What Is the Message Sent to the Children?

                  Pictured: JCPS Board Members Front Row: Chris Brady, Ben Geis and Chris 
                  Kolb, Back Row: Lisa Willner, Linda Duncan, Diane Porter and Stephanie 
                  Horne. 

The Jefferson County Board of Education accepted a deal last night to avoid a full-blown state takeover of the district. You can read more about that action and the deal here:

https://insiderlouisville.com/education/jcps-takes-deal-with-state-to-avoid-hearing-and-potential-takeover/

I have issues with the deal itself: Commissioner Lewis has complete control over 3 particular areas, the power to review and request changes to policies in two other areas, ultimate power and final say over any disputed corrective action plan, and final say over whether the Board can fire the current superintendent. Is this really that different from a full takeover?

I have issues with the way this negotiation process played out – in secret, behind closed doors with no opportunity for stakeholders and voters to have a voice.

But plenty of other folks are giving voice to these concerns, so I won’t do that here. What I have been thinking about today is what message did the board and our superintendent send to the public school children they serve with this decision?

  1. The Superintendent chose job security over the kids.

The deal expressly states that Dr. Pollio cannot be removed by the JCPS Board before 2020 without the permission of the Commissioner. It was stated publicly that the superintendent supported the deal (who wouldn’t support a deal that guarantees your own job?), and at least one board member indicated that Dr. Pollio’s support of the deal was a factor in her decision.

I have been a vocal supporter of Dr. Pollio and many of the positive actions he has taken for the district since he took on the role of superintendent. The development of a racial equity policy, the backpack of success skills program, the formation of a student assignment review advisory committee, his handling of the conflict around a problematic principal at Manual High School, all pointed to a superintendent who was putting the needs of the kids first.

I still maintain that the work that he has done so far has been good for the district and good for our kids. But my trust in him has taken a serious hit. As soon as it was apparent that this deal specifically protects him, he should have stated publicly and to the board, that for him to take a stance on the deal would be a conflict of interest and the board needed to make the decision independent of him. Now, with every action he takes, I will be asking, “Is he doing this for the good of the kids or for himself?” Whether he meant to or not, he has sent the message that job security was more important to him than what was good and right for our students. In doing so, he has broken the community’s trust in him and that will impact his future effectiveness in the job.

  1. Our kids are not worth fighting for.

So many of the quotes I’ve seen praising the deal say that it’s good that we don’t have hearings, that a prolonged legal battle wouldn’t have helped anyone. Really? Why not? If we say we believe that our democratically-elected school board members who live and work in this community are more qualified to make decisions about our district than political appointees who didn’t go to public school, didn’t send their kids to public school, much less a large, urban school district, then shouldn’t we be willing to fight for that to happen?

Sure, it will be difficult, time-consuming and costly. But aren’t our kids worth it? Sure, it may bring to light some unflattering truths about JCPS. Isn’t it important that such things are uncovered and made public so that we can be sure that they are fixed?  Not wanting to deal with the hearings and legal battle is not a good reason to make a deal. It sends the message to our kids that they don’t matter enough to fight for their interests.

  1. It’s not important to stand up for what is right.

It’s important to remember how we got to this place. Kentucky had a highly respected, highly competent Commissioner of Education who worked faithfully for 14 months on the JCPS audit and was prepared to recommend state assistance to help the district.  Then the governor appointed new board members to the Kentucky Board of Education, the majority of whom have no experience with public schools and have ties to the charter school movement. This board removed the commissioner for no stated reason and appointed a new one who also openly supports the charter school movement. He spent 14 days on the job and 2 days in our district before recommending a takeover.  This is politics at its worst. There were clear agendas at play here that have nothing to do with what’s best for our kids.

By even entering into negotiations with the current commissioner, the board validates all of those actions. It sends the message they aren’t willing to make a stand for what is right.  These actions by Bevin, by the state board and by Commissioner Lewis are unjust and just plain wrong. By negotiating with them anyway, the board sent the message to our kids that avoiding messy conflict is more important than standing up for what is right.

