lot of us as we learn and continue to learn how to do this work better.

Jaquia Wilson: [00:18:57] Thank you, Mellissa.

David Kelly: [00:18:59] I’ll chime in here really briefly. And I’d say, this is something I am thinking about pretty much all the time, and I’m trying to learn what it means to be anti-racist. And let’s say for those of us in the majority culture, we’ve got to move beyond intellectually recognizing privilege and race. We’ve got to commit to no longer leaving the burden of naming racism to the few black and brown faces in the room. And we got to own our part and how racism is perpetuated in the systems that we operate within and how we operate within them. And it’s going to require us to make sure that everyone’s seen and heard. And it’s going to require us to listen a hell of a lot more than we talk, not to require people to call it a validate their feelings or experiences. And we’re going to have to start using those words that so many have been too afraid to use. Because they’re the right words and they’re the honest ones.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:19:57] Thanks, David. I know we’re getting close to time, but I want to definitely give Shrounda the floor.

Shrounda Selivanoff: [00:20:02] I’m just going to end with this, and I’ll actually just piggyback off. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors that happen. And I think that we really need to get clear about what the problem is. This isn’t a funding issue; this is an oppression issue. And we have to start to really look at the policies that continuously drive the dismantlement of families, because that is where change can really occur. I want to just end with this super quick. I have this CEO, I’m not going to call them out, but I have the CEO, and I’ll never forget when I sat in a meeting with him and this guy was so bold in his language, he was unapologetic. And I had just met him, and I see him regularly now, but I was struck by his courage and his willingness to call it out and he didn’t do the tap dance. This was a white CEO that is leading the charge and asking for change for families. And because of the demographics of America have to be in this conversation, leading the conversation, seeking allies and partnerships and driving this to where, if we really want to seek justice for families, this is really a social justice issue and we need to be approaching it from that space for change to actually occur for all children that are encountering child welfare, because it’s from racism, the classism that are the drivers that are putting people into the system.

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:21:28] Thanks, Shrounda. I appreciate that. All of you for answering that, Matt, I think we’re handing it over to you.

Matt Anderson: [00:21:34] Sandra, amazing job as our host, Melissa, Shrounda, David. Thanks for having a conversation, being bold in your thoughts and in your comments, and coming together to this conversation. Thanks to everybody.


Wow! Wow! Wow! Take a moment after having this conversation to ask some critical questions. What do you need to unlearn? What conditions are families facing and how can you work together to address them? How do you listen and learn from family’s experience rather than being overly influenced by their case file? The way we view families impacts the way that we serve them. Thank you to all the listeners and panelists alike for joining me in this conversation about advancing a family wellbeing focus.

Please tune into episode three as we discuss how we can advance family wellbeing and hear from people across the United States who are already implementing concrete efforts from the ground up. Talk soon!



How are changemakers creating a child and family well-being system? Here we examine the concrete actions already in motion.


This episode features Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation; Shrounda Selivanoff, Director of Public Policy at Children’s Home Society of Washington; David P. Kelly, JD, MA, Special Assistant to the Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau; and Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America.



[00:00:00] Welcome back everyone to the third episode of the Unlearning of Child Welfare Podcast. I’m Jaquia Wilson, and this episode I’m joined again by Sandra Gonzalez, as well as a panel of family wellbeing advocates, including Matt Anderson director at Institute for Family; Bobby Taylor, the strengthening families coordinator for the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation; Susanne Shore, the first lady of Nebraska, who has been involved in several statewide initiatives; and Ned Breslin CEO of Tennyson Center for Children and founder of Rewiring. This episode is all about the ‘how’ behind building a family wellbeing approach in the child welfare system, as well as touching on some emerging efforts from across the country. Let’s begin the dialogue.  

Jaquia Wilson: [00:01:00] In our last episode, we introduced to you all the idea of unlearning child welfare language and reinventing that with something like family wellbeing. I think that really just leaves us with the question that we are trying to really help answer from today and that’s, you know, the ‘how’ behind a lot of what we’re doing and how do we plan on moving forward and seeing each state kind of take on the same vision and having a family wellbeing focused, child welfare system. 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:01:27] And today’s webinar will really focus on how some places are already taking up the work in different ways. So you’re going to hear both Colorado and Nebraska as examples of what they’re doing. Both of these States are a part of the thriving families, safer children effort, which is a national commitment to wellbeing that really aims to move from traditional reactive child protection systems. So those designed to support child and family well being and prevent child maltreatment and unnecessary family separations. And you heard about that at the last webinar. But both of these examples are also a part of local efforts. The Rewiring collaborative in Colorado, and the Bring Up Nebraska initiative, you’ll hear about those. So today you’re going to learn about early indicators of how we can begin to build a family wellbeing approach from the ground up. You’ll also learn about some emerging family wellbeing efforts across the country from one of our panelists. So that is what today really is. It’s a conversation, we intentionally wanted to have a dialogue, it won’t be a presentation, and we want you to learn from the various perspectives about how to make the shift. 

Jaquia Wilson: [00:02:40] So I’m going to start with you, Ned, if that’s okay. And just ask, can you give a brief overview of Rewiring and Bring Up Nebraska. Like, what are these initiatives and what exactly are you trying to accomplish? Like, you know, what personally motivated you to take on this work? So, I know that’s a loaded question, Ned, but I know you have a lot to say, so I’m going to pass the mic to you. 

Ned Breslin: [00:03:02] Well, thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be here. What motivated me is I joined Tennyson about three and a half, four years ago, and we’re a pretty small and traditional child welfare provider. We have a residential program, we have a community-based program, we have a day treatment program and you know, great staff, great program, great history. We have been around since 1904 and all the kids that come here are amazing. You know, I was just with a kid who was in our residential program for a while, he’s now in a foster family, but the school wouldn’t let him in, they thought he was too risky. And he’s nine, and he’s upset about that. And he is pounding away educationally because he’s going to prove to that school that he’s worthy, you know, and it’s shocking that a nine year old has to prove that they’re worthy. But what’s particularly galling about this is that even though he was in our residential program, if you look at his case history, the thing that makes me so sad is if someone had actually moved earlier, he wouldn’t be at Tennyson. He wouldn’t have been in our residential program. And while I’m thrilled to know him and I love him to death, I wish I didn’t know him. I shouldn’t know him. Rewiring is a very simple idea, and it basically says, and it frames the work in terms of impact and outcomes. And so it basically says the sector, child welfare, whether it’s state local or national, is spending an enormous amount of money buying terrible outcomes. And what we keep doing is trying to pound money, different ways and add services in different ways, and we’re still getting abysmal outcomes. The other thing that’s galling about it is if you talk to any caseworker, they will sit there and they will say, you know, I saw his family today and they’re in real trouble, but you know what? I can’t do anything. They haven’t met medical necessity or imminent risk qualifications. I can’t figure out how to move funding and so I have to wait for them to fail. That’s a moral, that’s absolutely moral. And so caseworkers have that story all over the country. What Rewiring basically said is, well, that’s nuts. What would you do if we actually eliminated the problems of medical necessity and imminent risk as a funding line and anything below it, you can move, but anything above it is kind of harder to move. What if we said, we’re going to buy different outcomes. We’re going to invest programmatically, financially. We’re going to invest to see if we dramatically reduce the number of children and families who become child welfare involved, and we’re going to see if we could get better results for the children who are child welfare involved because of that. And the Rewiring part is to understand how money moves so we can go to legislators and budget writers and say, move the money this way to buy these outcomes instead of continuing to move the money this way and buying garbage outcomes. We started it in Colorado and lots of heroes in this story, but it was co-designed by this colleague of mine, Tiffany Perrin from the Zoma foundation. A lot of people sit around and say, donors want to get involved in the design and everything. This is a perfect example of it. Tiffany co-designed it with us. She was so impactful that we actually convinced the donor to give her to us for three years so that she could actually see the impact of her work. And then we went to the joint budget committee where another gifted magician, the budget analyst there, Robin Smart, who cares about kids more than anyone I know He basically said, let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying you’re going to use philanthropic dollars to show how money moves differently to reduce the number of children and families becoming child welfare involved and get better results in the counties that we work with? We identify 10 counties across Colorado, East, West, North, South, Republican, Democrat, high density, low density, diverse, not so diverse. And she basically said, if you can show me that you can get better results moving money, that I will help you Rewire the money. And so we started. We started about a year ago, the 10 counties are unbelievable. And we basically said, we’re not going to make you plan, over plan and do a proposal and do all that stuff. It’s iterative. What are the drivers in your County that are leading to child welfare involvement? And so the counties sat back and they said, well, in our County, it might be prenatal moms, substance using who we don’t want to do that anymore and substance treatment programs aren’t solving the problem. Or it could be third graders, fourth graders, seventh graders, 10th graders in our schools who are starting to struggle. So all these counties came up with these ideas of like, if I had the ability to invest, I would go here. They’ve done five things across these 10 counties. They have built programs that reduce isolation. So they’ve invested in some crazy things, one of them, my favorite is called Granny Armies. It’s basically rural communities that are never going to have enough social workers, but what do they have? They have grandmothers and grandmothers are trusted and grandmothers have lost their sense of purpose. And so we’re now matching grandmothers with prenatal moms and they will stay with those moms till the kids are five years old so that those kids don’t become child welfare involved. We have massively invested in basic needs, housing, transport, childcare, all of that. Anyone who’s not DHS eligible, but is struggling, and child welfare has seen them, we’re moving on that. We have two counties, Denver and Larimer who’ve identified the zip codes in their counties with the highest referrals. So in those counties, instead of going and saying your family has a problem and your family was referred, you sit back and facilitate a community level, why are there so many referrals here and you finance local community based organizations who are trusted, who are known. They don’t like Tennyson, they don’t want to see Tennyson. We’re investing in other organizations to do that. Amazing triaged work in Douglas County, real hats off to the Douglas County team. One of the biggest drivers into child welfare are schools. And so what they’ve done is put a layer between the schools because when the schools don’t know what to do, they call DHS. So they put a layer between the schools and said, call them first and let’s see if they actually do need DHS or they should go somewhere else. Last thing is a medical necessity and imminent risk work. So we’ve had organizations like Tennyson and Savio take, in Douglas County, they’re 2000 families that Douglas County DHS sees. They estimate 48% will be child welfare involved in two years, that’s 960. Give us those 2000 families. Let’s go work with them and let’s see if instead of 960 families, we can get it down to 50 or 40 or 10. We then frame all of that work in terms of cost avoidance. If they had become child welfare involved, what would that have cost? It’s $14,000 per case, how much are we saving by cutting the number of children and families who become child welfare involved? After a year, zero families that this program has worked with, zero, have become child welfare involved. That is telling.  

