Season 1 / Episode 7

THE MOMENTUM IS BUILDING

How the family well-being movement is growing nationally by starting locally.

From the national to community level, hear how the movement to prioritize family well-being is gaining momentum. In this season finale, Matt interviews three guests to hear the types of conversations taking place across the country around supporting families and recognizing their value. Jerry Milner, former Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau, shares his perspective on the progress of the child welfare transformation work on a national scale. Sharee Pemberton and Hope B. Haywood of a rural county in North Carolina discuss how community leaders can bring about change and build trust through listening to families and meeting them where they are.

00:01:50

Meet Jerry Milner, Ph.D. and hear his take on the family well-being movement. Jerry talks about his tenure as former Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau and his work with the “guardians of the status quo” to start a national discourse around prevention.

00:08:05

“I also feel a need to be clear. We’re not talking about tearing down an entire system we are talking about replacing those harmful parts of the system that aren’t serving children and families well out there,” says Jerry.

00:09:05

Matt asks if amends are necessary for the child and family well-being movement to advance.

“I think we have to acknowledge very clearly, unequivocally the system has not served children and families well,” says Jerry. 

00:09:50

Matt reflects on his conversation with Jerry and expands on the idea of how professionals and organizations within the child welfare system can make amends with children and families.

00:12:13

To demonstrate how the movement is taking shape locally, Matt introduces Sharee Pemberton and County Commissioner Hope Haywood. These women from diverse backgrounds are North Carolina residents  who came together over a shared goal of addressing issues impacting the families in their community.

00:17:14

What led Sharee to her work as an advocate for child and family well-being?

00:19:26

Commissioner Haywood talks about the impact of hearing from Sharee at the County Commissioner meeting. 

00:23:00

Sharee shares her thoughts about the importance of trust and access. 

00:26:39

Commissioner Haywood shares how she is adopting new perspectives by learning more about her community. Sharee reacts to feeling heard.

00:30:00

Matt shares his final thoughts on this episode conversions and the conclusion of Season 1. Hear clips from family well-being advocates on past Institute for Family webinars on demonstrating how the movement is taking shape in communities around the nation.

Matt: Hey everybody. It’s Matt Anderson and you’re listening to the season finale of Seen and Heard by Institute for Family. I can’t thank you enough for joining us as we build this platform to bring you stories and conversations that recognize child welfare transformation. Starts with seeing families for who they truly are. For this final episode, I want to do something just a little bit different. I want to start by saying child welfare transformation has already started. The momentum is building. I think progress is happening in real-time right now. So I want to take you just a little deeper into my world and into the work of the Institute for Family. 

For the last year and a half. I’ve been listening and learning from parents who have lived the system. We’ve been bringing you some of those stories and their expertise as a way to continue to build and inspire this momentum that’s happening at the national level. We’ve also started to take action at the very local level right here in North Carolina.

I think both strategies are necessary. And so I want to do two things with this episode. One, I want to unpack this idea that there’s a movement happening. And two, I’m going to share a recent conversation I had that spotlights significant progress on the ground. And demonstrates how the movement is built through an inclusive process and trust-based relationships. 

To get the national perspective first, let’s start with a conversation I had with my friend, Jerry Milner. From 2016 to 2020 Jerry was the associate commissioner of the children’s bureau, where he had responsibility for our child welfare system. And we started the conversation with his vision, for how we can move beyond the status quo of our child welfare system.

Jerry: It’s still very hard for people out in the field to think beyond the current structure, we tend to think about how do we get better at doing the same things that we have always done instead of thinking about what would be a better approach to this whole ball of wax. And so that led to this focus on primary prevention.

Let’s support families before they get into such dire straits or before some harm actually does come to children so that we can build those parenting capacities and help families to stay resilient, even through the difficult times that everybody’s going to face.

Matt: It’s so interesting as an outsider, looking in to how you were using the platform of the children’s. This is a large federal agency. That’s ultimately responsible in many ways for our foster care system across the country, which is tasked with keeping kids safe. And so here you are, as the commissioner saying, our job here is family strengthening, family wellbeing, and primary prevention. Which is not really the purview of the child welfare system. So that was a departure of sorts. Did it feel that way to you? And was that partly how has received early on in your town?

Jerry: It certainly was a departure. And you knew from the very beginning that this was a radical departure, but also knew that there were people out there that were like-minded and wanted to move ahead in this direction.

But similarly, there are the guardians of the status quo and with the complexity of child welfare and the stake that so many different people have. Moving in that direction was very, difficult. And if I’m honest with myself and with you, where we were able to get to is a major shift in the national discourse about prevention.

