We all can do better for Iowa’s children and families

We all can do better for Iowa’s children and families

By Kayla Powell

These remarks were shared at Mid-Iowa Health Foundation’s HealthConnect Fellowship Launch Celebration on November 18, 2019.

I was asked to speak here today, because like all of you here in this room, I am an advocate for children. My intentionality and passion for advocating for children stems from my own childhood and my own need for advocates.

My story starts when I was born to a drug-addicted, promiscuous and abusive woman who was the product of her own failed childhood. The result of the right needs not being met.

The first few years of my life were spent under abuse and neglect while in my biological mother’s and her sister’s care. I finally was placed into foster care and was adopted into a family a week before I turned 7.

This was supposed to be my permanent shot at a loving and caring family. This, however, was not the case.

At the age of 14, this family had me removed. I spent the remainder of my adolescence in foster homes, institutions, and shelters. I aged out of the system on my high school graduation day at the age of 18, exiting into homelessness.

I spent the summer after aging out and before college move-in day on couches of some of the kindest but most troubled people or in my car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. I went to college, not because I was ready to get an education, because if you think of Maslow Hierarchy of needs, my own basic needs weren’t being met. I went to college, because I need somewhere to live, a bed to sleep on, a dresser to put my clothes in, and a door I was responsible for locking.

Once my own basic needs of food and shelter were met, I began to thrive. I made personal and professional relationships with wonderful people and I began to be just Kayla, a college kid. Not Kayla, the foster kid.

I used to say the system failed me, but I’m no longer content with that. People make up systems. People control and protect systems. Many people failed me as a child.

I choose to do this work because I believe every child—no matter their experiences, their childhoods, the lack of initial opportunities—deserve the absolute best the world can offer. No child is too traumatic to be loved and cared for. I believe strong communities empower strong families. And I believe, our world, our state, has the people with the capacity and skills to shift narratives for children, for all children.

I want to be a part of that.

I choose to use my lived experiences to do the best that I can. Currently, I am my YMCA’s Youth Director, where I oversee all school-age programming, social-emotional initiatives, diversity, equity and inclusion work, and community engagement. I also do child welfare advocacy. Federally, I get to work with the government to collect data on older youth in foster care and I get to help states and stakeholders figure out how best to collect that data and use it to better outcomes. Nationally, I get to advocate for new and better policies to ensure all youth are getting the narrative they deserve. I get to help with adolescent brain science work, so teenagers in foster care aren’t being punished just for being teenagers. On the state level, I get to work with others to ensure that Iowa has the best practices and policies in place to ensure that all youth in foster care, especially older youth, are being heard, seen and their needs are being met. Locally, I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate for three teenagers in the child welfare system, ensuring that they find the permanency, the family they deserve. 

So I am here today, with all of you, joining this brave movement towards a system of people who value well-being for all children. And when reflecting on the things that I truly wanted everyone here, in this space in this moment, to understand, I came up with 3 things.

First, we must confront and disrupt status-quo.

Status-quo practices, status-quo interventions, status-quo outcomes. It is dangerous and it is not productive. In order to progress, to change, to actually change narratives for children in Iowa, we have to do things differently. We have to do things better.

Too often, I notice people getting in the routine of the day-to-day. Talking to the same people, in the same way every day. Doing things in the same way every day. Talking about the same things in the same way every day. And it’s not productive. It is keeping children behind. It is failing children.

My childhood is a child of status-quo. Of people doing the same things in the same way year after year. Status-quo is why I was repeatedly placed in unloving foster homes. Why I woke up day after day in institutions when friends my age were going to Prom or to football games. It’s what ultimately contributed to me aging out of the foster care system when I turned 18.

To combat the status quo, we have to understand it. And first, we have to reflect and truly envision what we want for children in Iowa and examine the interventions we are doing now that are and aren’t working.

We must always ask ourselves, “why?” when we do things. And we must keep asking ourselves why until the answer satisfies us and if the answer never satisfies us, we must stop that practice, that approach, that way of thinking.

We must invite those with the lived experience to be a part of the work, and not just on focus groups, but part of redesigned systems and structures that actually work for people.

And we simply have to stop settling. One of my CASA cases just closed last month because the child was able to remain in the home of her grandmas for a year. This child doesn’t do well in school, gets into fights often, has been through so much trouble, but grandma isn’t taking her to therapy appointments. They fight constantly and grandma lives on $800 a month and they live in a small, one-bedroom apartment together. Did we create good for this child? Did we ensure that this child will end the generational cycle? No, we didn’t. So why are we settling?

Second, diversity, inclusion, and equity has to be a priority in all the work that all of us do.

We all have different dimensions of diversity that help define who we are. I am a married, young, straight, white woman with a college degree who lives in rural Iowa. Those are my dimensions and they play a huge role in how I am perceived and how I am treated. We must understand that everyone has different needs, and in order to meet those needs, we have to truly understand those needs and stop these cookie cutter approaches to living, breathing human beings. 