These are the messages the JCPS Board sent to our kids this week. I am disappointed and angry and heartbroken by it.

Putting Children’s Needs First

tyson adoption day pic

Last week, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin hired a Florida pastor and his wife as advisers “to provide an assessment of Kentucky’s child welfare system with a focus on laws and policies of the foster care system, the permanent placement and adoption of children within that system, and supports provided to prospective and current foster and adoptive parents.”[1] Among the requirements of their contract is to make recommendations to expedite permanent placement and adoption of children.

As a former foster and adoptive parent with the state of Kentucky, I will be the first to admit that our child welfare system needs all the help it can get. But this hire makes me uncomfortable on several levels. Here are a few of the key questions I have for the governor:

  1. What makes Chris and Alicia Johnson qualified to do this work?

What we have been told about this couple is that Chris is a Christian pastor from Florida, Alicia also participates in ministry at his church, and they have adopted 7 children from foster care. I too, am a Christian pastor who has adopted 4 children from foster care here in Kentucky. I even worked for 6 years with a local children’s agency, and I don’t think I am in any way qualified to serve in a top position to improve the child welfare system in Kentucky. One thing I learned by working in the field is that foster and adoptive parents are only one part of a very complex system that includes social workers, lawyers, judges, children’s agencies, therapists, foster and adoptive families and birth families. As foster and adoptive parents, we don’t fully experience all aspects of the system, nor even necessarily understand all the connections and layers and forces that come into play in the child welfare system. Furthermore, most anyone who does have experience working in the system will tell you the biggest barriers to having a healthy system is that it is currently overburdened and underfunded. Hiring this couple will do nothing to solve the system’s biggest problem.

 

  1. Where are the birth families in this couple’s job description?

The primary goal of foster care is – and should be – reunification of children with their birth families. With the recent controversy surrounding our current presidential administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border, we have been hearing a lot about the trauma that is inflicted on children who are removed from their parents. It doesn’t matter if a potential foster or adoptive family makes more money than a child’s birth family, or lives in a nicer house or is more highly educated than the birth parents, children are still harmed by being removed from their parents. As long as the parents can create a safe home for their children, children are always better off mentally and emotionally if they can stay with their birth family.

 

Because this is true, any healthy child welfare system puts a large portion of its resources into strengthening birth families, working to remove the barriers in their lives that made them unable to care for their children. As the Child Welfare Information Gateway states on its website, this is always the first goal, and requires the implementation of multiple strategies and resources:

 

“When children must be removed from their families to ensure their safety, the first goal is to reunite them with their families as soon as possible. Child welfare agencies implement multifaceted strategies that build on family strengths and address concerns. Such strategies may include family engagement, maintaining family and cultural connections, connecting families to evidence-based services, regular and frequent visits among family members and with the worker, and parent education, among others. Returning children home often requires intensive, family-centered services to support a safe and stable family. Services should be tailored to each family’s circumstances and must address the issue(s) that brought the child and family into the child welfare system.”[2]

 

If reunification is always the first and preferred goal of foster care, why is this completely absent from Governor Bevin’s job description for the advisers he has hired to help improve the system? (And why is nobody in the legislature or in the leadership of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services calling him on it?)

 

  1. Where is the emphasis on the needs of the children?

Whenever Matt Bevin talks about wanting to improve foster and adoptive care in Kentucky, he talks about “fast-tracking” adoption, reducing red tape, making it easier and quicker for people to adopt children. All of these priorities center the needs of the adoptive families over and above the needs of the children.

Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to make it “easy” to adopt a child? Particularly when you consider the fact that children in foster care have all been through at least the one trauma of being removed from their parents and in many cases multiple other traumas as well. As a parent who has adopted children from foster care, I can tell you, it is not easy to parent children impacted by trauma. It requires deep commitment, much training, and a willingness to put the child’s needs ahead of one’s own.

How exactly should the process become faster?

