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5 grownup heroes of foster care

Foster care's no picnic, but this collection of public policy wonks and legal activists is working to get kids in foster care the support they need.
Foster care's no picnic, but this collection of public policy wonks and legal activists is working to get kids in foster care the support they need.

There are hundreds of people working in Washington state’s foster care “system.” From lawmakers and lawyers to advocates, lobbyists, therapists, caseworkers, foster parents and, of course, the foster kids themselves. As part of our Kids@Risk series, we occasionally spotlight certain people whose commitment and contributions — the latter often unsung — have helped to make the state’s foster care system more responsive, more effective and way more compassionate. Here are five policymakers whose experience, perseverance and powers of persuasion are making positive change.   

 

Laurie Lippold, Public Policy Director at Partners for Our Children

Laurie Lippold grew up all over the Midwest. Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, you name it. She earned a masters degree in social work from the University of Chicago in the early 1980s and headed to Seattle shortly thereafter. Before making the move to the public policy arena, Lippold toiled in the at-risk trenches, helping pregnant teens and teen parents stay in school, foster kids face the trauma they experienced and prospective foster and adoptive parents get licensed. She detoured into the public policy arena in the early '90s, when she helped create a way for adult adoptees to get anonymized information about their biological parents.

Lippold found that she really enjoyed the process of building coalitions, and educating lawmakers and staff with the data and perspectives they needed to make informed policy decisions. Something she’s been doing now for, well, a long time. “I’m not a winer and diner,” says Lippold about her approach to making legislative change. “It’s all about what can we do to improve outcomes for the more vulnerable kinds of families we tend to focus on. I have the best shot at doing that if I have good information and have developed relationships so we can have discussions about what might work.”

Lippold’s approach has led to important changes in the areas of adoption (the confidential intermediary law she helped with was passed in the early 1990s), child welfare and public assistance. She was involved in the 2013 passage of the new statewide Family Assessment Response which, when appropriate, offers support services to help families stay together rather than removing kids from their homes.

 

Casey Trupin, Coordinator for the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services

Tikkun olam is Casey Trupin’s modus operandi. The Jewish phrase means “repairing the world,” and in his work with homeless and foster youth at Seattle’s Columbia Legal Services, Trupin has been doing his part – one at-risk kid at a time. Social justice is the Trupin family business. Both of his grandfathers were lawyers, who worked for civil and workers’ rights during the McCarthy era. The topic, particularly as it concerned young people, was nightly fodder at the Trupin dinner table. His parents — yup, both of them — are child psychologists.

So it's not surprising that Trupin dove in too, working with Seattle’s homeless kids as a college Vista volunteer. After graduating from the UW, he traveled to Latin America to see how other countries and communities handled homeless youth. When he came back to Seattle to start law school, he also helped found Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington.

As a lead attorney in the infamous 1998 Braam foster care case, Trupin has spent 14 years trying to make the state’s foster care system safe and accountable. That effort “has started to yield some significant and important changes that had eluded the system for decades,” says Trupin. Among them, better early mental health and education screening, more frequent visits by caseworkers and lower caseloads.

There’s still a ways to go — especially when it comes to protecting the rights (and interests) of kids in foster care and the juvenile justice system. Trupin is a strong advocate for providing attorneys for foster kids, and for sealing certain juvenile records. “We think holding all their records open to the public for an eternity will somehow make us safer,” he says. In fact, it sentences youthful offenders to a lifetime of trouble finding jobs and apartments, necessities that make their lives successful and “are critical for our economy and our safety.”

 

State Representative Mary Helen Roberts, 21st District

The point at which Mary Helen Roberts got involved with children’s issues was “the point at which I became a parent,” she says. That would have been 1983, when Roberts, then 30-something, gave birth to twin girls. She was drawn to teenagers — especially those who were aging out of the state’s foster care system and whose parents were in jail. It didn’t take long for her to realize how much those two groups overlapped.

“Teenagers have so much ‘I’m so grown up’ bluster, but they’re not ready to be on their own and the extent to which we were forcing that to happen concerned me,” says Roberts, who has championed the rights of children since she was elected to the state legislature in 2004.

