Season 2 / Episode 8
Addressing Poverty to Keep Families Together with Sarah WinogradAn inspiring story of addressing family poverty as an alternative to child welfare.
Sarah Winograd’s journey as a “professional volunteer” led to the realization that poverty was a driving factor in the child removals in the families she was working with. See how Sarah mobilized her community to address family poverty to help families stay together. Through the Together for Families program, Sarah lives out her vision of supporting families by helping them meet basic needs.
Matt opens this episode reflecting on the child welfare system’s association between poverty and neglect:
“Neglect, it makes up more than 60% of child welfare cases. What that means is that parents that are stressed and overburdened––because they don’t have access to basic needs like stable housing and affordable childcare––they are actually at risk of losing their children…we still only invest only 15% of our child welfare funds in the activities that would reduce these burdens and keep families together.”
Meet Sarah Winograd: Program Manager for Together for Families, Advocates for Children, and Adoptive Mom. Sarah talks about her time as a child living in Belarus, where her father saw a need to serve.
Sarah: “It was very community oriented…Most people lived in poverty…you would go into the homes of families and in the communities, people were helping each other so everybody knew a guy who would fix your car or somebody who could repair the electricity or a plumber. People would just help each other and work together and I was able to see a lot of love inside the family as well.”
Back in the U.S. as an adult, Sarah dedicated herself to volunteering where she would begin spending a lot of her time working with youth formerly in foster care in New York and later in Georgia. After her son entered Kindergarten, she became a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer in hopes of helping children before aging out of foster care.
Sarah talks about the first case she worked on as a CASA volunteer in Georgia. After reading the file Sarah recalls feeling confused about why the mother in this file faced the removal of her children instead of support for the poverty-related issues she was experiencing.
Sarah: “What I was dealing with in what I was reading was a mom who was struggling with homelessness who had a very low pay job, who was couch surfing with her children, and her children weren’t enrolled in school. And she had experienced a domestic violence situation. And she was doing the best she could and she lost her kids, all four of them.”
Matt asks Sarah about her specific role as a CASA volunteer. Sarah continues to reflect on the first family she worked with and her perception of how family support could’ve prevented the removal.
Sarah: “When Child Protective Services got involved, [the mom] was scared and she wasn’t cooperating in the way that she needed to cooperate to keep her children. And so, there was this lack of knowledge from her end of the severity of the issue and that if you move to a different place without telling them or if you don’t show up for court what could happen. I still to this day can’t tell you why the children were removed.”
Who was representing and supporting the mom in Sarah’s case?
Sarah: “No one was there to support her. I mean the Division of Children and Family Services can offer her services but in this particular case she had––I think before I had started––three different case managers. And so, they were offering her these services or telling her these things that she needed to do, but there was no one really there to guide her and help her.”
Sarah explains the “ah-ha” moment she experienced while talking to one of the children in the family. This helped her fill in gaps that were missing from the family’s case file.
The similarities of the family assigned to Sarah mirrored families she previously knew in Belarus, but Sarah reflects on the difference in how the U.S. child welfare system responds to poverty.
Sarah: “I was just shocked that this is how we solve issues of poverty in the United States. We talk about safety concerns like ‘you don’t have electricity, that’s a safety concern,’ or ‘you don’t have hot water or water, that’s a safety concern.’ Well, when we were in Belarus, we didn’t have hot water often times––there were a lot of things that we didn’t have and it wasn’t a safety concern.”
Matt and Sarah discuss a shift in thinking around the reason Sarah became a CASA volunteer—from helping kids to helping the whole family.
Sarah explains some of the support she provided to the family while staying within the boundaries of her role as a CASA volunteer:
- Help with attending visits → Sarah advocated for the location to be closer to the mom in the community, so the mom wasn’t burdened by travel time and expenses
- Help with housing and proof of stable income → Less travel expenditures due to closer visits helped mom save money to invest in reunification
- Getting the children under one roof with a family member and out of foster care → Sarah helped their aunt pass the home evaluation
Sarah shares how she received the reputation for the “resource queen” by helping families not on her case load meet their basic needs and stay in-tact.
Sarah shares her findings on poverty as a driver of child welfare involvements, as well as how her colleagues felt about the realities of the families they served.
Sarah: “I found a whole network of different people who were out there talking about this huge issue that existed nationally…There wasn’t funding for [helping families meet basic needs]. When I would talk to the case managers, they would love to be able to pay for an exterminator to come in…they would love to get beds for children. They cared and they wanted to do these things––they didn’t have funding or resources.”
Sarah talks about the conversation with her CASA supervisor that led to Sarah stepping down from her volunteer role, providing an opportunity for Sarah to fully invest herself in supporting families in the way she began to envision.
After the initial shock of losing her CASA role , Sarah explains how she knew what she was doing was right for children by supporting parents and offering them resources.
Sarah: “We’re allowing children to fall through the cracks because of poverty issues. And we’re paying for foster care, but we can’t pay to help these families prevent foster care…Our system as a whole I don’t think values parents that are involved in the system, and I’m not talking about individual case managers, I’m talking about the system as a whole. If you’re involved in the system, then you must be a bad parent, and that’s the way that it’s viewed.
Matt reflects on the punitive structure ofthe child welfare system and Sarah’s approach to seeing families for their strengths and with empathy, rather than defining them by their circumstances. Matt points out that “It’s our collective responsibility as a society” to ensure families are not “under so much burden that it puts their kids at risk.”
