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The Pioneers Podcast is hosted by HeartShare Human Services, a nonprofit supporting and empowering marginalized New Yorkers since 1914.
Today, we are going to talk about solutions addressing childhood trauma with Amelia Franck Meyer, who has served children and families for nearly 30 years.
Amelia is CEO of Alia, a national nonprofit focused on transforming how child welfare is done in the U.S. Amelia is a licensed social worker, among her credentials are two master’s degrees. Amelia is currently enrolled in a doctorate program in organizational change and leadership at USC.
HeartShareNY: Welcome Amelia
Amelia Franck Meyer: Thank you for having me
HeartShareNY: Okay, so we are going to get right into your work. Can you describe what your organization does and the scope of it?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Sure. So, Alia is based in Minnesota, but we work nationally with child welfare leaders to help them to improve their service delivery to children and families in the child welfare system. So, our areas of specialty include really pushing the envelope in innovation and child welfare believing that we could be doing things very differently than we are doing them in our current day based on our new set of knowledge. So, the current system is based on an old set of knowledge and is delivering the outcomes it was set up to deliver which is to keep children safe from additional abuse and neglect once that abuse has occurred. And, we are putting new pressures on the system in prevention and well-being and permanence that the system is not really designed to handle. So, we’re working on pushing the envelope to design a new way of work. A new tool box for helping youths heal from relational trauma, and creating environments where youth and their caregivers thrive. So, that’s a piece of what we do. And then, we also work with nonprofit and public jurisdiction leaders to create a better sense of a culture of well-being and workforce well-being to reduce turnover. Also, in area of permanence to increase rates of discharge to permanence in youths that they serve. And really work with leaders that are interested in improving outcomes to do that based on what we know is the best in our field.
HeartShareNY: That is a lot! I know that you have many different systems that are working together, and that sort of paints a picture of the work that you do. Can you, perhaps, hone in on the foster care system and compare and contrast what the old system looks like, and in your eyes, what the new system looks like?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Sure, depending on how far you go back in the old system, you know when I first started this work nearly 30 years ago, foster care parents were told not to get attached to the youth. That they shouldn’t develop a bond with them. And, foster care was also used in very long term ways. Long term foster care was an acceptable written outcome for youth in care. Believing that as long as they were safe in a home, they were good to go. And, what we have learned since then really is the incredible impact of the breaking of caregiver bonds, and when we move children from home to home to home, how that disrupts their needs for secure nurturing and permanent attachment, which is how children feel safe and thrive. So, it is not enough to just be safe in this home and then that home and then this home and then that home. Children need to have a very secure permanent nurturing bond to a caregiver that says, “I’ve got you’re back no matter what.” And this is why we focus so deeply on permanency, preferably with people who the child knows and loves or to whom they are related, so their family or chosen family. And, so, foster care in the new era will be used very briefly and is intended to be a place where youth can be kept safe, while they heal from relational trauma, while there is an exhaustive search for people who they know and love or to whom they are related. And really, foster care, I believe, to be shifting from treating the child—or helping children learn how to behave—to a new vision of foster care which is really in support of family, in support of parents. So, foster care will be used in the temporary. It will be used to help parents in their times of need so they can stabilize their family in order to be able to keep children safely at home.
HeartShareNY: I was very inspired when you came to talk at one of your trainings and also, the TED Talk in which you described how we really treat children and youth who lived in foster care. And, it really does illuminate the changes that need to take place. What are the challenges that you face in that work to bring about the new model?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Oh, the challenges are numerous. And the vast majority of them are mindset related. There’s the thinking that we have; the unspoken cultural agreements that we have. That children need to learn a lesson, right? That punishment works. Which we know it doesn’t. It exacerbates the behavior, makes it worse. We have a lot of old cultural mind-sets around children: that they should listen because we say so, and that their behavior is willful and intentional. That if you punish a child instead of spoil them, you will get the results that you want. Actually, nurturing is spoiling. That you can spoil a baby—which is actually impossible to do. So, we have this really old set of cultural mindsets around this which really come from this perspective of ‘What’s wrong with them,’ right? So, we look at a child and, you may have heard this from your parents growing up, I know I heard it a lot, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And, that’s the mindset around behaviors we see in children. Really, we need to shift hat mindset towards, ‘What happened to you?’ With an approach of nurturance and empathy, with attention to the care required to develop a secure a bond with a child. That is the new way of thinking that is facing all these old cultural missing mindsets.
HeartShareNY: That is a huge attitude shift. Which I am sure takes many years to implement in one community, let alone many. So, how are you actually going forward with implementing those changes, either within one city or a state? I know that you have more of a national—very ambitious—national scope for your goals. How do we actually implement that?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Well, we are working to develop and innovation cohort of 5-6 jurisdictions around the country who really want to spend time together in a ‘Do Tank.’ How do we begin to apply these actions in a comprehensive way in our system to get results? So, we are actively experimenting and innovating with a group of people who are early adaptors and innovators around the country to do this kind of work in that way. I’ll challenge your comment, just a little bit, if you’ll let me do that graciously.