The second part of Rewiring is to say, we got to get better results in the system. And so real quickly, what we’re doing is we jumped all over the QRTP work, we think the most brilliant part of FFPSA is the assessment link, and we set up a program that said, stop putting kids in residential. Any kid that you’re worried about, you can put that kid in Tennyson for less than 30 days. But go find a family and let’s not put them into Rez. So we started with a pilot of six kids. Four went to kin, two went to foster, one, went to foster to adopt, and we built out this model, in Denver County, if they just use this program, instead of using our residential program, they will save $380,000 a year. So then the question is, what do you want to do with that money to get upstream, to get fewer and fewer kids in? We’ve also been tracking, just last thing real quickly, we’ve been tracking spinoff impacts. So we’ve seen a 95% reduction in police contacts, that’s a $75,000 savings a year. We’ve seen a 98% reduction in hospitalizations, that’s a $297,000 a year savings. And so we’re now sitting with legislators and Medicaid and saying, move money this way you will get these results, liberate everyone, and we can get to a better place. 10 counties are amazing. They are coordinating with public health, housing, other institutions that they’ve never done before. We are thrilled with the Colorado partnership for thriving families. We are in complete sync coordination. That’s the program you guys were talking about. So, what you have is this amazing coordination and support to build out this continuum and to build out a new world where kids and families are not child welfare seen. And it generated so much excitement because people are talking about it, to be honest. And it is exciting that five States in the children’s home society of America network, North Carolina, Illinois, Florida, Mississippi, and Washington state have said we’re going to do Rewiring too. So liberate people from the financial and programmatic constraints, do not constrain yourself to evidence-based practices. It’s Linus’ blanket they’re needed, but it’s evidence plus. And be driven by the outcome of fewer children and families in the child welfare system, calculate the costs and go to budget writers, to joint budget committees and superstars like Robin Smart, go to the federal level and say, stop buying bad outcomes this way, invest this way. Spread it, create new billing codes and you will stop the flood into child welfare. 

Jaquia Wilson: [00:11:58] Wow! 

Ned Breslin: [00:12:00] It’s so fun. 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:12:01] Where’s the applause button? We don’t have them on here, but that’s right.  

Jaquia Wilson: [00:12:04] And that is just really powerful to me. So I’m happy to have heard that. Susanne, would you like to share a little bit about what you all are doing?  

Susaanne Shore: [00:12:12] Sure, I’d love to. So I really don’t have a whole lot of time to explain how prevention became a priority for me or how I got involved with this work. But I’ll just say this, that I knew enough to actually ask my husband to run for governor in order to improve child welfare in our state. That was 100% my motivation, and I’ll just end it at that. What came out of that was Bring Up Nebraska, which is a community based prevention program that focuses on keeping families together and as many kids as possible in safe and loving homes. And with Bring up Nebraska, the focus is local solutions. We’ve taken a really different approach where we no longer rely on that top-down, one size fits all system that we had here, where basically the state makes all the decisions and just tells the local communities how to solve their problems. And instead, the focus is on local communities because we really believe that they are the best situated and most motivated to understand their own strengths and their own needs. And then they’re the best to create the networks and solutions necessary there. So the core for Bring Up Nebraska is really that individual community. And within that community, the collaboratives come together and they’re made up of nonprofit leaders and service providers, elected officials, business owners, healthcare providers, educators, law enforcement are a big part of it, community and church leaders, and of course parents and youth. And from the beginning, each collaborative gets together and starts analyzing it’s specific issues, problems, and strengths based upon data that’s provided by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and Casey family foundation. And that data is so important because that really drives what they’re going to work for. So the collaboratives start talking and everyone starts talking about what they’ve been doing because so many times the folks were working in silos, not even knowing what other solutions were out there. And they start looking for gaps and overlaps and services, and then they develop the network strategies and long-term plans to work on those specific issues. Now, these could be on homelessness, the need for affordable housing, some work on graduation rates or third grade reading levels. It could be for the need for quality childcare, unemployment rates. We don’t define or direct what those are. The communities decide. They’re just given their metrics in comparison to the rest of the state, and then they start solving another problem, and another problem, and the state partners are there with them, often sitting in the same meetings. And I won’t go into all the list of agencies, but basically it’s almost all of them, not just HHS, it’s state and federal foundations and organizations that provide technical and financial support. It’s Nebraska Children and Families Foundation that provides expertise, data, and resources. So everyone is sitting in there together and all of us are there to support those communities, and sometimes we might provide expertise. And now we’re excited to be a part of the federal thriving families, safer children initiative. We have found motivation, inspiration, and resources to really push the program into becoming more comprehensive that supports family and children with even more services and partners and addresses more systemic problems. You know, when I started this, I wasn’t exactly shooting for the moon. I just kind of wanted to make things better. And many of the issues that we’re working on can’t be measured in two years because the communities are working on their own specific strategies and solutions. But one thing I can say is that Bring Up Nebraska in its first two years has decreased their home removal rates by 14%, in two years. And that’s no negative impact on the CFSR indicators. We have a long history of relying on removal from home as a chief tool in dealing with any kind of challenges that are going on within a family, and we’re really starting to shift that, and that’s the communities. That’s because those communities are providing the upfront prevention services to help families before they get involved in child welfare and juvenile justice. So, as I’ve said, Bring Up Nebraska and the collaboratives are about community wellbeing in order to care for kids and families. In 2019, the majority of our state experienced massive devastating flooding and the collaboratives were the groups that stepped up from the beginning with FEMA to manage those recovery efforts and their areas to the point that FEMA said they had never seen any kind of work like this before. But it’s because the collaboratives were already there working together. And now with COVID again, the state has relied on them for information, leadership and solutions, and I just can’t overstate their impact. The work of the collaboratives has helped the governor direct care dollars. It’s guided state leaders as we develop multiple task forces that deal with systemic issues, including mental health, food, security, and housing. And these are long-term solutions. We really are building better because of these collaboratives. It’s hard for me to believe that focusing on individuals and prevention is anything earth shattering or that it would have such a positive impact on Nebraska, but it really has been hard to explain how important this work has been. And I’m excited to be part of that thriving families, safer children initiative, because now we can expand our work even more. And I hope that we can serve as an example, possibly a model for what can be achieved throughout the US. And if nothing else, we’re here to spread the word that prevention works. And if you ever need anybody from Nebraska to help sell it, we’re here because we can really talk about what’s been achieved.  