What’s next for Sarah after CASA? Sarah continues to accept referrals to help families find resources, rallying a community into an operation of supporting families in need of assistance.
Sarah explains the frustration expressed to her by the attorney (who was referring families to her): that being a lack in a direct line to a community of helpful persons with resources and the knowledge of how to help families with basic needs.
Sarah: “The DFACS, the case managers are trying to [provide resources] too, but here’s the problem: they might have a child with a head fracture and they’re trying to mitigate that. And they might spend three days with one case. And here they have a mom struggling with poverty. So obviously this child with a head fracture takes priority. So [case workers and attorneys] don’t have all day like I do to have all of these resources at hand.”
Hear how Sarah formalizes her role as the “resource queen” through the development of the Together for Families program with Advocates for Children with the help of a new investor. She talks about the mission of the program and how they support families.
Sarah explains how she was never a one-woman-show: “I was the one that was receiving the referrals but connecting families to a vast array of nonprofits and then community and neighbors and friends who were filling in gaps.” She talks about the roles of other volunteers who supported the grassroots phase.
Sarah’s vision of what’s next for the Together for Families program.
Advice for people seeing the same issues in their community who want to address the needs of families.
Sarah: “Be fearless. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re going to have a lot of support or people are going to support you because I would be doing it whether people supported it or not.”
Final thoughts from Matt Anderson.
- Together for Families | Advocates for Children
- Georgia ranks 38th in the Nation for Child and Family Well-Being | Georgia Family Connection Partnership
- One promise became a lifelong mission for this Atlanta family advocate | CBS46
- Cobb County, GA Child Welfare Stats | Fostering Court Improvement
- Child Welfare: Purposes, Federal Programs, and Funding | Congressional Research Service Reports
- Child Welfare Financing SFY 2018: A survey of federal, state, and local expenditures | Child Trends
- A Key Connection: Economic Stability and Family Well-being | Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago
Matt (host): Hey everyone. It’s Matt Anderson and welcome to Seen Out Loud where we bring you the stories and conversations that recognize child welfare transformation starts with seeing families for, they truly are. So as listeners of this show, we’ll know, I really believe we’re at a turning point that there is a movement happening to address root cause drivers of child welfare involvement, and, you know, historically one of the biggest issues.
Is that we’ve confused poverty as parental neglect. Neglect It makes up more than 60% of child welfare cases. And what that means is that parents who are stressed and overburdened, because they don’t have access to basic needs like stable housing and affordable childcare, they are actually at risk of losing their children.
While we’re starting to get honest about the connection between poverty and child welfare. We still only invest 15% of our child welfare funds in the activities that would reduce these burdens and keep families together. And so all of that leads me to today’s guest, Sarah Winograd. So Sarah is currently building this incredible program in Cobb and Barto counties in Georgia.
And you know, the more I learn about Sarah’s story. I think she’s absolutely extraordinary. And my hope is that her story is an inspiration. And at the same time, I want all of us to recognize that what she’s doing is actually our collective responsibility. We should be solving these problems at a policy level and actually investing in the needs that so many families have.
But let me just stop there and back up for a second and go to where Sarah’s story begins. As it turns out, Sarah spent a lot of her formative years growing up in Belarus and her experiences there, I think did a lot to shape how she sees families. And so I started our conversation by asking her about her time there as a kid.
Matt: S o were you born in Belarus? Is that where you grew up?
Sarah: No, we moved there when I was 11 years old my dad had been a social worker previously and then a pastor and he had a heart for the Russian and, surrounding areas. And our family actually roots are from Belarus. And so after the Soviet Union collapsed and he knew that, there was a lot of needs there.
really, he wanted to go and visit and he visited there and six months later he moved us all there.
Matt: Tell us a little bit about the work was that your parents were doing.
Sarah: They originally had gone there to start a church, but then they saw the need and there was so much poverty around us. We talk about food insecurity in the states. Well, food insecurity was just normal life there. And so that level of poverty was normal for me. And I guess it also informed my thinking, my husband was raised in a very poor family as well, educated, but poor. So I grew up very close to him because we were best friends and then dating all through my teenage years.
Matt: I’m curious if you could talk a little bit, because I think this is gonna connect much later in your story,this idea of, of living in, in poverty. Sometimes we think about poverty as, the worst experience possible maybe, but at the same time, there can be family, bonds and love and joy and community and connectedness. Like those things can also be happening as people are living in poverty. And was that, was that your experience of it in Belarus?
Sarah: Oh, my gosh, 100% Matt, it was very community-oriented and people. People lived in poverty and, and most people lived in poverty for, our American standards, but if you would go into the homes of families and in the communities, people were helping each other. So everybody knew a guy who would fix your car or, or somebody who would who could repair electricity or a plumber and people would just help each other and work together. And I was able to see into a lot of love in inside the family as well.
Matt: Yeah, it’s, it’s really interesting. I mean, a lot of what we get into on this, on this podcast is, this idea of seeing people for who they truly are, which means to see the fullness of somebody’s experiences and all the different ways that they show up in the world. And it’s, it’s never black and white.
It’s never either, or right. It’s always complex. And I think some of what you’ve been doing more recently in your work, you’re recognizing the complexities of things and really seeing people in their fullness. And it sounds like that’s grounded in some of these early life, experiences of seeing how dynamic a community and family can be in the midst of, poverty and that, poverty doesn’t mean that there’s not love and community and support and strength within any given family or community.