  • By reducing the amount of training parents have to undergo? This would essentially result in children being adopted by people who are less prepared to handle the challenges of parenting children from foster care.
  • By requiring fewer forms or background checks or less complicated home studies? Adoption is a life-time commitment and people who want to adopt should have to “jump through hoops” so that the state can be as sure as possible that children are going to a stable, healthy home.
  • By decreasing the amount of time a birth parent has to make the changes needed to have their children returned? While birth parents absolutely do need to be held accountable, they should also be given ample opportunity to get their children back – because whenever that is possible, it is better for the child’s well-being.

Even in cases when a child’s parental rights have already been terminated, sometimes the child needs more time before they are ready to be adopted. Our oldest son was placed with us after parental rights had been terminated and we had originally set a schedule for adoption six months after placement. We ended up delaying that five more months because it was clear that he wasn’t ready. His needs took precedent over our desire to just get the process completed. When undue emphasis is placed on speeding up the adoption process, we run the risk of not acting in a child’s best interest.

This hire by the governor and the goals he expresses about improving the child welfare system raise many questions that so far, no one has pushed him to answer. I had one person say to me recently, “it feels like it has become a form of human trafficking.”  When the primary focus of the child welfare system becomes the adoptive and foster parents, instead of the children and their birth families, we run the risk of creating a system that trafficks children from birth families to adoptive families, without considering what is best for the child. Yes, our child welfare system in Kentucky needs to be better. But, Governor, as we seek to improve it, let’s make sure the children’s needs come first in all that we do.

 

 

[1] https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2018/08/03/kentucky-adoption-advisers-salaries-contracts/896841002/?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=dlvr.it

[2] https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/permanency/reunification/

Courage, Vulnerability and Connection

both families

 

“The special courage it takes to experience true belonging is not just about braving the wilderness, it’s about becoming the wilderness. It’s about breaking down the walls, abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt…We’re going to need to intentionally be with people who are different from us. We’re going to have to sign up, join and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness.”[1]

  • Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

My 20-year-old son died two weeks ago. He died of an accidental gunshot wound. Someday I may write about that – our country’s sick fascination with guns and what it is doing to us – but today is not that day. Today, I want to talk about this quote from Brene Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness. That may seem somewhat out of left field, but if you bear with me it will eventually make sense (I hope).
I first read Brown’s book at the beginning of 2018. It had a profound effect on me, as you can see from this facebook post:

brene brown post

I wanted everyone in this country to read it, because I think she points to a way through the deep division, hate speech, general lack of empathy, and increasing tendency to dehumanize one another that is fast coming to define us as a nation. The quote above is a pretty good summary of her overall thesis.

We find true belonging and community, not when we surround ourselves with people who look like we do and think like we do, but when we stay true to our own values and ideals, while also entering into real (not surface) relationships with people whose values and ideals differ from our own. Only when we see “the other” as truly human, as having intrinsic human value equal to our own, while also staying true to ourselves, do we truly find a sense of belonging in the world. The more deeply we come to understand those who are different from ourselves, the more strong our own sense of self becomes, and the more we are able to be who we are, without tearing down someone else.

So she had me already. Then, in the week of Tyson’s death, I lived what she is talking about here: breaking down walls, intentionally being with people different from myself, listening, having hard conversations, looking for joy, sharing pain, being more curious than defensive, and seeking moments of togetherness. And let me tell you, I couldn’t have gotten through that week any other way.

We adopted Tyson from foster care when he was nine years old. His story and his birth family’s story are not my stories to tell, so I won’t go into detail about any of that. But I will say, after he turned 18, he reconnected with his birth family and that ended up being an extremely positive thing for his life. By the time his birth mother reached out to me about seeing him, it was clear that she had made tremendous strides in her life, and to this day, I am in awe of her strength and her ability to turn her life around so completely.

She and I come from very different life experiences, but ever since she came back into Tyson’s life we have shared the connection of our love for him. She and I rarely saw each other over the past few years, but we talked occasionally and texted somewhat regularly. That connection, however tenuous it might have seemed given our differences, was strong enough that when she received the news about Tyson being shot, I was her first phone call. And so began a painful journey together that forged what I know will be lasting bonds between not just she and I, but also my husband and other kids, and her other sons, and Tyson’s extended birth family.