Jaquia Wilson: [00:17:42] Thank you so much for all that concrete information and those powerful numbers that Ned shared. With that, I want to go to Ms. Bobby and ask, you know, can you talk about the site support teams that, you know, you work with and the role of parent and family leadership. You know, why is it important that we co-create with families in this work?  

Bobby Taylor: Yeah, so we can go into further dialogue, I want to be kind of short and quick, and I really want to focus on the importance of including families and lived experience. And I know this to be true, that families and lived experience are the secret sauce. And so when we’re incorporating lived experience and families in a co-creation space, it’s so important because they’re going to be able to lift up the systems or the symptoms of broken systems. For example, they’re going to be able to provide qualitative data that quantitative data is identifying. And a very tangible thing that I can use as an example is housing. So in Nebraska it’s known that there’s a housing crisis right now, but when you incorporate lived experience into those spaces, those co-creation spaces of identifying that housing, you’re going to get families that are going to come to the table and say, hey, listen, one of the barriers that we’re really experiencing right now is the application fees. Application fees can come from $35 to $50. And a family with a very tight budget, it’s not really feasible to spend $200 on application fees. It just isn’t going to work. When you’re incorporating a lived experience person from a foster care lens, they’re going to say, hey, we don’t have credit. And we don’t have a family support system to really cosign to get into housing. We don’t have that support system and we’re not financially capable of doing that. Another role with the lived experience is really demonstrating equity and inclusion in those spaces. When you look at the Nebraska table where a lot of system leaders are, they may not be affected by the disparities that our lived experience person is. And so lived experience can provide insight and perspective on those disputes. They’re going to be able to speak to the disproportionate effects or marginalization or direct biases that they experience and through inclusion of those perspectives, that’s when we’re really going to elevate and be able to create a community wellbeing system. 


[00:20:08] So while you are hanging on to your seat with anticipation of the next conversation, don’t worry, it continues in episode four. Listen closely to their responses. Where do you hope to make the biggest impact? Listen to the rest of what this panel has to say about building a family wellbeing system in the next episode. 



How are families benefiting from Child and Family Well-Being system initiatives? Dive deeper into implications and effects.


This episode features Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation; Shrounda Selivanoff, Director of Public Policy at Children’s Home Society of Washington; David P. Kelly, JD, MA, Special Assistant to the Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau; and Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America.



[00:00:00] Welcome back. I’m Jaquia Wilson, and in this episode of the Unlearning of Child Welfare, we continue the conversation from episode three, where we discuss the ‘how’ behind building a family wellbeing approach. As a refresher, I’m joined by Sandra Gonzalez, Matt Anderson, Bobby Taylor, Ned Breslin, Susanne Shore, and a new guest, Claire Anderson, the senior policy fellow at Chapin Hall. So let’s go ahead and dive in right where we left off.  

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:00:40] Yeah. I just want to ask you all, what are those challenges and risks and opportunities that you’ve had, and could you speak to how your initiatives are working with indigenous communities, and Susanne I’d love it if you could go first. 

Susanne Shore : [00:00:50] Sure. So I think some of the opportunities or some of the reasons that this has worked for us is that, kind of all the stars were aligned for us, that we had a naggy first lady who was willing to push the governor and a governor who had the insight to want to make this a priority. I can’t emphasize how important that has been to making sure that this is successful. But then we also had funders and foundation members who really wanted to see that kind of difference and had that vision. We’ve been the Guinea pigs. So hopefully other people can point to us and we can be that role model if you need other people to be inspired, whether it be your governor or other foundations. Some of the challenges that we see are making sure that the sticks around long term, even after the next election for governor. You know, there’s also always the risk of emotions getting involved when for instance, we see a horrific story about child deaths and all of a sudden there’s a knee jerk reaction that people say, Oh, the pendulum has gone too far towards prevention, but we need to be prepared for that and ready to explain that’s a false choice, and that prevention is a big tool that needs to stay a part of our box. For us, we need to expand more into businesses, smaller community funders and foundations, and also involve the judicial branch more, and more governmental agencies. For instance, the department of labor. When we go in and see a family is struggling to pay its bills, you don’t just help them pay the bills, but then make sure that they get on the department of labor’s radar so that they can get training. And then as far as our native American communities, that’s been an ongoing challenge for us. And a lot of it has to do with needing to build the trust, which we’ve been working hard to do. It starts with building that trust and understanding. And for those outside of the community, understanding that we need to step back and not be the experts, and I think we’ve been working hard to do that. And thriving families initiative is really a huge opportunity for us because we’re looking to prioritize that expansion into those tribal communities. And again, it’s making that investment, the support, building the trust. So hopefully within one year, with the work that we’ve done, I’ll be able to report back that we’ve seen even more success. 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:03:00] Yeah, we’ll look forward to that. I think you’re spot on with trust and understanding of customizing the way communities want to have their own solutions and us not imposing those values that we might hold. And Bobby, I’m curious from your perspective, what you see? 

Bobby Taylor: [00:03:16] As a challenge, you know, to be quite honest, I see a lot of challenges, but that comes at the foundational level of relationship building. As we see lived experience being included in spaces, I feel like it’s kind of drifting towards a trend. There are amazing organizations that really honor that power sharing and really honor that partnership. I just see in a lot of other different spaces lived experience becomes a check in the box. And I just have to be honest, that’s not how it’s going to work, right. We really have to be intentional about those relationships that we’re building, because that’s going to set the tone for the solutions that are going to be created. Another thing that I see as kind of a potential barrier is that systems leaders and systems in general really have to unlearn that authoritative role that they have. It’s really easy for them to set those agendas and find a lived experience person to plug into that agenda, to carry it forward. Or it’s another check in the box where they’re like, okay, we have lived experience, it doesn’t really match our agenda, but we’re going to push our agenda anyway. And we’re still going to just say like, well, we have lived experience. So if we’re saying, Oh, you know, we can be inclusive and that’s not how it’s going to work. When communities and systems are implementing that inclusion space, I can’t stress enough how important it is to really center those relationships, meeting people where they’re at, making sure they’re equitably paid and compensated. Understanding that, you know, if a parent has to find a babysitter to contribute to a systems change, there may be a need for, you know, a childcare payment, right. To help them and meet them where they’re at. They’re being very vulnerable and exposing some of their truths that are not easy to expose, and so we have to honor that. Every other professional in that space is going to be paid to be there, so it’s important that we do that for them too. And that’s just a small example, but again, I just have to stress the relationship building because communities with lived experience are just as important as other stakeholders in which you would spend a lot of time fostering those relationships. 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:05:24] Claire, we want to get you in here. We know your role at Chapin Hall, you get the purview of the whole country, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on challenges, risks, opportunities, just what you’re seeing across the country.  