Matt: So Sarah’s time in Bella. Russ clearly informed who she is today. In fact, she even met her husband and started her family there. And then her husband went on to complete medical school in Belarus before they moved back to the US where Sarah dedicated herself to volunteering. She spent a lot of her time working with youth in New York and then later in Georgia, many of whom had actually aged out of foster. Taking care of her young children pulled Sarah away from volunteering for a time. But she told me that as soon as her youngest child was in school, she was ready to get back at it.
Sarah: So my son the day I enrolled him into kindergarten, I immediately called about being a CASA, a court appointed special advocate, cuz I was ready to start volunteering again. And going back to serving these children and it was something that was on my heart,because I really wanted to see what was going on with our child welfare system. And I really wanted to help these children earlier. I wanted to help them find permanency and a loving home earlier. So they wouldn’t end up on the streets. Like so many children I had seen.
Matt: You’re in Georgia at this time. Right? So you’re, you’re volunteering with Casa in Georgia.
Matt:And you’ve shared some about earlier volunteering experiences with the homeless, like homeless youth, I think, and seeing that many of them were aging out of foster care. So Was that kind of the inspiration of Casa?
Sarah: . That was the inspiration for CASA for me, was that I could catch these kids earlierMaybe I could help in some way so that they wouldn’t run away from foster care to the streets, or they wouldn’t run away from their home to the streets.
Matt: Okay. So now you’re a trained CASA and you’re up and running and I suppose you get your first case. Tell me about that first case that you had. And, what, some of those early experiences were.
Sarah: Matt. I was so excited to be a CASA and to start advocating for children and helping children and preventing abuse. I remember I got my folder and it had my first case in it. And I was so excited. I couldn’t even wait till I came home. I just opened it up in the car.
And I started reading everything that was in there and I’m looking and I’m reading it and I’m sitting in my car and I’m thinking, why were these kids removed? I don’t understand. Am I missing something? Why were these kids taken? And so I start highlighting stuff and writing stuff and making notes and what I was dealing with and what I was reading was a mom who was struggling with homelessness, who had a very low paid job who was couch surfing with her children and her children weren’t enrolled in school.
And she had experienced domestic violence situation and she was doing the best she could. And she lost her kids and all four of ’em and four of ’em were in foster care and separate in three different homes. And I was shocked. I, I couldn’t understand why we didn’t help her. Why did we take her children?
Matt: What did you understand about what CASA volunteers actually do? Say a little bit more about what that role is, what, what exactly were you doing?
Sarah: Yeah, you’re supposed to meet with the child and talk with everybody who’s involved with that child’s life to really try to recommend the best permanent situation for this child, whether that be adoption, a relative placement or going home to mom or dad, and then also look out for their wellbeing.
So we can’t make any referrals. We just present everything to the judge and to the team of DAFCS, the division of family and children services and to the guardian litem attorney. So the attorney for the children and hope that with the evidence we collect that our recommendations, the recommendations we meet the judge will kind of agree with those recommendations because we’ve given enough evidence to support them.
Matt: Okay, And so you get this very first case and you start going through it and you’re questioning why were these children removed? Why are they now being separated as siblings in different placements? What were some of the, the facts in that case about why these kids were removed was it a single mom, parents, single dad. And, and why were they being removed?
Sarah: Yeah, it was a single mom with four children and there had been some domestic violence with the children’s father. She was not with the children’s father at the time. And she was homeless. She was struggling financially and when, child protective services got involved, she was scared and she wasn’t cooperating in the way that she needed to cooperate to keep her children.
And so there was this lack of knowledge from her end of the severity of the issue in that if, if you move to a different place without telling them, or if, if you don’t show up for court, what could happen. I still to this day can’t tell you why the children were removed. Honestly in my opinion, if we had caught this mom earlier and we had helped her navigate the child welfare system and helped her find a safe shelter for her and her children, I don’t believe the children would’ve been in foster care.
Matt: So you’re, you’re there to represent the best interests of the child. And who was representing and supporting the mom in that case who was there to support her through that process?
Sarah: No, one’s there to support her. I mean, the division of family children services can offer her services but in this particular case, she had I think before I started three different case managers. And so they were offering her these services or telling her these things that she needed to do, but there was no one there to really guide her and help her. And it was more of this fear that this government agency is coming here and trying to intrude on my life and I need to get them out of my life. And there was a right way to do that. And then there’s, there’s not a right way to do that. And she didn’t know the right way to do that in order to keep her children.
Matt: What was sort of the aha moment that you had, in this case, that kind of sent you maybe in a different direction as you’re realizing what’s happening with this particular family?
Sarah: So I was already really curious about the family after reading the file that I received when I first started as a CASA. So I immediately made an appointment to see the oldest child who had moved five times because I was most worried about him and his mental health being that he was separated from, his three other siblings. And he had moved so many times and just was struggling. It was obvious from the file. And so I went to meet him and I remember I was really nervous and I sat down and I told him, I’m your court-appointed special advocate. And what that is is I get to tell the judge anything you want. And then I get to fight for that. So I asked him, what do you want? And he looked at me and he said, I wanna go home. And I remember I was just like a go punch because it was an open-ended question and he could have asked me for anything. And so I asked him, okay, so tell me about your home. And he started telling me about his home and as he was telling me about his home, I was thinking back to the case file that I had read, and it aligned so perfectly and filled in all of the gaps.