One of her first successes in Olympia was providing healthcare (as in Medicaid benefits) to 18-year-olds who had aged out of foster care. In the most recent session, she was one of the lead sponsors of House Bill 1302, which extended eligibility for all foster care benefits from age 18 to 21. She plans to extend that umbrella to the last two groups of teens — those with medical conditions and those working at least 80 hours a month — in 2014.

What has frustrated Roberts most in her 10 years as a teen advocate? “The assumption that older teenagers are really adults and ready to be on their own and that families are kind of superfluous.” This assumption is most vexing, says Roberts, “in the criminal justice areas, where people think that [teenagers] are making adult decisions and therefore should be treated like adults.”

 

Jim Theofelis, Executive Director, Seattle’s Mockingbird Society

Jim Theofelis doesn’t like talking about himself. Maybe it’s the 21 years he spent as a therapist in private practice — listening, mostly to children and adolescents. Theofelis was 20 years old and fresh out of the Navy in 1977, when he enrolled at Seattle Central Community College and volunteered for the street outreach team at Youth Advocates, a small group serving Seattle’s street kids. He spent a lot of time at a doughnut shop on the corner of First and Pike, where on any given night some 200 street kids would be hanging around the swirl of prostitutes and drug dealers.

Eventually, he became Youthcare’s Director of Clinical programs, then director of King County’s Mental Health Clinic and then a private practice therapist, all the while working with troubled kids — foster kids, homeless kids, kids in jail, on drugs, in crisis.

In 2001, with a $50,000 donation and three homeless teenage partners who, among them, had cycled through 100 foster homes, he founded The Mockingbird Society. Mockingbird used the personal experiences of foster kids and families to design and advocate for reform. The organization now has 23 staffers, who manage foster programs across the state, including the innovative Mockingbird Family Model, which creates foster care neighborhoods that function as extended families for kids in foster care. Theofelis is most proud of the way Mockingbird has made sure that policymakers “are informed by the voices of young people who have experienced the successes and failures of the child welfare system.” The challenge ahead, he says, is making sure at-risk youth issues get “the same commitment, dedication and resources that our transportation, education and prison systems receive.”

 

State Representative Ruth Kagi, Democrat 32nd District

Everybody in the child advocacy business knows that if you want something done in Olympia, you call Ruth Kagi. With five (now grown) kids of her own, Kagi has made it her business to improve the lot of Washington’s children since she was elected in 1999. “I came to the legislature to advocate for kids,” she says. “That's why I ran.”

One of Kagi’s first bills directed the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to keep foster kids in their schools whenever possible. Such normalizing policies, says Kagi, along with placing foster kids with relatives or making sure they get to see their siblings “help children stay connected to the people they know and love.”

Kagi is most excited about the state’s new Family Assessment Response program (FAR), which is designed to support families in need so they can care for their children. FAR will launch as a pilot program in Aberdeen, Lynnwood and Spokane on January 1. Child neglect is the most common reason for a call to Child Protective Services. Under FAR, caseworkers responding to these calls will now “assess” the situation and, once they determine that children are safe, connect the family with support services — all in the interest of keeping families together.

States with FAR programs “have seen reduced caseloads, improved child safety and much higher engagement by the community in helping these families,” says Kagi, who first started working on FAR legislation in 2007. "It lay fallow for several years, but the time was right when I introduced the bill two years ago," she says. "I'm very proud of the change this will bring to child welfare practice."

Photos by Allyce Andrew. Go here for more of Crosscut's Kids@Risk coverage.

  

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5 grownup heroes of foster care

About the Authors & Contributors

Mary Bruno

Mary was Crosscut's Editor-in-Chief and Interim Publisher. In more than 25 years as a journalist, she has worked as a writer, editor and editorial director for a variety of print and web publications, including Newsweek, Seattle Weekly and ABCNEWS.com. Her book, An American River, is an environmental memoir about growing up along New Jersey's Passaic.