Claire Anderson: [00:05:39] Thanks so much Sandra. And thanks everybody. I’m just delighted to be here. I’m going to try and tie together a few dots and connect them because what we are seeing at the national level, Sandra, is this real interest as States have deepened their planning and initial implementation of family first, a real hunger to figure out how do I go further upstream into the prevention space. And as thriving families, say for children, a national commitment to the wellbeing movement is embarking on new dialogue with the States. We’ve experienced a tremendous appetite for looking for ways to not just change the narrative, to change the perspective, to change the constructs, the relationships, and the ways in which we engage with, serve, and are in service to communities and families. States are looking for evidence plus. I really liked that. I wrote that down as you were talking, because I think States really are trying to figure that out. And what I want to use my time to do is to connect that plus, what I think is one component of a family and child well-being system can be, addresses, Bobby, your statement that families have tight budgets. And when we listen to families about what they need, one of the first things that we hear are resources, concrete resources, fiscal, economic resources. I want to highlight a few studies that are emerging right now that we didn’t have even five years ago, that lead us to think about economic support for families in ways that I think we have not until now. So as you look at the amount of money, we’re spending a lot of money on a set of outcomes. We are spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 billion a year across federal and state funding streams to identify and address and treat child maltreatment, predominantly in an after the fact engagement with families rather than in the prevention space. And as we think about moving money, there are various ways to do that and I want to highlight a few policies that already exist. It’s not everything, but it shows a pathway, I think. So the studies that I’m referencing show that if you provide even modest economic support to families, you have a pretty significant reduction in child maltreatment and neglect and in engagement in child welfare. And when I say modest I mean, modest. The earned income tax credit for States that have a state level EITC and provide a thousand dollars, is associated with up to a 10% reduction in child protective services involvement for single mother families and with larger families. That’s not much in terms of resource movement, and that’s a state policy choice to have a local state level EITC program or not. Minimum wage. If the state chooses to increase the minimum wage, even by $1, for every dollar a state raises the minimum wage, you get somewhere in the neighborhood of a little less than a 10% reduction in neglect reports. And these are just a couple of examples. States that expanded Medicaid also saw reductions in reports of neglect particularly, and this is really important for kids under the age of six. We have already in place pathways through which States can make policy decisions to resource families in ways that are important and meaningful. These aren’t the only pathways. We’ve got to find other pathways, but the power of this new evidence says that even for very small amounts of money, we can stabilize families and reduce neglect and reduce involvement with child welfare. And I think that is incredibly powerful. So when we, as practitioners, look for interventions with families, one of the first things that I should pull out of my toolkit is what are the economic supports that are available in my community, in my state, and how do I get them to families, and if there are not as many as I want, how do I advocate for a different, more robust set of economic and concrete supports for families. So I think what we are finding is that it’s possible. There are new pathways that we’ve not thought about in this context that I think that we could and should be. These are also pretty powerful race equity and social justice strategies, given our long term systematic deprivation of families of color and communities of color, when it comes to economic resources. 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:10:57] You’re talking about a $30 billion industry and you’re talking about small amounts of money that families need, that would provide them with the concrete support to prevent further exposure to the system. And, Ned, I saw your head just shaking, like you were in agreement. Yeah. And so I want to go to you like to react to Claire, talk to us about challenges and opportunities. 

Ned Breslin: [00:11:25] I think a lot of the challenges, you know, a lot of people tend to focus externally and I think those are all real. I’d actually like to focus internally. I think there’s internal challenges to this and maybe some lessons from Tennyson. And so, first of all, it required a complete overhaul of our board to go here. And I don’t think anyone should underestimate the importance of board leadership. If you’re going to make a move that fundamentally threatens your historical business model, if you will, you’ve got to have your board behind you and I have the greatest board I’ve ever had in my life. I’m so blessed by that. Second thing is you have to sit back and kind of humble yourself. Tennyson does amazing work, and we are really proud of it. The fact is that children and families pass through Tennyson are also homeless, incarcerated, unfortunately have died by suicide and we have to own that, because we’re part of the problem. We’re trying to change the system, but we’re also part of the problem. And so we have to have a much deeper sense of humility as we work to not think that it’s everyone else’s problem. It’s our problem. Third is we are an organization that has deep racial challenges internally operating in a racial context and in an oppressive context, and we have to own that as well. And I want to tell you that is a really important step. 84% of Coloradans are Caucasian white, less than 40% of the kids and families who come through Tennyson are that. So that is outrageous and Rewiring is really focused on stopping that as much as anything else. And that means, to Bobby’s point, is we have to find ways to invest in organizations that the child welfare sector never invests in, right. We have to invest in community based organizations that are doing amazing work and are often unseen and unthought of because they have a bigger impact than us. We also have to look at ourselves, the children at Tennyson of color are writing a bill of rights that is going to be presented to the entire organization in two weeks. And it’s strong. It’s really strong. We also have to deal with microaggressions that I’ll just give you one. You probably noticed I’m handsy, I’m passionate, I am rewarded for that. We have staff whose performance reviews tell them that they’re too handsy, they’re too emotional and all that stuff. So I’m rewarded and they’re told to tamp it down. That is outrageous. So we have to clean up our own act and get our act together if we’re going to actually champion 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:13:38] And, Ned, is that is because there are people of color and you’re a white man? 

Ned Breslin: [00:13:40] Yes, absolutely. And so we have to walk into that messiness. Because we cannot change the system if we can’t change ourselves. Last thing real quickly, I think the biggest lesson and challenge of Rewiring, and I want to shout out to real amazing people, Megan Vogels and Claire Morrow. Rewiring is this amazingly ambitious program run by literally two people. And what we’ve had to do as an organization is to stop thinking that every problem requires Tennyson to build a program, build a service, build some sort of thing to solve the problem. We have had to become facilitators that say we are actually, in many cases, the worst option for that solution. And so they have had to go to shift to facilitators and enablers of others, and to push the boundaries beyond the traditional, you know, people that the sector invests in. So we just had a meeting recently, a woman from a community-based, a Latin X community based organization started crying. She said, no one’s even seen us before, and you’ve invested in us. And I promise you that nobody from my community is going to become child welfare involved. That’s the kind of trust, and that’s the kind of courage because organizations like Tennyson like these, we might not exist, do we have the courage to go there? And if we don’t, stop playing, stop playing. We are building an organization that is infused with lived experience, that is empowering people that we don’t normally see. And we’re saying prevention is a job. It’s based on not strengthening families, families are strong, find their strengths and build on those. Stop thinking of them as a problem, unleash them in new ways and we won’t see them, and then I’ll sell this property. I’ll sell it for what it’s worth if donated. Because at the end of the day, you know, you see these pictures on my wall. These are from kids who’ve been through Tennyson and I want a blank wall. I want a blank wall, and that’s only going to happen if we change first. It’s not everybody else, we have to change. 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:15:35] Wow! Jaquia, you know I’m  never speechless.  

Jaquia Wilson: [00:15:37] I’m very seldom, but Jesus, that just shook me to my core. I am excited that we have had this conversation and this dialogue and on such a good platform. Oh my gosh, Sandra, what do you think?  

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:15:45] You know, I’m sitting with a lot of what all of the panelists are saying. The word that comes to mind is courage and humility. Like being able to be humble and knowing that you don’t know and making sure that you’re, Ned, I don’t know how you said it, but you said just don’t play. These lives aren’t meant to be played with. Their families are strong, it’s us that’s the problem. I just think that’s all very powerful.  

Jaquia Wilson: [00:16:10] Yes. And I think we have talked ourselves out of a job. 

Sandra Gonzalez: [00:16:14] I do want to just quickly say thank you to all of you for what you’ve shared. And with that, I’m going to hand it over to the guy who got us all into this, Matt Anderson, for a wrap-up. 

Matt Anderson: [00:16:26] Yes, thank you. And there’s really not much left to be said. I’ve just been in the background listening and this made my day, maybe my week, month and year too. I’m just leaving this conversation really inspired and grateful, not just for the conversation, but for everything that each of you are doing that brought you to this conversation. You’re doing really important and courageous work, and you’re doing it for the right reasons on behalf of families and communities where you live. I’m inspired and so I want to say thank you Jaquia and Sandra for facilitating such a great conversation. It’s not easy to do, and you both do it incredibly well. So thank you and Ned, Suzanne, Bobby, Claire, thanks for bringing your brilliance and wisdom and energy and the sauce and everything that you brought today. I can’t thank you enough.  


If you’re speechless after that conversation, you’re clearly in good company. Thanks again to Sandra, Matt, Bobby, Suzanne, Claire, and Ned for joining me in this conversation and being a source of inspiration to us all. And thank you listeners for tuning in. I hope to see you all in episode five. 