Matt: You know, we’ve been having these conversations with youth and, and parents who’ve experienced the system. And one of the themes that keeps coming up in those conversations is this idea of being Seen and Heard. And I wonder if you see that as an important element. What we do as social workers and what we do in this field.

Jerry: I think it’s the foundational aspect of our work. Matt, the most valuable sources of information are those people who find themselves in the circumstances that were charged to try to address. We’ve operated for so many years where that has not served as the foundation of our approach to working with children and families. In our child welfare system right now, probably 90% of the funding, at least at the federal level goes to paying somebody else to take care of children rather than investing in families.

And I don’t think a whole lot of the parents, certainly not the ones that I’ve talked to through the years. If we asked them, “what do you need?” Most of them are not going to say “we need more foster care.” Most of those parents are going to say we need fundamental services and supports

Matt: I agree. I understand exactly what you’re saying here is that there’s something gained that we cannot gain any other way by going to where people are listening to them, learning from them.

But then the next step is the most important step, which is we have to act and not necessarily act on our own, but act with, act together. With people with community. I wonder if there are any specific examples of things you did during your tenure at the children’s bureau. So we’re talking 2016 to 2020 now. Are there anything specific that you all did that really came out of that process of you were listening, you were learning, and then you were taking action based on what you, what you heard.

Jerry: Yeah, well, the thriving families certainly was one of those things that was very tangible. And we spent an awful lot of time with community-based programs out there that were serving families.

Some of whom were involved in child welfare system, but many who without the services or the supports of those community-based organizations might find themselves involved in the child welfare. And the more we talk to families who were a part of those programs, the more we became convinced that if we want to really support families and reach them, that has to happen in their own communities.

So we changed our federal policy to allow federal funds, to be used to pay in part for attorneys to represent children and parents in legal proceedings. I’m happy about that because I think those activities or steps ultimately will help to empower families to have more control over their own lives.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. And you’re mentioning here, you know, high level systems change type work, but specific things that were based on what you were learning in the, in the field in communities, but you also mentioned that you felt like during this time that the conversation was starting to shift. And it almost felt like 2018, 1920, that this conversation was growing into a movement of sorts. And I wonder do your take on that, is that how you were.

Jerry: Absolutely. There’ve been people out in the field. Who’ve been hungry for this kind of a discussion for a very, very long time. And as soon as we start talking about primary prevention, we’ve got a whole array of allies out there that are just ready to sign on with this and to move forward.

Matt: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I would say, um, I’m one of those people that was feeling, but not really ready or able, or I didn’t know if I had even the words to describe where I felt like we needed to go, but I had a feeling that we needed something really quite different, quite transformational, but didn’t have a place to tap into that.

And I think that’s been really positive, but I also think that we’re very early and I wonder too, where the skepticism comes into this, or what challenges are we going to start to see, or have you started to sense that there’s a lot of work left to do, or maybe there’s not even a movement happening at all?

Jerry:Yeah,  I think the movement is there. It’s too powerful. It’s too strong for me to call it anything less than that, because it is a shift in direction for where we need to go. I also feel a need to be clear. We’re not talking about tearing down an entire system. We are talking about replacing those harmful parts of the system that aren’t serving children and families well out there. Just some examples of things that we’d like to, uh, think about replacing. We know that our child welfare system disproportionately affects families of color, particularly black families, whose kids. Twice as likely than white kids, the inner foster care and indigenous families whose kids are three times as likely to enter the foster care system.

 

Matt: Yeah. I do want to talk about one, one last thing that I think is really important. Do you think that going forward to imagine and build a better future for families? Do we need to make amends for anything that’s happened in the past? 

Jerry: I think we have to acknowledge very clearly unequivocal. The system has not served children and families well. And that’s hard for us to do because we’ve invested so much and we’ve invested our lives and doing what we thought was the right thing to do, but we have to be forthcoming and say look, “we acknowledge our roles and how we have contributed to the inequities and the injustices that our families have experienced.” That’s part of the process of justice, honoring families enough to say we haven’t served you well, and we want your guidance as we go forward.

Matt: Jerry, thank you for being on the podcast and taking time to have this important conversation. I want to let you know that we’re here alongside you and the team that you’re working with. And, uh, we have, we have a lot of good work to do so. Appreciate you and appreciate you for coming on here today.

Jerry: Same here. Thanks for having me. And thanks for being interested Matt.

Matt: I want to pick up on this idea of amends saying sorry is important. I think truth-telling as important. We’ve got a lot of work to do going forward. We have a lot of work to do telling the truth about what’s happening. What’s happened, where we’re going is a way to sustain us. I think, you know, hearing about Jerry being impacted by being in communities and meeting with families like that truth-telling process really sustains us, but sustains us to what end.