And I understood this was a family that was struggling with poverty that didn’t have the help that they needed when they needed it. And they lost everything. They lost their children and the children lost their parents. And he was grieving the loss of his loving mother. And he just would talk about her. We’d sometimes stay talking for, two hours and he would just be telling me about his family.
Matt: So, he’s talking about his loving mom, but paint a little picture there. What, what was he saying about his mom?
Sarah: So he talked about their struggles. He talked about when they lived in an apartment and they lost electricity and they used their neighbors upstairs refrigerator, and that they were all sleeping on the same mattress with his other three brothers and mom. And they were, huddled together to stay warm and that his mom would always make sure they had food. He told me about his grandma, about his aunt, about how on Sunday, they would listen to gospel music and clean the whole house. He talked to me about, the struggles with housing and that so often they would end up living with relatives that his aunt would often end up taking care of him. When his mom didn’t have housing. And I saw a family that loved each other, but were really struggling.
Matt: Are you connecting dots back to when you were a kid in Belarus and what you were seeing in terms of families in poverty and how that was playing out versus how it was playing out here in, in Georgia with this family?
Sarah: Yes completely. It was shocking to me. I was thinking, I understood poverty. I mean, there’s, multi-generational families living in homes in Belarus, you know, where you have grandma in one room, one sister and her family in another room. And they’re all living in a little apartment and that’s okay. And here, I’m seeing this family that’s struggling and, they’re being ripped apart it was shocking. I was just shocked that this is how we solve issues of poverty in the United States. We talk about safety concerns like you don’t have electricity, that’s a safety concern, or you don’t have hot water or water, that’s a safety concern. Well, when we were in Belarus ,we didn’t have hot water oftentimes, there was a lot of things that we didn’t have, and it wasn’t a safety concern.
Matt: So you’re, you’re building a relationship with him and, and I suppose his siblings too they’re now at least a year into their foster care experience it, and correct me if I’m wrong here, but it kind of sounds like there’s these two shifts happening for you. You came into this saying, I wanna make sure that I can do my part to prevent kids from aging outta foster care. And that’s sort of the, the macro goal. And then you start working with this, 11, 12 year old kid and probably at the beginning, thinking that like, how can I make sure he doesn’t age out and you’re focused on really the interest of, of these kids, but then with this case, and I suppose maybe more globally, you start to shift to like, okay, what is this all about for mom? What’s happening with parents more generally in our society, in our system when poverty is at play. And do you start to then shift your thinking and even like what you’re doing as a CASA volunteer at that point?
Sarah: So when I met this young boy who was, 11, I did think immediately, if he does not go home, He is going to end up like the other youth who I loved, who were now homeless on the streets and suffering from all of these mental health struggles because of so many moves in foster care.
And I knew that he had to go home. And so the next question was, how do we make that safe? And how do we get everyone else on board for him to go home? And so I called his mom and my first conversation with her was, I think she might have cussed me out, but she was so mad. And she said, you people took my children.
You snatched, ’em you kidnappers. And I said, Hey, I am not the division of family childrens services. I am not responsible for your kids being in foster care. I said, I’m a volunteer. I’m a mom. I don’t get paid for this. I’m just here to try to help your children.
And what if helping your children is bringing them home to you, then that’s the kind of help that they need. And so she started listening to me and I started listening to her and we became friends.
Matt: So you start building this relationship with, with this mom and you’re getting to know her, and I suppose you’re getting to know from her what she needs to be able to have her kids come back home. And so what is she explaining to you that she needs and what do you start doing about that?
Sarah: She needed housing and she needed to show that she could afford to maintain the house and maintain her bills. She was struggling with transportation as well to make visits. And so the visits were actually at the time they were at the DFCS office, which was really far from her. And so I was advocating for the visits to go back into the community so they could be close to mom. So she wouldn’t have to pay, all this money for an Uber. And that would be money that she could save and, invest in getting her kids back. And then I talked with her sister who the kids had lived with actually.
And so I asked the sister, would you consider taking the children? While mom is, working on housing and her sister’s like, I’ve been trying to get these kids. I tried to get them immediately when they were taken.
So that’s what we did. We worked with the aunt because she had stable housing to bring the children home to aunt and the family, all we all worked together
Matt: And I guess maybe the question is, are you still in your role as CASA, are you starting to kind of step outside the role a little bit at this point,
Sarah: So with this mom, I really tried to stay in my role as a CASA, but my friend had a nonprofit. And so I essentially told my friend I need you to help provide the basic needs for these families. I’m just gonna donate this amount of money to your nonprofit to help this family.
I was always being told by my CASA supervisor, Sarah, you’re not the mom’s advocate. You are the child advocate. And I was like, well, how can I advocate for this child without helping the mom? I really did try to stay with this case in my lane and just try to connect them to resources and work with the mom.
But I was already very aware that there needed to be a program that served parents and helped them keep their children outta foster care and then helped them reunify when their children were taken for underlying issues of poverty.
Matt: And so did you start to just push outside of the boundaries? Did you start to say, well, I’m gonna just, I’m gonna go do X, Y, Z to try to support this mom. And if so, What did you do.
