Crosscut members talk "Kids@Risk"

A report from our newsroom on a new "quest" to explore Washington's foster care system.
Crosscut archive image.

Member ideas and solutions surfaced throughout the evening in Crosscut's newsroom in Pioneer Square.

A report from our newsroom on a new "quest" to explore Washington's foster care system.

On Thursday night about 50 Crosscut readers, members, writers and editors gathered in the newsroom to discuss our new series, Kids@Risk. The event coincided with Pioneer Square’s First Thursday Art Walk and so music and voices filled the summer air outside and found their way through the large windows above First Avenue.

Publisher Greg Shaw moderated a panel consisting of editor-in-chief Mary Bruno, writer Judy Lightfoot and Crosscut board member Tonya Dressel, who also works for Ballmer Family Giving, funder of this initial series on children in foster care.

For those unable to attend, we're publishing the editorial team's remarks to add context to the series, which you can find here.

Greg Shaw

Kicking things off, we define at-risk youth as young people with a concentration of risk factors, poverty being the most common. I noted that our region has been generous and concerned with respect to at-risk youth. Seattle’s Family and Education Levy helps to fund youth programs, and our region’s considerable philanthropic foundations focus on various risk factors for kids: foster care, homelessness, education and other areas. We are working to raise funds so that we can continue to explore these other at-risk areas.

At-risk children and youth — broadly defined — are concerns of almost every philanthropist in the Puget Sound region. But what role has journalism played in raising awareness? The news media, for a variety reasons, have tended to focus on some criminal incident or program that needs to be exposed. My search of recent news reporting on at-risk youth returned three categories of stories:

1.    An alphabet soup of programs and initiatives

2.    Think tanks battling it out over ideas and ideological programs

3.    News coverage of programs being cut or tragic crimes involving at-risk kids.

Mostly absent in the news coverage is data, evidence, best practices and feature articles about young people or groups of young people who are succeeding. This is not true in reporting about business, politics, sports and culture. It is easy to find reams of illuminating news coverage, commentary, analysis, videos, podcasts and other information on these subject. That is because there is a much larger market for information on these topic areas. 

In the development of this series, we wanted to look at how other news organizations have focused on these issues. The Voice of San Diego, a similar nonprofit online news organization, has made a commitment to insightful reporting on youth homelessness in their southern California community. Readers of the Voice, which include business and elected leaders as well as other media, find a steady diet of engaging articles that keep the issue of homelessness front and center. “Sizing Up Our Homelessness Quest” and  “The City’s Rising Homelessness Spending, in Six Graphs” are all recent examples of the quality journalism the Voice has produced on the subject of homelessness. In an email on June 3rd, the Voice urged all its readers to take a survey, which asked: “What do you think about homelessness in San Diego?” Their online discussion board, The Plaza, has kept the community engaged in between articles.

I spoke recently with the articles’ author, Kelly Bennett, about her work. She and her editor became aware that San Diego has one of the highest homeless populations in the U.S. But coverage was relegated to daily news, a steady “drip, drip, drip,” as her editor liked to say. The coverage washed over readers like water over a beach. One nonprofit was having a meeting, another a fundraiser and so on. The Voice decided to deepen and concentrate its coverage, and so they launched a focused news “quest.”

Kelly understood homeless coverage was not among the general readership’s daily priorities. But Voice editors said, hey, pay attention to this, not forever, but for a while.

Kelly began by having coffees with a number of knowledgeable experts to better understand the landscape. Her colleagues in the newsroom began to hone the questions they wanted their coverage to examine. And then she launched her reporting. She said there was a lot of reader interest. “There was a deep level of community engagement,” she told me one afternoon over the phone. The articles eventually led to a large gathering at an emergency shelter downtown where the community, leadership, readers and sources for the stories all got together to discuss and further explore the issue.

Kelly said there have been several recent outcomes from the quest.

First, her reporting found that San Diego had the third largest homeless population, but ranked 18th in funding for homlessness. Propelled by this disconnect, the mayor and conservative legislators increased spending. Also, after reporting on the opening of a $38 million new facility for the homeless, The Voice stuck with the story. Reporters found that the nonprofit organizations providing services inside the building were not well-coordinated. The reporting led funders and service providers to improve coordination. Awareness led to public action.

So far Crosscut's fledgling Kids@Risk seris has been well received:

  • Installments are among the most commented and read stories.
  • Crosscut has become a major source of traffic to some of the nonprofits mentioned in the stories.
  • Response from members has been great.
  • Time on site has been very high.

* * *

Mary Bruno, editor-in-chief

I’ll begin by stating the obvious: this topic area is enormous. We could write about it every day for 20 years and still not cover everything fully.

As I say in the Introduction to our new at-risk series, the universe of at-risk youth is unfortunately vast and varied. It includes foster kids, homeless kids, poor kids, abused kids, neglected kids, handicapped kids, kids with mental health issues, kids with substance abuse issues, kids with learning disabilities, kids who are bullies, kids who get bullied, kids whose parents are divorced, kids who know domestic violence, kids who fall into more than one of these categories.

We’ve chosen to focus on the foster care segment first, and hope to expand into youth homelessness, then mental health and substance abuse areas. They’re all inter-related.

