Monday, March 20, 2023

Op Ed by Jonathan Thomas

As a former foster youth and a person of color, I am concerned that efforts to renew a federal law that exists to protect youth from abuse have repeatedly been delayed. Concerns have been expressed by biological parents and their allies that foster care systems demonize poverty and promote white supremacy and classism. The voices that are missing in national discussions regarding the renewal of this bill are those of young people who have experienced familial abuse personally.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) provides federal funding to states to prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect. It requires states to facilitate mandated reporting and procedures to respond to ensure children’s safety. This federal bill expired in 2015 and is still awaiting renewal.

Foster care is imperfect and many aspects of it can be improved. However, without foster care, my siblings and I would have continued to experience abuse without intervention. As a child, I often wished that someone would stop by my house and witness the abuse that my siblings and I were experiencing. I hear stories about other kids whose summers were filled with sunny day adventures. My summers were filled with abuse and fear.

Being placed in foster care created a seismic shift from the environment of my childhood. It gave me a new understanding that a home could be physically and emotionally safe. It provided me with a different mindset about relationships and what it means to be a man.

Claims have been made by family rights advocates that Children’s Services has a hidden agenda to surveil and regulate families of color, for the purpose of taking more youth into care. What I’ve witnessed is the opposite: Within the overworked foster care system, young people of color must often report their abuse many times before their voices are heard.

The abuse that took place within my family was deeply ingrained and life-threatening. We were deliberately insulated from authorities by my father, and told, “What happens in the home stays in the home.” It was my sister who found the courage to tell a teacher what was happening. Even after doing so, she had to take the next step and run away, to further demonstrate the danger of our living situation.

It’s important to note that disproportionality among races within the foster care system exists -- but it does not exist within a vacuum. Our nation’s housing, education, health care and policing systems are overshadowed by a history of racial inequities and racist practices. Addressing those structural issues will help improve outcomes for families of color. Linking families with services and resources can assist in many circumstances. But, in situations of abuse, the safety of youth can never be sacrificed. 

As a survivor of abuse, I want to emphasize that children and teens of all races and ethnicities deserve to be protected. It is vitally important that youth safety remains first and foremost. Experiencing abuse as a child doesn’t just impact your present – without intervention, it can undermine your future. At the very time as a child when you are developing autonomy, the abusive surroundings are robbing it from you.

When it comes to national conversations regarding the renewal of the CAPTA legislation, there is one more voice that hasn’t and cannot be heard: The voices of children and teens who have lost their lives due to abuse.

A 2021 study by Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies revealed that Cuyahoga County’s “rate of confirmed abuse or neglect-related child deaths is significantly higher than the national average.”

In my role as a Youth Ambassador for the OHIO YAB (Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board), I will continue to advocate for safeguards to protect today’s young people. My goal is to leave a legacy of better and ongoing protections for those who experience abuse as a child.

~ Jonathan Thomas credits the foster-care system with turning around his life and that of his siblings after they suffered abuse as children and were removed into foster care. He currently serves as a youth ambassador for the Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board, a statewide organization of youth ages 14 to 21 who’ve experienced foster care.

Friday, February 03, 2023

This Issue is An Elephant

My early morning thoughts after reading about youth spending nights in Franklin County Children Services offices...

Sometimes complex issues like this one can be like the story about the Seven Blind Mice and the Elephant. In that story, one mouse touches the elephant’s foot, goes back to his fellow mice and tells them it’s a pillar. The next day, another mouse goes out, touches the elephant’s trunk and reports back to tell them that, no, it’s a snake. The following day, another mouse touches one of the tusks and says it’s a spear. And so on. 

Until finally one brave mouse has the courage and the fortitude to explore the entire elephant. She doesn’t just see the issue from one angle. She runs up one side and down the other. She studies it from top to bottom, and from end to end. And then reports back that the Something is: “As sturdy as a pillar, as supple as a snake, as wide as a cliff, as sharp as a spear…” and all the other descriptions. Because that Something is an Elephant. 