Equity is essential, and it simply means tearing down barriers, providing children what they need to succeed so all people have equal opportunities, thriving childhoods and the future they desire.

Geographically, we know people in rural Iowa aren’t getting the best mental health services they deserve. We know children with disabilities in rural Iowa are making doctor’s appointments a year ahead of time and travelling almost two hours just to see a doctor with that specialty.

We know that racially, our state does not treat kids of color the same as white kids. We know kids of color do not have the same narratives as white kids. We know we are not giving them the childhood, the narrative and the opportunities they deserve. Using an equity lens is absolutely critical when making decisions, policy and practice changes, staffing and hiring decisions. We must all, personally, reflect on our own role in this.

As child advocates are we ensuring that we ourselves are reaching out and connecting with people who are different than us to grow appreciation and understanding? Are we attending meetings and events that expose us to different communities? Are we asking real questions to get at real results? Do we consume a variety of different media? No matter the work you do with children, prioritizing diversity, inclusion and equity must be a part of the daily work, personally and professionally.

Lastly, and I think most importantly, we must value transformational relationships over transactional.

Last summer, I was introduced to a man at a conference that opened me up to a whole new way of thinking and doing. His name is Dr. Shawn Ginwright, and I encourage everyone in this room to look him up. He is a true champion for children, and he does a lot of work around transactional vs. transformational relationships. 

Transactional relationships are one-sided, where each person is in for themselves. They are impersonal and they lack transparency. These are often the relationships professional members of our society hold with their consumers. These are often the relationships social workers hold with foster youth. But what we know is that they don’t work. 

What does work is transformational relationships. Transformational relationships involve what are known as empathy exchanges, where one person shares something personal about themselves and the other person does the same. This is how bonds and connections are formed. Transparency and equity are necessary, and in transformational relationships, both people know that the other cares and trusts them.

Too often in our society today, people are worried about crossing boundaries and they somehow believe in two extremes. You can still have transformational relationships and be professional. 

When I was a teenager, I had one worker who showed up for me every Saturday morning without fail. She texted me when she woke up to let me know that, yes, she is still coming, because she understood my trauma and knew that affirmation was important to me.

No matter where I moved, she would follow. At one point, she was travelling two hours one way to see me on a Saturday morning. And when she showed up to see me, she wasn’t on her phone. She wasn’t shuffling through papers or asking me strategic questions to make her reports easier to write. She talked to me like a human being.

She didn’t show up to just ask me questions about myself, which is one thing I absolutely hated about being a kid in the system. Everyone always wants to talk about you and only you. She told me about herself. That she was a wife of a dairy farmer but didn’t even like cows. She would tell me what her husband and her were doing over the weekend.

One time, we went to Goodwill together and she bought a coat. Later that night, she texted me to tell me she found $5 in one of the pockets, so she essentially got a coat for free and was so excited about it. It was little things like that that made all the difference, and she was the first adult in my life that I completely trusted, that I felt actually cared about me genuinely. Yes, she was my worker, but she never crossed boundaries to the post it was unhealthy and because of that, I am here today. I am successful today.

Everyone deserves an adult like that, deserves multiple adults like that. 

People often ask me why I was able to become the person I am with the childhood I have. Scientifically, it’s because of the relationships I had, and currently, have that created protective factors and resiliency. But I’m not healed of my childhood. I struggle with the effects of trauma.

I am sensitive and critical. There is one part of the year where I literally lay in bed for multiple days straight and don’t get up except to go to the bathroom. I have to be super intentional with my relationships and address mental models in my head that are so natural because of my trauma.

So while, yes, people can absolutely be successful and still struggle and people who do go through trauma can still be functional members of society, we still must do everything we can to prevent it. Helping a child get through really tough stuff is necessary and critical, but so is creating communities and supports and families that ensure that a child doesn’t have to go through that really tough stuff.

I worry that trauma is becoming normalized. I worry that adversity is becoming normalized. We have to find ways to prevent it. 

So with all of that, I challenge all of you in this room to envision the outcomes and narratives you believe all children deserve and reflect on what is and isn’t working. Disrupt what isn’t working.

I challenge all of you here to personally and professionally make a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and ensure that all people feel seen and heard and that we are all doing everything we can to remove barriers.

I challenge each of you in here to value transformational relationships and begin practicing them with the children you serve, with the people you work with.

And I urgently challenge all of you to begin inviting the voices of those that are affected by our systems, our interventions, our work, to the table to begin to help transform it to meet outcomes. Matching lived experience with data and policy is powerful, strategic, and necessary.

All of this room, together, can do better by Iowa children and families.

Thank you, endlessly, for being a part of this fight, for choosing to use your intellect and skill sets to advocate for and with children, for being change makers and being relentless in your approach. Thank you, Suzanne, for your fearless leadership and organizing all of this, empowering all of this connection and understanding.

We cannot work in silos when it comes to meeting needs for children.

Thank you.