We do have to move from a place of listening and learning to a place of action. Jerry gets at something in the conversation where he says “we can get better at the status quo.” The way that I interpret that as the action that we can take can be about reforming the existing child welfare system, which we’ve been doing for a really long time. And we’ve made a lot of improvements along the way, but I don’t know if that’s the action that’s required to make the amends that we were talking about. I think that happens through action. That is about building, creating, imagining, working together in communities with parents, with families. With leaders in those communities to understand what are the fundamental root cause issues and challenges and conditions, and how do we come together to create something different that is better for the families in this community.

And I think that’s practical action that we can take. We can all find our position of power, our sphere of influence, and we can bring community together in a way that says, okay, let’s assess what’s going on here. And can we be co-designers together? Can we be co-creators together? And that’s the foundation of a movement that I think is building it does happen at these big picture, high systems level.

But it really happens on the ground at the very local level. And it happens by parents and leaders coming together to do work that can be trust-building and relationship-building and truth-telling. And that’s part of how we, how we make amends.

Commissioners meeting clip: All right. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen…

Matt: And to demonstrate what I think this looks like I want to take the rest of the episode to share a recent conversation I had about work. That is just at the very beginning here in Randolph County, North Carolina chairman. 

Commissioners meeting clip: We have 16 community and agency requests scheduled for tonight’s meeting…

Matt: This is a small rural county in the middle of North Carolina, where there are over 200 kids in foster. Sharee Pemberton is from a local organization called the partnership for children. And back in August 2021, there was a county commissioner’s meeting in Randolph county

Sharee (clip from commissioners meeting): Meeting families, where they are, is in the safe place. And in our libraries where we already go, we feel safe. We feel secure and we trust them.

Matt: Sheree presents the commissioners with an idea being proposed by the Partnership for Children. To locate social workers in the public libraries, across the county, creating better access for families by meeting them right where they are.

Sharee (clip from commissioners meeting): I love that this program is community-based and it’s community-centered and it takes away the stigma of this great benefit. This right here will help moms and dads navigate them to where they’re not confused. And the services that we have now sometimes put them into confusion. And nobody should feel less than just because they need help and not know where to go.

So now on behalf of everything and on behalf of the families like mine all across Randolph county, I just want to say thank you for considering our application.

Sharee: My name is Sherree Pemberton. I’m married and I have four boys. I’m a board member for the Partnership for Children. I also sit on a bunch of their groups like the family leadership coalition.

Matt: I wanted to talk to Sheree because I think there’s a growing recognition and Randolph county that families in certain communities are experiencing stressful conditions that lead to overburdened.

And I think there’s an opportunity here to move beyond just programs and services and begin to identify and address the root cause issues. But ultimately the work is about developing relationships and building trust, creating a process that centers, the voice of the community and begins to address the more fundamental issues.

So I also invited one of the Randolph County commissioners to join us as well.

Hope: I am Hope Haywood, uh, I am a one of the county commissioners from Randolph County.

Matt: both hope and Sheree said that they were excited for the opportunity to have this conversation.

Sharee: This morning, my 14 year old he’s like ma I know you said you’re going to do the podcast today. Are you going to meet Steve Harvey? 

Hope: Wishful thinking!

Sharee: I’m like, I didn’t want to burst this bubble. I was just like, you know what son, I might, I don’t know.

Matt: Talking about this meeting. So you were there on behalf of the partnership. Can you just describe a little bit about what your, what your role was there at that meeting?

Sharee: My role was just explaining what, from a parent’s standpoint, this is us wanting to get these social workers out into these libraries where we already go.

Where we already feel safe, where the children feel safe. You got to realize that everybody can’t just get in a vehicle and drive. They don’t have the funds for gas. Our social service is in Asheboro, and then you have the surrounding areas and it’s harder to get to them. And being that our social services at us point to where you may not be able to go in and see a social worker, but at a library, you can. And the kid, if they’re having problems at home, they will feel safe versus somewhere that you know, that people go and sometimes a child doesn’t come out. And it scares little children. And I can tell you that because I was one of those children,

Matt: Right. Yeah, I want to, I want to get into some of that. And when I hear you saying those two really important things that are sort of the basis of this idea that the partnership is bringing, right? So it’s trust and access is what I’m hearing, right? So you’re saying that there are stressful conditions that certain families are facing, and you’re saying we should help those families.

Because they deserve it, right? All families should have access to what they need to be successful. So maybe from a more personal place what’s leading you to this meeting, or what’s really leading you to this work that you’re involved in.