Sarah: So with this particular case, I was working with mom and aunt and the whole family to figure out how we could bring the children home. So we found furniture for all the children, so aunt could pass the home evaluation. So I was working to try to stay in my role so I wouldn’t get fired, but at the same time, trying to help fill in the gaps to bring these children home, because I knew that if I did not help this family, that these kids might not go home. And if they didn’t go home, I knew what could happen to them.
Matt: So what, like what happens with your role with CASA? I mean, Does your supervisor start to sort of see what you’re doing and is that a conversation that you all have to have?
So Matt, with this particular case I was just continually told Sarah, you have to stay in your lane, and I, I really tried, but then what happened was, and this is where things started to explode was when Chelsea Griffith, she’s an attorney, in the Cobb county juvenile court.
And she was the attorney for these four boys. And she saw how hard I was working to get resources, to bring the children home to their family. And she called me one day and she said, Sarah, I have a family that could really use some help. And it wasn’t one of my cases.
And she said, they need beds for their kids and they have roaches in their house and they need some, some exterminating. you are the resource queen, you found all these resources for your CASA case. She’s like, can you connect me with those resources and help me out? And I said to her,Why don’t you just give the mom my number and I’ll go to her house and I’ll go see what she needs. So she gave the mom my number and I went to that mom’s house and I saw that she needed beds. And within two days, all the kids were sleeping on beds. She had roaches all in the house within a couple weeks, we got rid of the roaches.
And Chelsea calls me and she’s like, wow, Sarah, I have another family who really needs some resources I don’t wanna remove these children, but they’re really struggling to provide for the child in the home.
I said, just give them my number. And so that’s where the whole out of my CASA lane started was with cases that were not my case as a CASA.
Matt: You start to get the reputation as, as you described at the resource queen which, which really means what, like, what was that reputation built on? What were you doing that was, that was getting her attention?
Sarah: Meeting the basic needs of these children. So if the kids needed food, we would connect them to churches that provided food or get food to them. If they needed beds, we did that. If they needed bug extermination, we found people in the community who would pay for it. So whatever their needs were and poverty issues, they had, we were addressing those.
Matt: These are the specific issues that are showing up in the investigations that might be caused for, or were caused for removing a child and placing them in foster care, like real practical things that these families are dealing with. And, and then I wonder maybe if you kind of pull out from that, I think you were telling me that at this time too, you’re also doing some research about, well, what, is happening in terms of this intersection between poverty and neglect or poverty as a driver of child welfare? So talk to me about what you were learning and how you were going about that.
Sarah: Yeah, So like I said, I was in shock that there were so many families that the underlying issues for removal were poverty issues. And I thought I cannot be the only person thinking that this is crazy, that we’re not helping these families.
So I started researching what’s going on nationally and what’s going on in Georgia and what are we doing to solve this issue? Like what are people actually doing to solve this problem? And I found a whole network of, different people who were out there talking about this huge issue that existed nationally.
Matt: What are you starting to see or realize as why these basic needs aren’t being met?
Sarah: So there wasn’t funding for it. There wasn’t funding. I mean, when I would talk to the case managers, they would love to be able to pay for an exterminator to come in and exterminate all those roaches. They would love to be able to get beds for children. they cared and they wanted to do these things.
They didn’t have funding or resources. And when they would call the resources on the resource lists that they gave to the parents, a lot of the resources were tapped out. And so they weren’t able to find these and they’re spending all their time, like half their day trying to find beds for children or extermination or food or housing help.
All these families were falling through the cracks while we’re trying to find these resources,There had to be some easy way for them to meet that poverty gap without spending so much time trying to find a resource and then not finding it, or there’s a waiting list or I’m sorry, you don’t qualify.
Matt: Like what I’m hearing in that is that there’s a couple things missing. One, the, the people that are working within the system, we’re not dedicating staff, human resources to supporting the parent directly. And then we do have funds of course, to the child welfare system. But those are largely allocated to the payment of foster care services, as opposed to payment for things that would prevent the need for foster care. And you’re saying, well, let me fill these gaps. And you become, the resource queen that can really help address these gaps in our, our system. And then eventually that leads you to now I think in a good way, but you can’t be a CASA volunteer anymore. There’s sort of what was described as a conflict of interest. So can you talk about that and what happened after leaving CASA?
Sarah: my program manager, who I adore and she’s wonderful. She said, Hey, we need to have a meeting with you. And I had already been serving a good amount of families. who are not my CASA case, and she said, Sarah, do you know this person? And she gave the name of one of the families that I was working with. I said, yes, absolutely I do. And she said, well, they call you their fairy godmother. And I said, oh my goodness.
Okay. And they said, what are you doing with this family? And I said, well, I’m helping them find resources in the community to address poverty. So their children don’t have to be removed. And she said, okay, how many other families are you working with? And I looked at my phone and I started counting.
And then while I was looking at my phone, I said, oh, I just got another text and she, she said, okay, Sarah, obviously, you can’t be doing this while you’re also a CASA. And this is your calling. And she recommended, I spread my wings and that I resign as a CASA so that I could do this, but also not, it just was a conflict, they said, like they said, they said it was a conflict. And when I was told I needed to resign, I was a little bit for about two days I was a little deflated and after that conversation, I was crying because I was just like, I loved doing what I was doing.
And then when I had to resign, I was like, well, who am I? I’m just like, I’m just really just like a stay-at-home mom out here just trying to like help these other moms. And maybe I’m am in over my head and maybe I’m just a fired CASA.