This is the story that comes repeatedly to my mind when it comes to this issue, the underlying factors, and thinking outside the box when it comes to solutions to effectively address it. 

Because 'Elephant in the Room' is that: 

  • This is not a new crisis, because it’s shedding light on a pervasive one. This issue has existed in Franklin County for years, and youth for whom they couldn’t find immediate placements for were often sent to Pomegranate. 
  • Reducing the number of group homes has lessened the number of safe options for youth who need placement. While group homes have fallen far out of favor, they are preferable to spending nights in county offices or being sent unnecessarily to residential facilities. 
  • It’s always been challenging to find good foster parents for teens and tweens, and post-COVID, foster care recruitment is more difficult than ever before. 

  • There is too much focus on trying to label the youth themselves as troubled, and describing their “behavior" rather than the fact that it’s the situation itself that is traumatizing. A teenage girl spends a series of nights in a county office. She is terrified and uncertain of what will happen next. A supervisor says the girl has “taken over this room.” The police are called when the girl begins to mention self-harm or lashing out at others. The situation itself calls for a trauma informed response and a compassionate one. 

  • County child welfare agencies are undergoing a staffing crisis. The article quotes an FCCS supervisor saying: “We have no staff. We have no one. I can’t say that enough.” Likewise Hamilton County has a 40% vacancy rate for child welfare caseworkers. During COVID, Cuyahoga County pulled workers off the child abuse hotline to supervise children in the building. 

  • Ohio was the last state in the nation to make police and sheriffs mandated reporters, and it sounds like there is definitely a need for follow up training. The mention in the article of two “use of force reports” from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, including one involving an 11 year old, was troubling. But it was encouraging to reach about Officer Brooke Cano from Whitehall Police who has a passion for helping children who are staying at the FCCS offices. She has led by example by taking additional classes to learn how to de-escalate. When transporting youth, Officer Cano often plays their favorite music. It’s not surprising that body cam footage recorded teens becoming calmer after their conversations with Cano. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

Youth Leaders Discuss Safety Concerns for Cuyahoga County Youth

Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell

On Wednesday, January 11, 2023, Cieria Roman, Raven Grice and Lisa Dickson participated in a virtual meeting with Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell and Policy Advisor LeVine Ross to discuss safety concerns related to Cuyahoga County youth, especially those that have been spending the nights in the Jane Edna Hunter building on a regular basis since 2018.

This was preceded by a prior meeting with Councilman Dale Miller, during which he recommended that we speak with Councilwoman Conwell.

Ohio youth leaders shared their concerns and recommendations, and how important that it is to have foster care youth and alumni at the table. Because it is our lived experience that brings a sense of urgency. Today's youth and young adults often come up with creative solutions that others might not think of...

As Cieria said, “We come ready, we come with our hearts, we come with solutions. These are our brothers and sisters and this is our legacy.”

We also shared:

Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell followed up by sending a message of thanks, and some ideas for next steps forward. 

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Ohio Foster Care Youth and Alumni Advocacy in 2023

In 2022... 

  • Ohio's very first Youth Ombudsman's Office was created. 
  • Ohio foster youth helped design a training pathway to aid foster parents in supporting youth with Life Skills and the essential elements of interdependence. 

2023 will be a year of continued advocacy for...

  • Concrete supports for former foster youth after the age of 21.
  • Better safeguards for youth who run away from abusive situations, and continued conversations with the Cuyahoga County Council.

Friday, December 09, 2022

On the Eve of My Birthday

To the tune of: 12 Days of Christmas 

On the eve of my birthday, I am grateful for:
  • One loving husband
  • Foster youth and alumni 
  • Amazing allies 
  • Supportive organizations 
  • Achieved legislation 
  • Today's youth!!!
  • Resource navigation 
  • Impact on the nation*
  • Safeguarding runaways
  • Purpose to our days
  • Ongoing work
  • And the hopes that we have for 2023...

Sunday, November 27, 2022