Addressing the Family Unit: Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through Adversity, Permanency, and Cross-Sector Collaboration

Addressing the Family Unit: Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through Adversity, Permanency, and Cross-Sector Collaboration

A Catalyst Conversation with Cynthia Garcia Williams

Lead Parent Partner, Sycamores

Catalyst Center held a series of conversations with diverse providers and trauma survivors from varied sectors to discuss how to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), human-centered approaches to healing, and cross-sector collaboration to mitigate the toxic stress response and curb the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

Tell me about what you do at Sycamores.

My name is Cynthia Garcia Williams. I am a lead parent partner. I work at an STRTP, which is a Short- Term Residential Therapeutic Program, in outstanding California.

I get to work with families and help them to address some of the safety concerns, whether it be the county’s DCFS safety concerns, or probation safety concerns, in regard to having their child back into their home. We also work with some post-adoption families when there's still concerns of safety.

I get to utilize my story. I was hired for my lived experience and working through systems, getting my children back from foster care. You know, I'm also in recovery, I'm a member of the recovery community. And so, I get to utilize these things that seems incredibly painful and toxic at one point, and yet today they're super helpful and healing.

How do your services and coordinated treatment help to improve the circumstances of the children and families you serve?

Permanency. We are trying to get youth home. We understand, as many of us in systems do know, that children should not be raised in institutions.

We understand that there is a high number of youth that are raised in systems. Once they reach the two year mark, institutionalization happens. Then they transition out, without any family connection or natural supports, no support system. You know, even if they're not going home, maybe they get here when they're like sixteen and we just are unable to make it happen. They have an 85% chance of ending up in adult systems. We have very high number of youth of color. You know, we want to do everything that we possibly can to send kids home as quickly as possible, or get them the support they need within their community, and if possible, remain in the schools that they came from. We try to go into the community and work with the families within their own community to help them deal with some of the stigma around mental health and/or system involvement. There's a lot of shame around that.

You know, if you have a parent that has a child referred to us because they're on the spectrum, right. It's a very different type of vibe around that person. For example, if you have a parent that comes in because they have abused their child, or they have substance abuse issues, it's like, “Oh, well you caused these problems, right? You've damaged your child.” We try to work through some of that to make sure that families can find a way to heal and talk about their situations without having the shaming guilt, so they can work through some of that stuff.

You know, sometimes you have families that adopted a child, maybe, really young, maybe even a baby that experienced trauma in utero or something like that. And now they're having these big behaviors and they're teenagers and the parent doesn't understand what's happening. Like, “I didn't sign up for that!” You know what I mean? And then there's a lot of grief that needs to be worked through. And because we have lived experience, it's a little different when a parent comes and talks to you and says, “Listen, I don't even know if I want this youth back, you know, this is really tough,” versus saying that to a clinician. It's a different kind of conversation that takes place.

Why do you think it's important to give hopeless situations a second go?

Well, I was a hopeless situation, so I'm always going to look at the world through that lens. My dad told me a few nights ago, “It's so great to see you doing so well after all the blows that life has given you.” So, I don't know that I can see the world in any other way. You know, I always see that people have an opportunity to do better, regardless. I've worked with parents, and not only at work, but also, in recovery, I have seen miracles, you know, people that you just think “absolutely no way is that person ever going to have any kind of happy, healthy life, let alone, get their family back, let alone be a productive member of society and have a job,” you know, all that stuff. I see it on a daily basis. I guess I'm tainted, but in a good way.

Why do you think it's important to have cross sector efforts to support addressing ACEs and toxic?

Instead of having education, juvenile justice, foster care, child welfare, and all public health operate in their silos—where they do their thing and they stay in their lane and then everyone's competing for funding and a lot of efforts overlap, but there's no communication and coordination—what if, as an alternative, there was actually coordination among varied efforts. I think that is important because oftentimes we have, for example, the schools, looking at a child from a particular perspective, like, “This child is behaving badly and his parents need to feel equipped to take care of him,” or something along those lines. Then you have the child's treatment team looking at it from a completely different perspective. They're trying to implement different techniques to help address the trauma that the child is facing. Maybe you even have DCFS coming from a completely different perspective. And I always think, in terms of families, when you look at the family unit, most often not only the child has experienced trauma, but the parents also. So, if we can get the school, DCFS, and the treatment team all working together, we can help to bring the family to healing a lot quicker.