What can an equitable foster experience look like now and in to the future? Name the inequities, develop a plan to conquer them.


This episode features Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation; Shrounda Selivanoff, Director of Public Policy at Children’s Home Society of Washington; David P. Kelly, JD, MA, Special Assistant to the Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau; and Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America.


[00:05] Jaquia Wilson: Welcome back to the Unlearning of Child Welfare podcast. I’m Jaquia Wilson and in this episode, I am joined by Keri Washington, a fellow youth advocate and policy advisor from the American Academy of Pediatrics. As well as a panel of advocates including Shrounda Selivanoff, Public Policy Director at the Children’s Home Society of Washington. Jessica Crisp, a licensed foster parent. Matt Anderson, director at the Institute for family. And Jerry Miller, Associate commissioner at the Children’s Brew. This is the first part of the conversation on what it means to make a more just and equitable experience for youth and families within the child welfare system. Let’s dive in. I’m here today with my wonderful cohost, fellow youth advocate, and policy advisor, Ms. Keri Richmond. So honored to be with her from American Academy of Pediatrics. Ms. Keri, did you want to say hi to everyone really quick, everyone.

[01:04] Keri Washington: Hello everyone, Great to be here.

[01:06] Jaquia Wilson: Yay. Thank you so much. It’s a wonderful thing to have you here with me. So, Keri, I’d love to hear your thoughts honestly, on the current systems, climate, and how you’re feeling today. I’m so glad you could be here with me to cohost.

[01:20] Keri Washington: Thanks jacquaya, It’s so good to co-host with you. And then as I mentioned, I’m also an advocate in this space with the American Academy of Pediatrics, as the manager of child welfare policy. And also lead a startup organization called Foster Strong whose mission is to rewrite the narrative in foster care, using our own experience. All of us in our organization were alumni of foster care and really hoping to shine a light on the triumph that comes after trauma. And so, as someone who has also experienced foster care, it’s really exciting to be here with you today. And one of the things that we have been talking about a lot leading up to this event, is that there’s a shift in the power dynamics that are happening and that it’s really refreshing to be asked to co-host and lead the discussion here instead of being just another seat on the panel asked to speak about our trauma. And for me, that feels like a really significant step forward or leveling out what equity looks like within our system. So, Jaquia I would love to hear your thoughts on that front too.

[02:29] Jaquia Wilson: Honestly, I just feel like I cannot tell you how many times we have been invited to the conversation and just given the mike and asked to share our experiences and not really given the power to change and be a part of that conversation in that way so, I wholeheartedly agree with you and I’m super excited that we have this Platform and disability as former alumni of the system to share and be in this space together.

[02:53] Keri Washington: Yeah, as we dive into this conversation about what does it look like to create just an equitable system, this idea that has come up a lot leading up to this event is not oftentimes you hear people who are advocating, saying, we need former foster youth to have a seat at the table. We need birth parents to have a seat at the table. We need foster parents to have a seat at the table. But truly the table would not exist if it weren’t for our kids and our youth. And so, when we’re thinking about how do we really prioritize their wellbeing? Well, it’s so closely hinges on their attachment to the adults around them, their family, who they see as somebody who is caring and consistent and reliable. And so, when we’re thinking about how we prioritize that wellbeing, we really have to be having more seats at the table. We have to build a longer table that encompasses the entire village that it takes to raise a child.

[03:56] Jaquia Wilson: Yes, so I really like to hear from the panelists, you know, what would a more adjust an equitable experience look like for kids and families? Ms. Shrounda. I love to hear your thoughts on, you know, what do we need to unlearn?

[04:09] Shrounda Selivanoff: Thank you so much Jaquia and thank you for the opportunity to be on this platform with others. I want to just kind of go back and first of all, just say, if we can’t acknowledge what is happening in child welfare, we can’t change it. And we have a way of saying things so that it’s palpable, but I really want to be bold and brave in this space and say that the system in its current framework is racist and it is a hard thing to say out loud. I think people get incredibly uncomfortable hearing such a term and extremely want to defend it. Which in itself denotes that there is something wrong. And I think that we have to be bold and brave and say there’s something incredibly wrong with the way that child welfare operates. And it targets families in a way that leaves them absolutely devastated from the consequences of being involved. And so, one of the things, when I’m looking at inequitable experience is acknowledging that there’s inequities that are happening. As a kinship caregiver, I had a profound experience recently and I didn’t even know what was happening at the time, but I’ve had some time to process and kind of get to the other side. And so, living in America and recognizing that there are outcomes that are predominantly assigned to certain demographic. And I was thinking about my son, who’s currently experiencing some adversity on caring for his child and I was on this panel and this woman started to talk about a kinship experience and I had to pull myself off of camera because I was so consumed with emotions. It was the first time someone has started to articulate what it’s like to be a kinship in this system. While I watch my son navigate other systems that, you know, in some respects, data says he was destined to get there. I want to just talk about what it feels like to be a kinship and the lack of support and understanding of what actually happened. We have a lot of messaging and the messaging is we want to get kids to kin, but the resources and the funding do not say that it says, here’s your child, you guys figure it out. And in the punitive nature of child welfare at sometimes I feel penalized and I feel penalized in a way that is difficult to articulate because there’s a place that says you’re deserving of what’s happening to you in this moment. Like You’ve played a part and while I certainly have played a part in it, I haven’t played all the parts in it. And as I get more educated and I get more understanding of what the complexities and the drivers that actually get people to some type of future that they didn’t necessarily want for themselves, I’m confronted with the guilt, the shame, the isolation, the completely feeling alone and then wanting and needing to step up. So when I’m talking about those equitable experiences for families, what I can tell you is that kinship caregivers really need support, right? They take on a large percentage of children here in Washington state. 43% of families are with kinship and currently, you know, lower percentages receiving the types of subsidies that foster care parents get. So, one of the things I’d like to see is equity in the way that we support families, that if they find themselves in child welfare, how are we supporting those members so that they can keep their family members close? But also recognize they’re having an experience. I never wanted a grandson in child welfare. I never wanted myself in child welfare and the idea that I would be deserving or that I, you know, wanted any of this really speaks to the way that we see and treat families of color. My heart is as connected to my child as your heart is connected to your child. And I think the more that we get a commonality and get some compassion and understanding for what is happening for families, the more that we will actually be able to do something that actually creates an equitable and an experience that says you matter, you know, we understand families are complex. We understand that it’s, your heart would not want this for your child. I wouldn’t want this for my child. And in an effort of that commonality and camaraderie, we will honor your experience by giving you exactly what we would give someone else and help you to process and walk through this with some grace and dignity, instead of some shame and blame and guilt. And I don’t think that a lot of times we recognize that kinship caregivers carry their own burdens in this and that as members of society, we should be coming around folks and not placing them on an Island and making them feel like they’ve done something that’s lacking because all we are is just human beings, having a human experience. Which means there’s a variety and a difference of the way we show up and what we experienced. At the end of the day, our core beliefs in our emotions and feelings are universal. And I think the more that we can start to approach this work from understanding that is the way to start to create an equitable experience for families.

[09:28] Jaquia Wilson: Thank you so much for that, Shrounda. I really agree strongly. We need to recognize the experience that our families and our kinship providers are facing, and we need to serve them with compassion and understanding of their situations and really meet them where we are so that we can better serve. Can we hear some more thoughts on that from our other panelists?