We officially launched the series on July 23. In terms of a coverage strategy, we’re approaching foster care from four different perspectives:

  • Policy – John Stang, who covers Olympia for Crosscut, will be reporting about developments in the state, local and national legislation and agencies that define and govern the foster care system;
  • Programs – Writer Judy Lightfoot is looking at the different, innovative approaches to foster care. What’s working? What’s not? Her story last week about Washington’s Family Assessment Response looks at the relatively recent trend toward supporting biological families, helping them stay together, rather than taking kids away from their families and placing them in foster homes with strangers;
  • People – Writer Zachariah Bryan isl searching out and sharing the stories of the children and families these policies and programs are designed to help;
  • Data – Infographics specialist Kate Thompson and I will be working with the UW-based organization Partners for Our Children which has, for the first time, actually compiled all the data on the foster care system and made it interactive and public. You want to know how many kids are in the system in a given year? How they break down by age, gender, race, county? It’s all there. We’ll be working with the POC data team, turning those stats into infographics — like the ones included in my introductory piece — and mining them for interesting trends. Like the fact that the number of kids entering the system last year was the lowest since 2001. Or that although some two-thirds of foster kids are white, there is a disproportionately high number of African-American and Native-American kids in the system, compared to their numbers in the general population.

So those are the four big coverage lenses.

From time to time, we’ll also ask guest contributors to muse on some of the broader themes and questions that haunt this subject area. What do we mean by at risk? What puts kids, indeed any of us, at risk? When I posed that question to Seattle psychotherapist Lisa Mennet, who specializes in the parent-child dynamic, she said the two conditions that put kids most at risk are "poverty and poor relationships."

We’ll also be exploring the concept of resilience. In her recent essay, guest contributor Claudia Rowe talked about how traumatic childhood experiences, while toxic, don’t have to ruin lives — if we can foster that elusive quality of resilience in kids who have suffered through those experiences. 

And, of course, we’ll explore the idea of home. What is it? How do we create or simulate home for kids who have lost theirs.

Speaking of exploring, you’ll notice that the branding for our Kids@Risk series includes the tagline: "Exploring Washington’s foster care system." The use of the gerund “exploring” is very intentional. Contributor Judy Lightfoot has been writing about at-risk youth for Crosscut for some time. Judy is our resident expert and her stories, past, present and future, will be collected on our new Kids@Risk landing page. Which I encourage you all to frequent and share.

But the other members of our at-risk team, John Stang and Zachariah Bryan, Kate Thompson and I, are relatively new to the subject. I don’t generally like to boast about ignorance, but in this case I believe our collective naivete serves us well. Because it lets us reporters be genuine avatars, if you will, for Crosscut readers. We’re all venturing into this strange, labyrinth of a world together. We bring curiosity, a healthy degree of skepticism and a desire to understand the issues and the inner workings of this world. What is it really like in there?

My hope is that, five months from now, we’ll all come out the other side more knowledgeable, more discerning, more committed — and more equipped to make things better.

* * *

Judy Lightfoot, writer

The question Greg asked me was this: “You've written and reported on these issues for years, what surprises, angers, frustrates you in the latest reporting?”

If the end of all our exploring is “to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time,” as T.S. Eliot wrote, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I looked back over Crosscut’s coverage of at-risk youth. But I was.

I was surprised that the place where all our stories started was the same unspoken truth. It's one that we only recently began to know for the first time in the sense of naming it technically: The growing human being develops social and physical resilience through chemical brain and body changes wrought by sustained personal relationships with caring adults.

Though I didn’t know it in these particular terms, this was the hopeful place where my first story on the subject started — a 2009 piece about homeless teens and teenaged prostitutes learning to be baristas at Street Bean Espresso under the leadership of New Horizons Ministries. What amazing, resourceful people these kids are, despite their painful histories!

My grandmother would have called these kids “ruined.” The stereotype of foster kids — that they’re all damaged by horrific treatment, or else “bad” — is media-reinforced. A friend who learned that I was writing about foster care immediately brought up the latest horror story in the papers about a mistreated child in Olympia (who wasn’t even a foster kid). I’m grateful that Crosscut is publishing a series that will give a larger, truer, more fully human view of children in foster care. 

Foster kids are too often deprived of the strong attachment to a caregiver that, over time, through contact and chemistry, builds the resilience that will let them manage stress in their lives. Without such strong attachments, kids can’t develop the ability to learn, get along with others, work or meet other typical life challenges.

As a society, we’ve been aware of these things since the blossoming of attachment theory in the 1950s. But the knowledge hasn’t much changed how we respond as a society to at-risk youth. Now that neuroscience has discovered physiological evidence behind the psychology of attachment, will the system change? Maybe what Greg called a hodgepodge of miscellaneous projects and programs, built in ad hoc, disconnected ways over time, can finally start coming together into a coherent system organized around the science of how human beings grow.

What would it mean to shape public policy and practice around the goal of “scientifically” fostering resilience in at-risk youth? Building pediatric wellness clinics where impoverished birth-parents could routinely get hands-on practice in strengthening bonds of affection with their kids — maybe through Child-Parent Psychotherapy, or CPP. Routinely teaching foster parents good techniques to manage conflicts with their kids through programs like Oregon psychologist Philip Fisher’s Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care for Preschoolers, which has been shown to improve foster children’s responses to stress. (And so on, through the teenage years.)

Is the new neuroscience just brain candy for the chattering classes? Or will it be grounds for action toward evidence-based reform of an outdated, patchwork system? I hope before my writing life ends, we’ll take system-wide action. To return to Greg's question about what surprises, angers or frustrates me: If system-wide action doesn’t start happening, I’ll be less surprised, and a lot more frustrated and angry.


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