When I had system involvement, I had the treatment team, my child in DCFS, all were involved, but nobody's talking to each other. I have the DCFS worker coming to the school, and I'm mortified, because I don't want the school to know that my kids had just been in foster care. It would have been helpful if everybody would have wrapped around me, you know? I know there's wraparound, but literally wrapped around me and kind of talked to me. Even though I experienced this twenty years ago, it still happens today. I'm experiencing these things on my own. And I'm having to manage the shame, the guilt, and all of that, and be a parent again, and take care of my trauma, and be new in recovery, you know, and, And, AND all these different things. If we can get us all to work together, that would be super healing for families.

How could care systems better align to create the conditions for people to thrive?

Oh, It's important for us to look at the family's needs and the youth's needs from all perspectives. That would be super helpful. For example, maybe you have DCFS, and their concern is safety of the child. As a parent partner, working with families, I have to be able to see it from their perspective. This is the specific concern. I just had a youth, and gosh, everybody was working so hard to try to get the DCFS worker to bend and allow him to have a community visit with his dad. She would say no to them, so I'm like, “Let me give it a shot.” I called her and asked, “Can you help me understand what your concerns are? What are the safety concerns that you have?” That was when she started sharing. And then I tell her what we want. Specifically, we want you to be connected to his father. She agreed to give him a four hour visit in the community, and asked to stay local in case anything happened.

So that's us working together, right? Trying to see the perspective of the other person. We can really help the family. It’s the same thing with probation. Probation has community concerns. We need to ask the question of how we can help the department feel safe with this youth going back into the community. And then likewise, we hope that they'll look to us and say, “How can we address some of the trauma that's maybe happening?”

I heard somebody say the other day from probation say that they didn’t feel youth should receive services after the age of 21. It's like a perfect example of “Let's have a conversation about what happens when the youth is 21 years old and has been in the system since they were four years old, right?” Maybe that's not in the wheelhouse of a probation officer, but it's definitely in the wheelhouse of a parent clinician, and some other roles. So, let's talk about what happens to a child when they're 21 and they're pushed out of systems, and we end services. Do we really feel that they are prepared to be productive members of society? Right. If you get a panel of youth advocates and you talk to them about what happened in their lives at 21, they will tell you that they needed the most help around 25 to 26 years old. I've heard that commonly talking to any of the youth that have transitioned. This is an opportunity for conversation, but we have to be willing to hear it. If we have a panel of youth that are saying that from the juvenile justice perspective, at age 21, they were not ready, you know, I hear that. I hear it constantly. So, what could we do to help support these youth, and not just kick them out on the street at 21, and then watch them end up in adult systems, right? We don't want that.

Tell me a little bit more about how this coordination and alignment can be better.

We need conversations. We need to talk to each other. We need to take chances. We need to talk to each other and be willing to take risks. There are going to be some risks. We're not putting anybody else in danger, but we have to respect each other's vantage point and then see if we can come together to best help families. Listening is huge.

When my kids were in foster care and I got them back, I had a lot of people say that I should be happy. “You should be happy. You got your kids back. Like, what are you complaining about?” But I was also newly sober, you know, I was 29 years old with three kids, had a ton of financial hardships, shaming guilt that I was working through, DCFS workers that were going to the kids' school, and had moved to a completely different area. I didn't want people knowing. And I didn't have a say when they wanted to interview my kids at school. You know, I still see these people in my community that I have been in for 20 years and it's like, “God, they know.” I have to carry that.

I had to relearn skills. I didn't know how to feed my kids, bathe my kids. I had no rhythm, right? As my kids got older, I had to call people and say, “My kids are home. I don't know what to do, and they're having a meltdown,” and they would have to walk me through it.

All these wonderful people that helped me learn to reparent… do the holidays and stuff like that. I didn't know any of that. I had a broken family that didn't know how to have a healthy Christmas. I say that because I've shared that with people like DCFS, and they’re like, “Oh man, I never thought of that. I never thought that this parent might be going through some challenges now that their kid is home, that they may be working through their own kind of trouble.” In systems, we all need to work together to remember that people can only do what they can do. And we want to help them do the best that they can do in that moment.

How you see your role helping to fill the systems coordination gap?

My role is to utilize my story to help, to heal, and to bring hope to as many people as possible. That is my mission in life. No matter whether I am in this role for the rest of my life, or something else, I have learned to be proud of where I've come, and how far I've come. My kids, they are a blessing. If I have an opportunity to help somebody with my story, then I will use it.

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