[09:48] Jessica Crisp: Yeah, I’m excited to jump in and I appreciate everything that has been shared and just feel so strongly the level of empathy needs to be there, in general to help our entire system. And I know that I’m sharing from a slightly different perspective as a foster parent coming into this instead of the kinship care but part of what I noticed during our year and five months of having a child in our care, that was like, the reunified part of what I saw was just the importance of my own unlearning process that I needed to do in all of this. So, I think all of us have to look at our roles within this entire process and say, Let’s do a quick self-assessment, what am I honestly bringing to the table here? And do I truly have the child and the family’s best interests at heart? And I think when I went into this process as a foster parent, my desire was honestly to grow. My family was to prove to others that I would have the ability to provide for a child who is in care, who comes into our home. And so, my desire wasn’t truly focused on reunification. It seems even locally that the climate was reunification is the goal, but we don’t know if that’s going to happen. That’s kind of how things were stated, but really what we’ve got to do with all of these families experiencing this hardship is to try to see things from their perspective. Let the walls come down and join with them as a support system. I think we truly have to embrace shared parenting and I think some of us can throw around that phrase at times, because it’s just as something that we say within these systems is share parenting. Like it’s this concept, but really living that out made the biggest difference for the family and especially for the child in care and for their overall trajectory for what their future looks like. We had an incredible opportunity to build a relationship with the child in care, London, and with her family, and over time we built trust, but honestly, it was hard in the beginning. We were all defensive. We were all unsure of how this was supposed to work, and we felt afraid to communicate. What we found was that it was best for our little one, the more that, we as foster parents, could engage and support her parent and not just her parents, but her grandparents or aunts or uncles, we all became this one unit over time. And the way that we were successful was by truly humbling ourselves and making ourselves vulnerable. And I feel like that is so hard to do in this climate. But anything we can do to show a little bit of vulnerability to show we truly are human and we can really impact others and make a difference in someone else’s life versus what my agenda is. So, I feel like when we can shift towards that reunification, we share the same goal. Then it’s not that we’re two separate families, the foster family and the child’s family loving the child are working together for the child, is that we’re really one unit that can work in such a cohesive way that long-term will impact everyone that’s involved.

[12:42] Jaquia Wilson: Thank you for those thoughts. I know that must’ve been a hard and a very unlearning process for you and your family to come into this thinking things are one way and then to have to unlearn that process for what’s best for the child. And that’s the kind of village that we’re talking about when we say that we need a community and a longer table for our youth and care and for our families who may experience this, and you touched on something, even talking about reunification is the plan, but that may not happen. And it just really speaks to, you know, that almost unsaid that this family is deserving of this idea and we need to really work to unlearn that and to come together as a community. So I’m really interested to hear also what our fellow panelists, Mr. Miller has to say about this topic. He’s been a leader in this conversation as well.

[13:30] Jerry Miller: let me just say, you have the whole idea of creating a more just and equitable experience. It is what our mission has been in the Children’s Bureau for almost four years, now. We want to create the kind of a system out there where we have supportive community-based environment. Where a family, kids can get essential needs met. Sometimes these are basic concrete needs rather than clinical interventions before a call to the child welfare hotline is even necessary. And where Families don’t perceive the threat of losing their kids if they reveal their vulnerabilities and actually ask for help. I think a more just and equitable experience would include enforcement of so many protections that are already on the books that they’re like reasonable efforts to prevent removals and seeking out and using the voices of the families and the youth that our system is supposed to benefit. And as Jessica has already pointed out, I’m more just and equitable system would look like having our foster care system serving as a support to entire families, not just a substitute for families. And like Shrounda has mentioned supporting kinship of families with the same level of supports as unrelated caretakers out there. I love the concept of what do we have to unlearn because almost every conversation that I had, I have with somebody about transforming our child welfare system leads me back to the fact that often we aren’t even talking beginning of the conversation from the same perspectives there, because we haven’t begun to think more broadly than what we know About our current system. One of the things that I think we absolutely have to unlearn as the child welfare agency is that we always know best. Quite honestly, we don’t always know best families are the experts on their needs and their circumstances. Youth are the experts on what their experiences have been and their needs. And we have to get to the place where we exercise the humility of understanding that we’ve not walked in someone else’s shoes or experienced their trauma or their day-to-day struggles and that in fact we can learn from the people that we serve. Another thing that we have to unlearn is that it always has to be complicated. You know, we create more funding opportunities and more programs out there, but we also create them with more and more restrictions on how many people can be served. How deep in crisis, you must be before you can benefit from the amount of the dosage of those services. It doesn’t have to be so complicated; it can be as simple as creating those conditions out there where families can receive kindness from people in their own communities, people who know them, people who care about them. The kind of kindness that can help a family to avoid the crisis that often leads them to the child welfare door. I think from a leadership position in the federal government, we have to unlearn that we cannot trust communities with flexible funding and with flexibility and our rules and our regulations. We have to learn the communities in fact, know their families better than we can know them in Washington DC or in our state camp capitals or wherever. And we have to learn to trust them, to be able to meet those needs. I think we have to unlearn quite honestly, that prevention is somebody else’s business, a nice thing to do, and that it’s not really the business of the child welfare system. Prevention has to be the business of all of us. If we want to change the experiences, families of children and view, we have to learn that it has to be our business. We also have to unlearn that physical safety alone is simply not good enough. Every one of us needs wellbeing and we can be safe Without achieving wellbeing. And if we want to break some of those very difficult historical intergenerational patterns of trauma, and disruption that our families experience over and over again, we have to begin as a system to get serious about addressing the wellbeing of both the parents and the children. I think we have to unlearn, building on Jessica’s remarks, that foster families are merely there to serve the agency’s wishes and to follow the rules that we’ve created and learned to treat our foster families and our kinship caregivers with respect and as a resource for entire families needing support and help. And the last thing I want to say that I think we have to unlearn is that we have to unlearn that parents are the enemy, even if they have made Some difficult decisions, some bad decisions, or even if they’ve taken some bad turns in life. And we have to learn that families, parents are our best hope for ensuring the wellbeing. Not only of their families, but of their children. And I think we have to look no further if we want to bring this into focus right now than the very widely publicized, widespread fears that are out there right now in the media that the pandemic is leading countless children to be abused by their bad parents while they’re at home. And we don’t have other people, mandated reporters, looking over them. That’s a real reflection of our values and it’s quite reasonable and how we view vulnerable parents in our society. And we have to begin to unlearn.

[18:56] Jaquia Wilson: Wow. Those are some really inspiring thoughts and some really concrete ways that we can unlearn what it is that we practice in today’s current child welfare state. Matt, would you like to add any additional comments to what Mr. Miller and other panelists had to share?

[19:11] Matt Anderson: Yeah. No, absolutely. I’d love to. And thank you all. I mean, I’m just soaking it all in here, both what you all have to say. I think Shrounda, maybe you said brave spaces and courageous spaces and I think we have to have spaces like this right now. So, I hope we’re all finding ways to create spaces like this and our own communities and our own states and our own organizations to have difficult conversations about kind of the state of affairs and what do we really want for kids and families? What do we really want for communities? And I think we all need to do that. You know, I’m inspired by this conversation. And you know, most of you on this webinar don’t know me at all, and you’re just getting introduced to me as the director of the Institute for Family and I am, but I’m also, I also serve in a program leadership role at the Children’s Home Society where the institute is housed. And so, I’m in kind of an interesting seat in this conversation because for the last five years I’ve been leading our foster care program and I’ve learned and unlearned quite a bit over that period of time And This is a really important conversation for me, just personally, as somebody that’s responsible for a program that serving kids in foster care and their families. And so, we serve about 1200 kids a year across our program. And I think, you know what, I’ve come to realize that for me and for our program, our organization, what we need to unlearn is actually what our job is. We really need to think seriously about what our job is as foster care child welfare providers, what are we trying to do? What questions are we asking ourselves? Are we asking ourselves, how do we get better as an organization? And as a program. We are, but I think we should be asking ourselves, why do we exist as an organization, as a program? When it comes to families and what families need from us, we need to ask ourselves why? And so, in our program team, when we get together and talk, you know, oftentimes, you know, we talk about, we are not in the service of foster care. We don’t exist for the purpose of foster, and foster care is a thing that’s happening right now. And it’s a necessary role that many of us are playing, but our job needs to be to get kids out of foster care as quickly and safely as possible. And right now, I think, you know, our funding system is set up right now to pay for foster care. So, we have to really be working against the tide, right? I mean, we need to be preventing foster care in the first place. But when we think about the foster care system, as it is today, we need to be incredibly focused on what we’ve just been hearing about kinship and reunification. You know, as kids come into the system for the purpose of child protection and keeping kids safe, then we need to be focused on placing with families and focused on reunification. And so, for me, that’s an unlearning of what my job actually is and what we’re actually supposed to be doing in this work. And so, I’ll share that thought as what I’m trying to unlearn.