Amelia Franck Meyer: When you said, “It takes a long time to do that.” Really, I think that it used to take a long time, but with the advent of our connected culture and the assistance of technology, our mental mindsets and our attitudes and our beliefs shift very rapidly. And, I would encourage everyone to think about this idea of what has shifted in our country around some of the cultural mindsets and shifts. Some of the things that are now legal were illegal just a few years ago, and people couldn’t imagine that they would be legal. And, really even if you look just at the last year in our country, the kind of things that are tolerable and acceptable that previously were not. Or, even just the movement of people speaking up about what has happened to them; shedding light on their circumstance. Our change rate is increasing. Where it used to take a long, long time to see changes like that, it is now at a rapid pace. I really believe that we are telling ourselves a story, when we say that it has to take a long time. What we are doing is absolutely urgent. We have 670,000 children a year who come to the attention of the child welfare system, and very likely twice or more of that, children who are suffering at the hands of others who could use support and help in order to thrive. Children who just don’t even come to the light of adults who help. So, really thinking about this idea of change happens quickly when it’s important to us. Change happens quickly when we want it to. Change happens quickly when we develop a sense of urgency around the importance of that change. So, really our work is in having as many people as possible understand what the new way is and why that’s better for kids because a lot of people want to help kids. A lot of people care about kids and think that they are helping when they are going about it in a way that is based on an old set of knowledge. So, it’s really just helping people be a little more aware of what kids need to thrive, and why that’s so important.
HeartShareNY: And, I think you are right with how idea and protests and everything travels at lightning speed. And, you are right: if we challenge ourselves, we don’t have to put everything in a box. It could change a lot more quickly than we anticipate. How are you able to identify those communities and those cohorts who start that implementation? How do you identify those stakeholders?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Well, it’s an application process so they come to us. But, also we hosted a Ten-for-Ten for kids last May which was a gathering of 100 innovators from all over the country. You know, 10 from federal and tribal innovators, 10 from state, 10 from counties, 10 from nonprofits, 10 innovation fellows, 10 philanthropists, 10 people with lived experience, etc. And, part of our beginning place to go is from that cohort of people who applied to be the innovators. It’s a really good place to start. We also have connections all over the country. We’ve done a lot of speaking and training and demonstration projects in child welfare systems around the country. What we are looking for are people who just really are deeply engaged, who come to the trainings, who attend the webinars, who want to know more, do more. Who, in their own jurisdictions are pushing the envelope as far as they can and still are hungry for more. Who say, “We’re trauma informed and it’s not enough.” It is nowhere near enough, now we need the next step of figuring out how we do this differently. So, they tend to find us, as well as us them. These are people, this early group of trailblazers and innovators and early adaptors. They are people who are struggling in their own right and are looking for other people to connect to, to share the journey and learn lessons from.
HeartShareNY: That is definitely inspirational because you know that there are people out there that are doing the same work that you are, and you can all connect on that.
Amelia Franck Meyer: Right.
HeartShareNY: What can our listeners do to enact social change? I know you discussed how we share ideas, I don’t know if that might be part of your thoughts there? How could they help sort of change these attitudes towards trauma and how children heal from it?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Yeah, I think that all of us have a responsibility to share with others what we know children need to thrive. So, speaking up when you see something different. Advocating for children in school setting when little traumas happen all day long as people, as our children, act out the normal and natural responses to what has happened to them and then they are subsequently punished or banished for that. You know, so really speaking up and advocating for children when we see it. Sharing with our friends and neighbors what children need to thrive, voting for people who are pro-child and pro-family who can help to shape policies that help to do that. Donating to organizations that help to advance the wok of helping children thrive. Volunteering at organizations. Mentoring with kids: Big Brother, Big Sister and others. There are so many great organizations doing such great work, so you don’t have to be a foster care parent yourself, although, that’s another way to help. Or offer to do respite care for foster parents. You don’t necessarily have to do the direct work, but even just sharing the mindset, sharing the information, voting in those ways, donating and volunteering in those ways. There are lots of ways to come to the aid of children.
HeartShareNY: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Well, I’ll just add that I am really glad you are doing this. And sharing some of these thoughts and ideas. It’s another way to spread the word, and to help people thing differently about that. We are collecting people who care a lot about this and a lot about kids. We collect people who have figured some things out, or who are curious to learn more and who want to stay in touch too. So, it’s just good to be able to share what we are up to. And, just to make really clear, ALIA’s work is really in convening the innovators. So, it’s not that we have all the answers in the world to this, it’s that we have a piece of it and lots of other people have other pieces. And, when we come together and bring all those pieces together in the collective then we begin to move things forward. We really see ourselves as convening people who care about this. So, I am really optimistic about the future because I meet every day people who just have a fire in their belly to ensure that all children are able to thrive. So, thanks for inviting me and taking the time to do this, too.
HeartShareNY: Absolutely, I am so glad that you could be here. If someone wants to find you, or ALIA, where should they look?
Amelia Franck Meyer: So, our website is AliaInnovations.org. So, our website is there and there’s a place to leave a message there to connect with us. And, we offer webinars periodically on a variety of topics, and we love to connect with people who are interested in learning more or furthering their own work.
HeartShareNY: Wonderful, thank you so much Amelia. I really appreciate your time.
Amelia Franck Meyer: My pleasure, thanks for asking.