Sarah: I remember just thinking, wait a second, I am,a champion for these families and these families do need me. And nobody’s doing what we’re doing. And at this point, it wasn’t just me. It was my neighbors and friends and community that was coming alongside to help meet these needs. And So I was thinking these families need me and I don’t really care. If I’m a CASA or if I have a title or if I have anything, I know I’m doing the right thing.
Matt: Yeah. I’m just curious, there must be part of you that in that moment of this is a conflict of interest and you’re not gonna be able to do this anymore. I don’t know. I mean, being shocked being, I mean, you said deflated, but maybe angry, maybe confused from the point of view of if my role here is to represent the best interest of this child. And if that best interest is to be home with mom and mom has these very basic needs that we could meet, that our system is not organized to meet well, then shouldn’t my role be to help meet these needs.
Sarah: So at the time I was trying to process it. And so for me, our system is messed up that we’re not providing and helping these families in the way that they need help. And we’re allowing children to fall through the cracks and enter foster care because of poverty issues and we’re paying for foster care, but we can’t pay to help these families prevent foster care. So I knew that after the initial shock, I knew that what I was doing and what we were doing and what Chelsea was doing was the right thing.
Matt: And that’s what I’m trying to wrap my head around in this conversation is why are those things not being the core focus of what we’re trying to do and making sure mom has everything that she needs so her kids can come home. And it just, there seems to be like a big disconnect there. And I wonder if that’s something that you struggled with at that time? Like what, what is going on here?
Sarah: So our system as a whole, I don’t think values the parents who are involved in the system, and I’m not talking about individual case managers. I’m talking about the system as a whole. If you are involved in the system, then you must be a bad parent. And that’s the way that it’s viewed, yet we know that in the county that I live 9% of the children who enter foster care enter because of abuse in the past year another four because of sexual abuse. And then there’s like 11% because of abandonment.
Most of the cases are a family that’s struggling in some way or another. But yet we paint these families with this broad brush, the system does that. They’re somehow, if they’re involved, then they’re bad or they don’t care, or there’s something wrong with them and that’s the way we treat them. So we, expect them. to provide without our help, you need to take care of your children without our help, because if we help you now, then, we give you back your children, then what’s gonna happen to you a year down the line, or two years down the line. We can’t keep helping you.
And it’s not true because we are taking children from a lot of good parents and a lot of decent parents. Every single human being on this planet needs help at some point in their life. And if we already have the money to invest in foster care, wouldn’t it be better to invest in these families?
Matt: It is really easy to see the parent as the problem. And I do think that that is often the case of how our system operates. it’s a judgment base on bad parenting, which then, you know, once we judge people, we have to intervene or even like punish parents in the, in the system. And what’s so powerful about your story is this is sort of like the Seen Out Loud experience, right? You see through all of that stuff and you see the love and the strengths and the community and say, okay, if I can see that and I see what the needs are, I’m just gonna close the gap and you do it. Which is amazing. And at the same time, why do those gaps even exist? And is it up to Sarah to close those gaps or a thousand Sarahs to close those gaps? Or should we be saying, it’s our collective responsibility as a society, as citizens of this country, isn’t our job as a country to close those gaps? the message that should rise out of this is that it’s our collective responsibility. That family shouldn’t be under so much stress and burden that it puts their kids at risk. So there’s, a collective responsibility here that shines through in, in your story in my mind.
And uh, anyway, I wanted to share some of those, thoughts that I’m, I’m seeing in your story. And then I want to jump ahead a little bit here. So you leave CASA you kind of, take those couple days, as you said, to kind of, go through your process of, oh gosh, what do I do now? And then what do you do after that?
Sarah: Yeah, so I processed it. I called Chelsea Griffith, the attorney that was sending the families to me and I said, send me more. Just send me more. I’ll tell you when I can’t handle it, just keep sending me more. So families started calling more families than before. And so the family would call me, and then it was just me as a citizen working with this mom or working with this family. I’d be like, Hey, are you okay with my neighbor coming and delivering four beds to your house?
And they said, sure, absolutely no problem. And then I could post needs on Facebook, much more freely. And so we just had the whole community rallying around these families.
Over a hundred people volunteered, driving stuff, delivering stuff, picking up stuff, money, and it just became this whole operation. Mm-hmm
Matt: I’m a little curious why, refer to you, why isn’t there somewhere for Chelsea to refer to that’s a, a service provider, a program. And are you also then connecting to formal programs and services as well? Are you just sort of mobilizing your friend community to meet these needs?
Sarah: So that was one of the things that frustrated Chelsea so much was when she would try to find help for families oftentimes nobody would pick up the phone. She would find a waiting list. She spent seven hours trying to find mom a shelter one day, literally, she’s in court on the phone trying to find mom a shelter.
So when I show up, she was like, this is what I need. A direct access to the community.
Matt: we’ve talked about this a lot, but it keeps coming up of like, well, why isn’t DFCS doing that? And I think we’ve identified that like, well, they don’t have the funding to do it. They don’t have the staff to do that kind of work. So there’s literally this gap
Sarah: And Matt, the defects, the case managers are trying to do that too. but here’s the problem. They might have a child with a head fracture, and they’re trying to try to mitigate that. And they might spend three days with one case and here they have a mom struggling with poverty. So obviously this child with a head fracture takes priority. So they don’t have all day like I do to go have all these resources at hand, know the resources out there. the community was providing all this flexible resources, like where do you find free extermination?