[22:01] Jaquia Wilson: I know that must be great to do an organization that supports and really centers around family wellbeing and support. So, Keri, did you have anything that you’d like to add or any comments? I’m just hearing our wonderful panelists share some from their perspectives, with some of the things that they need to unlearn to make this a more just and equitable system for all?

[22:21] Keri Washington:  Yeah. I mean, so much good stuff in there and some of the themes that really stood out to me and just hearing those powerful answers was embracing vulnerability, like humility and how important it is to humble ourselves and do the work of unlearning, which isn’t always easy. And then that idea that Shrounda talked about and terms of shame and how we have to stop shaming. And, I think as we have this conversation and, you know, with 2020 being such a perfect year for reflecting on the ways that we may have contributed to a harmful system, that it is important for us to be accountable to that. But that it is not a moment of shaming, but it’s a moment of opportunity that just like Maya Angelou says that, when you know, better, you do better. And so, I hope that as we’re all sitting here today thinking about what we have to unlearn, that we are seeing this as a path to stepping forward into being better, into really standing as champions for all children and families, and really prioritizing family wellbeing.

[23:31] Jaquia Wilson: Wow. What an episode. Thanks again to Shrounda, Jessica, Keri, Matt, and Jerry for being a part of this important conversation on family wellbeing. There’s more to come in the final conversation. So, stay tuned.


What are the next steps in Unlearning Child Welfare? Here we explore the concepts that require unlearning so that a just and equitable system can take place.


This episode features Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation; Shrounda Selivanoff, Director of Public Policy at Children’s Home Society of Washington; David P. Kelly, JD, MA, Special Assistant to the Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau; and Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America.



[00:00:05] Welcome back to the Unlearning of Child Welfare podcast. If you listened to episode five, you know this is the second part of the conversation about creating a more just and equitable child welfare system with Keri Washington, Shrounda Selivanoff, Jessica Crisp, Matt Anderson, Jerry Milner, and myself, Jaquia Wilson. Let’s pick up right where Keri left off.


Keri Washington: [00:00:31] I’m curious to hear from our panelists, how you all think that we create a more just and equitable experience for children and families and what’s the role of the youth, parents, and family leadership in creating that experience. So, what are our action steps?


Shrounda Selivanoff: [00:00:45] As we create space for families, we have to be able to open up and recognize that each one of them has a need and are we willing to actually answer that? So, as we can see space and we share power and we have a collective understanding, what I think happens is we build a community so that people can do things that they didn’t even think were possible. I think that as we continuously concede that space and I, excuse me, concede that power, and I actually want to just say it’s shared, right? It’s a space where each one of us comes with something to give and we’re here to learn and grow with one another. I think that the more that we recognize, and I think earlier, someone said, you know, we don’t know what’s best for families. Man, I need the same thing you do, right? I need food, I need wheels, I need some money in my pocket, right? I need shelter, like that’s just universal. As we start to create that equitable experience, right? We’ve got to actually be able to afford those things too, right, that are universal for each one of us. And if someone doesn’t have those things, how are we getting them to those things? I think the way that some of these systems are set up, is we have the bare necessities as rewards, right? Food is not a reward. It’s essential. Housing is not a reward. It’s essential. The more that you bring the youth, the parent and any person that has an experience to the table, what you’re actually saying to them in that moment is I value you, right? I value you. You are worth it. You are equal. You have something to offer here and your voice needs to be here because I don’t know how you know more about my life than I do. I’m living it, right.? Like I’m living it. So, we have got to create the space so that people that are having the experience, not only are they telling you about it, but you’re taking that information and you’re doing something with it, right? You’ve got to take that space, you’ve got to include people in it, you have to be able to take the information, drive that back into the community so that you can be responsive to the needs of what people said. But once again, I don’t think that this is rocket science. I think at the core of this is, it comes down to the deserving and undeserving. And I think that we are founded on a nation that has separated us. And that it is prime time, prime time for us to do something different. If you look at anything in the 1800s, I’m going to tell you what, none of those things exist because we have advanced as a species, right? And we have taken that learning and we have continued to invent and innovate. Love, care, and compassion was foundational in 1800. And it’s foundational and 2020, please let your actions drive that and know that none of this has changed, right? The problem is we’re not changing. We have too much information for us not to, so it becomes deliberate. And I hope that each one of us takes the opportunity to recognize that families, that children, that parents, that kinship, that grandmothers. They just want to be able to take care of their families. And if they don’t have the resources or the wherewithal to do it. Then, let us be the call because I’m here to serve you, not myself.


Keri Washington: [00:04:17] Oh, that’s so powerful. And your truth is always so beautiful. And I think really hearing you speak, just the words, servant leadership come to mind and how critical that is in doing this work. And I love the way that you talk about communities and the way that they have to wrap around our families. Jessica you’ve been so steeped into that work of really showing up for your community would love to hear from you.


Jessica Crisp: [00:04:44] Thank you. Sorry. My screen was freezing for just a second. Shrounda, that was incredible. And I would love to answer Keri, as you’re saying, and jump off of what Shrounda was saying. I believe in, as Shrounda was saying, the basic necessities of kindness and compassion that need to drive everything that we’re doing and in turn, what that will lead us to, are things that we did not know we were capable of. And I feel like that is, those are some of those aha moments that are life-changing and for our family, what that looked like was over a year and a half of building a relationship. But to me, what this looks like as far as being just and equitable system, is that the day that our little one was reunified with her joyful extended family, that was not the end. And if we show kindness and compassion through this process to these family members, you cannot help, but join together. Even if you have nothing else in common with people. You will find common ground and it allows you in the end to have these long relationships or the potential for some type of long involvement, which allows support structures to remain in place. One thing that I feel so strongly about that is so difficult is realizing the day reunification happens for that family, that means any other support structure is pretty much gone. For the most part, the foster family would say goodbye, we’re done the child’s home. Okay, we’re stepping away. But what they really need is someone in our situation who left a 10-month-old and then suddenly one day becomes the parent of a three-year-old with not much time in between to be able to navigate all of it. There had to be a way to help her, as her mother, know that she could feel confident in this role and that we also believed in her and then we would help carry her through this process. So, if anyone had said before, Hey, you’re going to end up with a three, four year plus relationship with this family that you met through foster care. Would that happen? I would say there’s no way that’s going to happen because everyone wants to kind of close the door on that part of their life that’s so hard. But what’s happened here is it’s become a normal part of our family now and we have the opportunity with our little one and her family and extended family. We see them regularly, we do birthdays together, we do baby showers together. We do all of these things together and all of this came out of not me being an amazing person, because honestly, I’m not. This came out of the fact that we showed kindness and compassion to someone in their time of need. And what you can see is that you’re able to help nurture something in the end that allows these individuals who are stuck in this really horrible, painful system. They’re able to thrive in a way in the end and if we continue to stand by them and build a community that, as Shrounda was saying, Keris them, carry me. Let’s carry one another, because together we can do this. Separately, if we pull out all the scaffolding, the cycle can continue and we’ve got to stop how this continues to roll. So, if we want to put the brakes on that, we’ve got to join together in that way and practically live out that compassion live out that empathy and tell people respectfully, I hear you, you are heard, you are seen, we can do this together.


Keri Washington [00:08:01] And I love what you said that, you know, when we do this, it leads us to things we didn’t know we had the capacity to hold and that I think your family is such a great example of growing your capacity to love and a new way growing your capacity and your understanding of what family looks like and what family means. And you all are certainly an example of what it looks like to build a longer table. And as we’re all talking today, it’s like, I get this image of, for too long in child welfare, we’ve played musical chairs where we’re ripping chairs away. When we can’t afford to do that any longer, we need more people to be wrapping around these families and these children. So, thank you for that answer. I’d love to transition to Jerry as someone who’s in a leadership role. What does this look like for you?