Sharee: Coming from a low-income family and poverty and my mom on drugs, I just don’t think children should have to endure that kind of stuff.

Being in a home where the drugs stuff is going on. And you don’t feel safe going into social service and telling them that this is going on because you have already seen how people have gone in and asked for help to just get turned away or to just go in and be told you can’t get these. It’s hard on you because you don’t want to say anything.

When you’re from a certain area, people look at you different, you feel small. And as a child, you feel really, really small to the point to where you feel invisible.

Matt: Is that how you felt as a kid?

Sharee: I felt so invisible as a child because when you go into social service or when the child goes into social service, they never really pay attention to the child.

They’re talking to the mom, but it’s more so a rush talk. Just get this down on the paper, you turn into a number and not a person. And I just think that like now, we need to see people for people as humans.

Matt: Well, and I appreciate you using what you’ve gone through to help others and to give back. And I remember hope the first time we met, we were having lunch and we had this great conversation.

We were talking about the work that you’ve been doing on behalf of the community for a long time and Randolph county. And at the end of it, you were talking about in this county commissioner’s meeting and you said, and then this mom stood up and she started to share her story. And you got very emotional as I remember in that conversation. And I just wonder what you remember from that day and what impact even hearing Sheree had on you?

Hope: I just remember looking at the other commissioners and thinking, and we make these decisions without really seeing the impact of these decisions on a personal level. And so that was, I think, an eye-opening experience for them.

And when you have that exposure through Sharree and you hear her comments and her experience, then it makes the opportunity to use that little bit of power that you have to make that decision all the more meaningful and urgent.

Matt: Yeah. That’s cause we can get really disconnected right. At our different levels of leadership or involvement. And you said something really important that we don’t necessarily know the impact of the decisions we make on individual lives. But I think what I’m also hearing in this is that maybe there’s a realization to that before we make the decision. We need to see and hear from families or whoever’s going to be impacted by those decisions. Maybe let’s first hear from those, those people.

Hope: Yes. Things we’ve done historically are not working. The time has come to go upstream and look at what’s happening and how we can do something that’s impactful to help those families. Most often, children are better off in the home that they’re in, surrounded by love and support. Then they are leaving that home because of perhaps neglect that goes to poverty. 

When our social service director tells me that we have 200 children in foster care in our county, and we have 40 foster care families. Then it just makes sense to look at keeping children out of foster care when we can. That just makes sense.

So for the first time, we’ve put over $300,000 into the Partnership for Children as high as 80% of the children that go into the foster care system could be prevented from going into that system. They could be helped along a path that would enable their families to be the providers, the support network that they need to be, that we could make that difference in up to 80% of the children that go into that system. That was shocking to me.

Matt: Right. And if we could go quote, unquote upstream to understand what those conditions are, maybe there’s a world of opportunity, right? To invest in families and communities that are it’s strengthening of families so that we don’t have this downstream effect. And so is that shift starting to happen?

Do you think for you and for others in the community, is that a way to think about it?

Hope: I know it has started happening to me and I think there is the recognition. Among leaders in our county that something needs to be different, that we need to do a better job. You hear the stories, but when you see it, you can’t close your eyes anymore.

Matt: What are your hopes coming back to where you started this idea of like trust and access? Do you have thoughts about that? How things would look different?

Sharee: That is major, it’s major in all aspects, in every situation. From my community trust is big and it’s hard. Once you lose trust in my community, it’s hard to get back.

Once you break it, you have to show me in good faith that you’re trying to make a change because we don’t believe it until we see it. Because we’ve been turned away from so much.

Matt: Yeah. So I wanted to share too, just from my perspective, what’s exciting about this and what I think is really interesting about what’s happening in Randolph county is that, you know, I’ve been in the child welfare field for a long time, right?

15, 20 years. And over the last couple years, it’s become like palpable to me. Like, I can feel that there is this growing. It’s a mix of frustration and desire and hope that we can transform the status quo and that there are willing partners to think very differently about how we’re responding to these stressful conditions that so many families face.

How do we do things that are strengthening of families rather than just waiting until we have foster cares or interventions, that movement is happening at a big picture level, you know, a national conversation that’s important, but for real change to happen, I think it has to be local. It has to be from the ground up.

It has to be hope and Sheree. Coming together and saying, we’re going to do something in our community and we’re going to do things differently for our families and our own community. And that’s going to start to happen over the coming months and years in Randolph County. But then you can scale that, right?

Gilford county, Mecklenburg county, South Carolina, West Virginia. Colorado, right. Once we have demonstration of more activities like this, playing out to address these underlying issues. I think we can use this as, as a model, as a representation for what other communities can do. And that’s, that’s kind of my hope here is that we can start to build. Um, you know, what the successes look like here at Randolph.