Well, we do in our neighborhood. Somebody just pays for it, or I’ll go it there. And I’m a professional exterminator at this point. I said, if I lose this job too, I could always go into extermination because I’m really good.
Matt: Which is incredible. And so you’re growing this kind of organically and you’re doing it out of your house and you’re just volunteering And then you decide to start to maybe formalize this of like, should I start a nonprofit? Should I become part of another nonprofit you start to, to think about how do you make this a more formal kind of program or, or I don’t know how you were thinking about it as a program or a nonprofit, but you, you take it to the next level, right?
Sarah: I didn’t know what to do. What the next steps were really actually, so. Called my friend who works in the Cobb community foundation and she works with a lot of different nonprofits. And I said, look, Chelsea and I wanna turn this into an official nonprofit or a program. And she said, don’t start a nonprofit, Sarah, you will hate it. She said, find a nonprofit that has the same heart as you. That will take this, and what you have, which was our program Together for Families take this and turn it into an official program under their umbrella.
Matt: And then you start going down that process and I think you get pretty close with one nonprofit is gonna take you under their umbrella, but it doesn’t work out. is that right?
Sarah: Yeah. So they, we were working with them, they’re a poverty serving nonprofit, and they serve families in poverty in our area. That’s why we thought it was a good fit. Chelsea and I were working with them, applying for grants, And at kind of, outta last minute, they’re like, we’re not gonna be able to do this. We’re not gonna be able to do this program.
And I just I went home and I thought about it. And interestingly enough, I get a call a week and a half later from a friend of mine who had taken in a young man who had aged out of foster care And she asked me to meet her for coffee. And she broke the news to me that she had a significant amount of money that she wanted to use to seed our program.
And she said to me, find a nonprofit that has the same heart that will run this program. Let me vet them, let me help you guys. And I’m gonna provide the seed money so that you guys can do your thing and scale this effort.
Matt (host): Sarah’s friend, Rachel has a nonprofit called Advocates for Children and Sarah calls Rachel one day and says, hey, I’ve got this seed money to build up my program. And I was wondering, can I partner with your organization to get started? And of course Rachel says, yes. And they get to work.
Matt: So, we can get to the, kind of the launch of this all, but what, what do you put together and what do you call it and how do you even know what to do next? Now that you’re getting ready to create something.
Sarah: We sat together and they said, what do you wanna call it? I proposed Together for Tamilies. And the reason was because it, that really embodied what we were doing.
Matt: What does together for families do, like, as you were gonna get it off the ground initially, what, what was the plan for it?
Sarah: So the plan for Together for Families was to do what we did in the grassroots effort, but in a way that’s scalable. So we meet the basic needs of families who are an imminent risk of losing their children to foster care. So we help meet those immediate, basic needs. And then work with the families who are motivated and want to work towards self-sufficiency, work with them towards self-sufficiency. So that’s why we launched our resource center in April, which is filled with everything to meet what we call minimum sufficient level of care.
So we have beds. We have a company that donated thousands of dollars worth of extermination for bugs and cleaning supplies, hygiene, baby supplies, everything a family would need to take care of a child. And then also are, have the opportunity for families to work with a navigator to be worked towards self-sufficiency.
Matt:How do, how do families find you? How do they come to you?
So in two months we have 40 families and are serving over a hundred children. We’ve distributed over now, $25,000 worth of supplies to families and families come to us through referrals from DFCS or the court. But 95% of our referrals are from DFCS because we will only serve families who have children in their care.
Or it can be a relative who’s struggling with poverty and the children are safety planned or placed with a relative. And the relative is the best place for the child, but they’re struggling with poverty and they’re struggling to maintain that placement or keep the children then we’ll serve the relatives as well, because our goal is to keep, the families together.
Matt: Yeah, that makes sense. And, okay, so, you’ve launched now. You’re up and running. You’re serving 40 families, a hundred kids, a lot of good things are happening. It sounds like is it still just you, are you a one woman show?
Sarah: Okay. So it, it was never just me. I was one that was receiving the referrals, but connecting families to a vast array of non-profits and then the community and neighbors and friends who were filling in gaps. We were hiring for a program assistant and my neighbor who had been retired for 10 years he said, Hey, I want this job. And we’re like, you don’t want this job. He’s, he’s independently wealthy. He doesn’t need the money. He had been supporting the grassroots effort before and he said, no, I want this job.
So he is now the program assistant. He is incredible. He donates all of his salary back. We have another program assistant Kelly, who she was hired on at Advocates for Children as well. She was also helping during the grassroots phase. We have dozens of volunteers who come to the resource center. So all of our supplies are donated by the community and the community maintains the resource center. So they sort clothes, fold, clothes, help, process donations. Now working with families, we are training volunteers to do that I do that right now. So I do most of the working with families.
They meet with our program assistants to get the supplies, but if, they need case management, I’m doing most of that case management right now, we’re applying for a grant to hire a navigator so that we can hire a social worker to do some more intensive case management, cuz it’s a lot.
Matt: I mean, this could be replicated in any, any community and probably should, if it doesn’t exist already, this kind of weaving together of the social fabric to support families should be happening really everywhere. And I, I wonder that being said, what comes next do you think? So you, you said you wanted to do this in part to scale. So I assume growing is part of the vision, but is that part of the vision and what else is part of the vision?