Jerry Milner: [00:08:49] From a more organizational perspective and how I perceive the leadership role in this area to get to a more just and equitable experience. We’ve got to get serious about what our vision is. Just like Matt said earlier, he has to unlearn what his job is. I think we have to unlearn what our vision is. Our vision has to address whole families. This is not unusual but earlier today I heard a state child welfare leader, expounding a very well-intentioned vision that essentially is a rescue the child approach. And never once did I hear anything about strengthening families, strengthening communities, supporting families to care for their children. That’s more typical than not and it hasn’t changed, to be quite honest, in half a century. And that kind of a vision has not gotten us to where we want to go or where our families want and need to go. The vision has to be stronger families who can care for their children, stronger communities. And then we can get serious about how to implement that vision because vision without action is just a bunch of words that don’t really mean anything. A few people have noted funding, to get to a better experience for children, our funding has to match our vision and our goals. If foster care is our goal, Matt has alluded to this, our funding matches it perfectly right now because that’s what we can spend money on. If prevention is our goal and strengthening families is our goal, then our funding does not match that goal at all. Our current funding to be very blunt, is essentially a bet against our most vulnerable families, our most overrepresented children and families. We need the flexibility to be able to meet their needs as they define those needs, where they are, not only kindness and compassion, but also with justice so that they have full benefit of what the system can offer and provide to them. Central to all of this is our capacity to listen to the voices of parents, youth, the children and to act on those voices. As I said earlier, we cannot, should not presume to know their experiences if we’ve not walked in those shoes and we have to integrate the opportunities, I should say for their voices in all of our work, on an ongoing basis, it can’t be just tokenism. It can’t be review and comment on things that we’ve already done. It has to be an integrated, ongoing way of doing our work. And I don’t think it’s a system we have really given in ourselves to share in that power as Shrounda has made such eloquent reference to already. I think part of the way we get to a better system is we have to give up the notion that child welfare has to be the face of everything that involves our children and our families. We have to embrace our provincial partners, our community members, or their organizations, formal and informal, as equal partners in creating the kind of child and family wellbeing system that can serve our families well. That involves surrendering so much of that power that Shrounda has already mentioned, to communities, to families, to design the kinds of systems that will best meet their needs. And then have the utter guts to go after the kind of funding that’s needed to support those programs rather than staying married to unlimited foster care at the expense of supporting families. David and I visited the last year with a family support center in the Bronx that was just being kicked off in a particular community there. One of the things that I took away from that is that they won’t offer new services through the family support center. Even if they sound like a good idea without the concurrence of the community who will be the recipient of those services. I admire that kind of commitment so much there. I think that we have to, we made references to this, if we want to get to a different experience, we have to organize it at the national, the state, the local level to address, seriously, the relationship between poverty and the number one reason that children in our foster care system, which is neglect. We have to come to the understanding that even financially poor parents can be good parents to their children. Many times, as others have already noted, they need those concrete, basic supports in order to do what needs to be done for their children. But we have got to address that relationship and stop sweeping that under the rug and blaming our parents for not having all the resources that they actually need.


Keri Washington [00:13:41] Thank you for that, Jerry. Thank you again. The vision without action is just a bunch of words really stood out to me and I love what you said about there needs to be shared power. There needs to be shared vision. That’s really, what’s going to carry us into a more intentional place where we don’t have tokenization anymore, where we have families that feel well supported and feel safe to come be vulnerable and say what they need and that you have communities that step up to show up for them. And I know that Matt such a big visionary, and he speaks about vision a lot. So, Matt, I would love to hear your thoughts here.


Matt Anderson [00:14:20] I’m not going to talk about vision so much, actually. I want to share some more concrete things, I hope anyway, but it is important to have vision and vision has to be followed by leadership. And that leadership has to be equitable, right? Diverse, equitable leadership. The most diverse teams are the most successful, right? So, build your teams with diversity in mind to get the job done better and faster and in a more just way I would say, but, and I would encourage everybody, you know, take these conversations into your own organizations, your own communities, and find ways to do the next steps of the action. But I think there are a few things that come to mind about how do we create a more just and equitable system. And so, one, I think is incredibly simple that we can all start doing today and it starts with language. So, let’s start using parents and family instead of bio-parents and bio-mom and biological family. I think as soon as we use the term bio-mom, we have made mom other, and we have separated her on a much deeper level than distance from her children. For her and for her children and for us, I don’t think it’s healthy for us to refer to parents as biological parents. I would suggest let’s start using parents, like Shrounda said, you know, parents love their children and their children love their parents. And sometimes it’s not a safe, healthy relationship and we intervene, but that doesn’t change the fact that they will each other and we need to really start to use different language. I think, you know, Jessica, I don’t think Jessica is a foster parent, you know, technically she’s licensed as a foster parent, but maybe she’s a parent success coach and maybe we should use terms like that. That really describe the goal that we have in mind, you know, in terms of the role that somebody like Jessica plays, another thought is there’s a new toolkit that just came out Children’s Trust Fund Alliance and QPI and Youth Law Center in Casey. So, I would take a look at that and it’s a reunification shared parenting toolkit. So, let’s implement practices that empower our staff and empower our parent success coaches to help parents reunify with their children. Let’s really start to implement some new practices and we can start doing that. I think that, you know, how do we create a more just and equitable system? Well, if we have an unjust system, you know, it was probably designed to be that way. And I don’t know if anybody on this call designed it to be that way. I don’t think that’s true, but it was designed to be that. So, let’s design it to be just an equitable. And I think we can all start doing that even in our own organization. So, I think we can think about what is our practice, how have we organized our practice and what decisions have we made About how we go about doing our work? Or are we just doing the things that we’ve always done? Do we need to step back? And it’s hard because foster care is a crisis driven, under-resourced, overworked profession. It’s the hardest job in the world but we still have to take time to step back and rethink and redesign the work that we do in a way that’s more just, and more equitable. That’s maybe not built on white middle-class value and it’s an inclusive process to redesign our work. And so, if you have a table where you’re going to redesign your work, you know, take Keri’s analogy and stretch the table longer. Make sure you have a diverse team, make sure there our parents, there are youth, there are all kinds of stakeholders at your table, helping you design the work that you’re doing and then commit to it, right? A lot of us as organizations do plans and we have really nice plans, but we don’t always follow through on our plans. So, you know, design your practice, be committed to your practice and really follow through. And what you’re trying to do. I think those are some things that we can do, you know, but I think at the same time, you know, these conversations have focused a lot on how are we going to prevent foster care in the first place. And I think, you know, we all have to have that front and center. I don’t know if that’s the job alone of child welfare to prevent foster care in the first place. I think, you know, refer to Jerry and others have said it, we need to be partnering together where we need to be advocating on behalf of ourselves and the families that we serve and kind of ringing the alarm bell of the public health crisis that I think foster care is. And, you know, letting folks know that we’re concerned about the families that we serve and we want to see, you know, we want to see the funds liberated to do different kinds of work. We want to see partnerships coming together to prevent and strengthened families. And I think we can do that. We can do that as child welfare folks, you know, we can raise those concerns. So those are some things that we can do.


Keri Washington [00:18:36] Thank you, Matt. Yes, so many good things in there. Language matters so much and changing the narrative, changing the way that we do this work. Always so grateful for your leadership and the work that you’re doing with the Institute for Family. And we are grateful for everyone’s answers and I think as we look ahead to 2021 where in this month where everyone starts to get their vision boards ready and their new year’s resolutions ready. So, as we do start thinking about those things, let’s keep this at the forefront.


Matt Anderson [00:19:03] Thank you all so much.



[00:19:05] Alright. That rounds out the Unlearning of Child Welfare Podcast. And I want to take some time to thank every single cohost and panelist who joined me in this important conversation. Please share this podcast with your family, friends, and colleagues, and go to to learn more about what we’re doing to help redefine what family wellbeing means. Stay tuned for more podcasts to come.


Dive Deeper into the Unlearning of Child Welfare

Watch the webinar series to hear the full conversation. Review resources from panelists, learn about our guests, and more →

The Unlearning of Child Welfare, Ep. 1: The Why 

Watch the first episode in our webinar series exploring why we should create a child and family well-being system.

Continuing the Conversation:

Shroundra Selivanoff

The webinar chat buzzed with questions and comments, so we decided to continue the conversation with webinar panelist Shrounda Selivanoff to answer these questions.