Hope: Absolutely. And I didn’t say it earlier, but this funding is for the first year of this program, but the promise and commitment made by the commissioners. And I don’t know if Sharee even knows this or not, but they have said, this is what we’ll do for this year do this study and then we’ll get this program going, but we promise that we will look at it next year and if everything is going, as it should be going, and we feel good about the direction, then we will commit to it for two years after that, for sure. So, yes. 

Matt:  So lots more to come.

Sharee: Well, I did not know that, but it does it makes me proud and, um, Oh, I’m gonna have to take that back. I think back when we might have to go dinner on that. Steve Harvey, wasn’t going to give you that news.

Matt: That’s fantastic. And I wonder, hope I want to end with this question and you can sort of be as specific as you can here, but to sort of summarize what I see as this journey, maybe you’ve been on the last even six months or so.

I know you’ve had conversations with us. You’ve been engaging with Sharee. Listening to our podcast, even I think, and as you’re hearing these stories and kind of engaging in these experiences, I wonder how you’re starting to see families in your own community differently. How are you changing as you’re engaging more and more in this, in this work?

Hope: I am seeing that just because another family is not a nuclear family, two parents, two children. That doesn’t mean that it is any less of a family. That there’s any less love, that there’s any less effort that there’s any less of a need or desire to feed and clothe and educate your children. Excuse me…that there’s any list of desire for your children to grow up in a safe environment. That desire for the same things. And we need to see families for what they are, and we need to equip our families and help our families to be strong. We need to help our parents to be as strong as possible, whether it is a 14 or 15-year-old, raising a child with the help of grandparents. If it’s grandparents, if it’s great grandparents that are raising children, whoever is raising this child. That’s their family. And the best way to do it, I think, is to meet their needs and help their families to be strong while their very very young.

Matt: What do you hear in that Sharee?

Sharee: It just…because hope is saying all of this and it just, it warms me. Because it lets me know that they really, really listened and we have to make the future theirs. And we can’t give them that future. If we don’t fix it now. And it just, it does something to me when I know that she’s saying it and that they heard me because she couldn’t say it if they didn’t hear, you know. And It’s bringing everything back to me as if I was just standing there and she listened that they listen, that they heard me.

Matt: So that’s how trust is built. This is how change happens. It happens with trust and it happens with relationships and it happens with, I would say two amazing women, but very different women. Very different experiences coming together. It’s been really incredible. And I’m grateful for both of you and grateful for the leadership, brave leadership that you’re both showing. So thank you very much.

Hope: Yeah. You’re welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.

Sharee: Yes. And it’s something that I would never imagined in a million years that I would be doing is great.

Matt: You were born for it!

Hope: I would have to agree with you Matt.

Matt: And this is what the movement looks like when we take it local, their right at the beginning of their own process, but you can already feel the momentum. Even in this very conversation, you can hear that Hope’s perspective on how to use her influence is shifting. And Sheree is continuing to feel Seen and Heard and not just her, but her family and her entire community.

This is just one example, but to take a step back examples like this are playing out in communities all across the county.

Clips of multiple voices:

We’ve seen a 73% decrease in the number of children coming into foster care. 

What’s the CFSA said was “yes advocate for families”.

We identified 10 counties across Colorado, and we basically said, What are the drivers in your county that are leading to child welfare involvement?

Seldom has a government agency invested literally millions of dollars on the ground in agencies like mine that are run by folks from the community.

With Bringing Up Nebraska, the focus is local solutions. 

I don’t care where you’re at in life. You always need support. 

We got the money. We’ve got the people and we have the mandate. We have to make these systems work. 

Family’s matter. 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.

Matt: Thank you for listening to season one of Seen and Heard by Institute for family. And we will be back with season two and the new year.

Isaiah: Hey listeners, Isaiah Strozier here and, this is a little bit of a bittersweet closure for me because this is the final episode of season one. The Seen and Heard podcast by Institute for Family could not have reached its great success without you, our listeners.

So thank you so much. If you look down in the show notes of this episode, you can find ways to connect with us on our website and on social. If you are like me and you can’t get enough of this podcast, you should go to our website, SeenandHeardPodcast.com that’s SeenandHeardPodcast.com. There you will find videos, articles, and additional clips about our guests.And the topics that we discussed on the show. 

Join me as I give a last big standing ovation to our team who made this season possible executive producer, Michael Osborne, editorial assistants from Paige Williams, mixing mastering and sound design by Morgan Honaker in our composer is Christian Haigus.

This is not a goodbye, but instead, a see you later.

 

Guest(s)

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