The thing is, this whole experience could have gone very differently and much more painfully. What if, when she called me out of the blue in 2015, I hadn’t been willing to listen to her story and instead threw up walls between us? What if she hadn’t had the courage in the first place to make that phone call and be vulnerable with me without even knowing me? What if all of us who descended on that hospital for 3 days straight had been defensive with one another instead of curious to know these other people who Tyson also loved? What if Lorrie and Kerry and I hadn’t been willing to have the hardest of conversations at one o’clock in the morning in an ICU waiting room about the realities of the situation, next steps, arrangements, etc. so that we could make the decisions together rather than fighting each other for control?

Think about it. Those three days at the hospital could have been a nightmare for everyone. Just imagine the scenarios that could have taken place with two families who refused to be open to one another or accept each other staking their claims to this young man whose life was ending too soon, instead of supporting each other, grieving together and loving each other. I will be forever grateful that is something we didn’t have to find out.

Brene Brown says that “the foundation of courage is vulnerability – the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”[2] I believe all of us who spent those three days at the hospital together showed tremendous courage in the way we chose to be vulnerable with one another. And I also found it to be a sacred experience. My daughter Grace said, “After all this pain and grieving, Tyson brought us together with people we now get to call family that love him as much as we do, and for that I am so thankful.”

I too, am so thankful for the gift of the relationships that emerged from an otherwise deeply painful time. But even beyond the sheer gratitude of the experience, I also feel compelled to share our story to illustrate the truth of Brene Brown’s powerful words. I am just not sure what is going to become of our country if we can’t find the courage to be vulnerable with strangers, to break down walls, learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain, be more curious than defensive, and seek moments of togetherness.

Instead of continuing to dehumanize those who are different from ourselves, we must begin to “rehumanize” the strangers among us. At some point we have to learn how to be in relationship with people we can’t necessarily relate to. It is easy for an adoptive family to simply write off a birth parent who had her children taken away, to dehumanize that person as less than worthy. It would also be easy for a birth parent to feel resentful of an adoptive parent, for taking on a role they felt was rightfully theirs, for having years of experiences with their child that they missed out on. But if we had done this with each other, Tyson would have missed out on reconnecting with a part of himself and we would have missed out on knowing some truly wonderful people.

Brene Brown said, “An experience of collective pain does not deliver us from grief or sadness; it is a ministry of presence. These moments remind us that we are not alone in our darkness and that our broken heart is connected to every heart that has known pain since the beginning of time.”[3]

In those days at the hospital spent with Tyson’s birth family, we engaged in a ministry of presence with one another. My broken heart connected with Lorrie’s broken heart. Today it connects with the broken hearts of immigrant mothers whose children are being ripped away from them at the border, it connects with the mothers of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and every other mother who has lost her child. That doesn’t deliver me from grief or sadness, but it reminds me that I’m not alone. And it reminds me of my deep human connection to every mother on this planet. Regardless of race, class, nationality, culture, language or any other difference that may separate us, we are one human family. And we need to start acting like it. The way we begin doing that is by taking a seat at the table, joining in, learning to listen, having hard conversations, looking for joy, sharing pain, being more curious than defensive, and seeking moments of togetherness. It isn’t easy, but I am here to tell you, it is absolutely worth it

[1] Brown, Brene. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and Standing Alone. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017), 37.

[2] Brown, Brene. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and Standing Alone. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017), 144.

[3] Brown, Brene. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and Standing Alone. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017), 134.

“If they have parents”

Let’s talk about this quote:

“We are striving to make the right decision in a loaded situation, and I’m not hearing from the parents (if they have parents) of the poor black, white and brown kids in the West End and elsewhere who are leaving the third grade unable to read. Their fate is sealed, and they seem to have no one in the system expressing any concern for them.”