Sarah: Mm-hmm so, yeah, we have our three staff and then dozens of volunteers, but we also have the backing of Advocates for Children’s administrative office and Rachel Costilla. I report directly to our executive director. So we have, a grant writer at advocates for children. We have all of these other things that we didn’t have before. And so our goal is to scale it. And the only reason our goal is to scale it is because families need our help and I don’t wanna have to turn away families.
So I I’m working more than I’ve ever worked. And I volunteer my time to run the program. I chose not to take that money because I want more of the money to go to the families. So, we want to serve every single family in Cobb and Barto county who has child welfare involvement and who has their children in the home.
Every loving family, who’s struggling with poverty, whether that be a parent or a relative who has the children. So in order to do that, we need a much bigger resource center. We need a delivery driver because we deliver Supplies to families. And so we just need to scale to meet the needs. That’s, that’s, that’s our goal.
Matt: Do you have a vision of this is this every county in Georgia, is that the ambitio?
Sarah: So every child in every family, in our counties, so that’s Cobb and Barto county. So that’s where we start. And then I, I believe Matt, our legislators and our policymakers will come for us and they will say, we need this in every county. And in that, and when they do, then we’ll help them.
Matt: I mean, I love it. Of course, Sarah, I think it’s fantastic. I mean, this whole time, I’m thinking about like, I wonder what lessons she’s drawing on from those early days in Belarus with her parents. And, obviously that must have been incredibly foundational for like the practical of your work, but being able to see through how we cast poverty as neglect and see it as loving parents who are stressed and overburdened, you just see right through that, to who these families really are and say, no, we’re not gonna allow this to happen.
We’re gonna, we’re gonna do something about this. I’m gonna do something about this. I’m gonna make sure these families are able to stay together and be where they need to be. It’s not that hard. It’s not that expensive. Let’s replicate this in other counties. And I wonder if you’re thinking too about like, how do you go a couple feet upstream to say, what do we do from state policy point of view, a state funding point of view that would invest in families earlier. So DFCS never even gets involved in the first place.
Sarah:Oh, yeah, 100%. We’re gonna keep moving more upstream. And then hopefully our legislators and policymakers can see what we’re doing and they can make changes because it is a lot cheaper to prevent child welfare involvement. And the consequences for society when we don’t prevent it are huge. So we, we wanna set an example and hopefully others can follow it.
Matt: And now here you are, thriving as a newly formed organization that has tons of potential, I think, to not just impact families in Georgia, but, but I think to be a, a model that could influence, not just practice, but really policy.
And so I just love the story. It is unique, but it’s not out of the reach of any ordinary citizen. And I wonder with all that being said, what advice do you have for anybody that is seeing the same things that you’re seeing and wanting to do something in their community to, to step in and fill gaps for families to invest in families?
Sarah: Be fearless, do it because it’s the right thing to do. Not because you’re gonna have a lot of support or people are gonna support you because I would be doing it whether people supported it or not, because it’s the right thing to do.
Matt: This has been great, Sarah. I, it was, I knew it was gonna be fun and it really was. And so I just, I appreciate you joining us and, and sharing your story.
Sarah: Thank you for having me and, and thank you to everyone who’s listening and If you see something that needs to be addressed, please do it because children’s lives and family’s lives depend on it.
Matt (host): So I wanna say thanks again to Sarah for a great conversation. And before we wrap, I wanna close with just two thoughts. First, we do need a thousand Sarahs all over the country. So first story is inspiring to you. Please find the opportunities to fill gaps for families in your community. But second. We ultimately need a collective response to these conditions that so many families are experiencing and we need that at the policy level.
So I encourage you to read the deck from Chapin Hall, that we’re gonna link in the show notes, that details a variety of state and federal policy recommendations that if implemented, they would dramatically improve family wellbeing. So before we wrap, I’m gonna send it to Isaiah for our credit.
Isaiah: Sarah is truly an inspiration to our team and I hope she inspired you as well. This is actually the final episode of Season 2 of our podcast Seen Out Loud! We’ve read your comments, seen your support and we are glad you are on this journey with us.
Now we are coming back for season 3 so don’t you worry. In the meantime go to our website to see exclusive content on each and every episode this season. And if you have enjoyed season 2 please leave us a review and a rating for this podcast because we want to hear from you. Now let’s give our podcast team a well-deserved break with a final send-off! Our Executive Producer is Michael Osborne, mixing mastering and sound designed by Morgan Honaker. Our composer is Christian Haigus and our creative team members are April Dillon and Candice Kearse. I’m Isaiah Strozier and I just want to say thank you for listening to season two and I’ll see you in season three.
Sarah Winograd, Program Manager for Together for Families, Advocates for Children
Sarah moved to Belarus at 11 years-old with her family where service to community was the norm. After moving to New York as an adult, she began working with youth experiencing homelessness, families experiencing poverty, and youth in residential treatment. In November 2018, Sarah began volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). She left her CASA role after noticing families being separated due to poverty-related factors. Wanting to support these families with basic needs that can keep families united, Sarah formed the Together for Families program with Advocates for Children in November 2021. As Program Manager for Together for Families, she has supported hundreds of families in Bartow and Cobb Counties in Georgia by working with community partners to meet their immediate basic needs.