-Ben Cundiff, Kentucky Board of Education Member in an email response to a supporter of a state takeover of JCPS

For some context on this quote,  you can read this article from the Courier-Journal:
https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/education/2018/05/23/kentucky-education-board-jcps-takeover-emails/629294002/

Now there are several parts of this quote that we could talk about like:

  • Exactly why it’s a loaded situation – maybe because a highly respected and competent Commissioner of Education who was not going to recommend a takeover of JCPS was forced out by Cundiff himself and his counterparts on the board, and his replacement came in and spent 2 days in the district and changed the recommendation. (Note: it was announced today that Dr. Pruitt, the previous commissioner, was just elected the next president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a board that works to improve education in 16 states – this is who Cundiff and company fired for no reason.)
  • Or why he’s not hearing from parents of poor children – maybe because they don’t have as easy access to the internet as those of us who are privileged do, or because they are busy working more than 1 minimum wage job to support their family, or any number of other reasons that don’t mean they don’t care about their children.
  • Or the statement that “their fate is sealed” which essentially reduces a child’s entire worth to whether or not they can read by the end of third grade.

While all of those things are valid points to discuss, I want to talk about those four words in parentheses: (if they have parents)

Really?! This is a blatant stereotype with both race and class undertones that should not go unchallenged – especially when it is espoused by one of the people guiding the education system in the state of Kentucky.

  • It perpetuates the myth of absent fathers in black families, in spite of several studies that show black fathers are more involved with their kids on a daily basis than fathers from other racial groups. A Center for Disease Control study showed that 70% of black fathers bathed diapered and dressed their kids every day, compared to 60% of white fathers and 45% of Latino fathers and 35% of black fathers who lived with their children said they read to them daily compared to 30% of white dads and 22% of Latino dads.[1]
  • It perpetuates various stereotypes about black mothers that have absolutely no basis in fact that author Denene Miller summarizes this way: “we didn’t have our children on purpose, that our children were made by mistake, that we don’t love them the way that other mothers love their children, or that we’re not interested in caring for them in the way that other mothers care for their children.”[2]Ben Cundiff, just how many black mothers do you know personally? Because the ones I know don’t fit these stereotypes. I am a former foster parent who has cared for children taken away from their black mothers and even those mothers whose children were removed for good reasons loved their children and wanted to care for them. But I know even more black mothers who are extremely attentive and intentional in their parenting. And some of them even live in the West End.
  • It reinforces the stereotype that poor people are inattentive and ineffectual parents who don’t care about their children’s education, when in fact Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post notes multiple studies that show “poor people, demonstrating impressive resilience, value education just as much as wealthy people (Compton-Lilly, 2003; Grenfell & James, 1998) despite the fact that they often experience schools as unwelcoming and inequitable.”[3]While there may be multiple barriers in their lives that prevent them from being present at school, studies show that is not a reliable indicator of their commitment or involvement in their children’s education.

Cundiff’s flippant suggestion that these poor kids from the West End probably do not have parents is exactly the kind of harmful bias that reinforces low expectations and feeds low self-esteem in students of color and students who live in poverty. And it is being openly expressed by someone who is seeking to exert control over our school district. Stereotypes and biases matter. As Valerie Strauss notes, “No amount of resources or pedagogical strategies will help us provide the best opportunity for low-income students to reach their full potentials as learners if we do not attend, first, to the stereotypes, biases, and assumptions we have about them and their families.”[4]  So perhaps Ben Cundiff needs to work on himself a little more before he tries to work on our district.

 

[1] Sargent, Antwaun. (2014). “6 Actual Facts Shatter the Biggest Stereotypes of Black Fathers.” https://mic.com/articles/90965/6-actual-facts-shatter-the-biggest-stereotypes-of-black-fathers#.HdOsvFwA9

[2] Miller, Denene. (2018). “Assumptions about Black Mothers.” https://www.kidsinthehouse.com/all-parents/family-life/racial-and-cultural-differences/assumptions-about-black-mothers

[3]Strauss, Valerie. (2013). “Five Stereotypes about Poor Families and Education.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/28/five-stereotypes-about-poor-families-and-education/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7d7e793e63c7

[4] Strauss, Valerie. (2013). “Five Stereotypes about Poor Families and Education.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/28/five-stereotypes-about-poor-families-and-education/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7d7e793e63c7