Discussion with Author David Ambroz

I’m sitting down with author and former foster child David Ambroz to discuss his memoir A Place Called Home. Thursday December 1st 7-8 PM at Elliot Bay Books on Capitol Hill in Seattle. 1521 10th Ave.

He describes homelessness, foster care, and the struggles his mom goes through. The two of us will talk a bit about how we might make the world better for kids in poverty.

My guess is that there will be a pile of books there that you can buy – it is a bookstore. A really, really good bookstore. One that I still wish was in Pioneer Square, but I get it why they moved.

You can get more detailed information on the event at https://bit.ly/3A3z0HW.

Black History Month

February is Black History Month. As a late-stage boomer, I got almost none of this history in school, despite growing up in a majority Black city (Philadelphia) and a big academic focus on American History in my youth. I’ve tried to make up for this appalling lack of knowledge in the past few years by reading some excellent writing, and I’d like to pass some of these recommendations on to all of you. I did not read these all in one month or even a single year. All are incredibly valuable.

It’s our responsibility as human beings in the world to help heal the world. For us at DCYF, it’s a core part of our agency mission. Race has been used to divide us in America for hundreds of years. Understanding what happened is why we read history, and good history gets deep into the underlying causes of what happened. These are great history books.

Part of our expectations for all employees is that they do some personal work that makes sense to them to understand racial equity and social justice in America. Reading any of these would be a good start. I like paper books (late-stage boomer, remember), but there are videos and podcasts to learn from as well.

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is the current RESJ book club book. It’s awesome. The author’s main thesis is that white communities have historically blocked investments that would benefit their own community members rather than share the resource. A particular example in the book reminded me of something from my childhood, and I had an amazing conversation with my mother about the O’Connor Pool, about two blocks from my house in Philadelphia. The pool was located inside an Irish community and close to the border of a Black community and a more mixed gentrifying center city neighborhood where we lived. The locals would throw broken glass into the pool if any members of the Black community (kids I went to school with, for example) showed up to swim. The pool had to be closed to everyone to clean the bottom. This wasn’t the deep South, it was South Philadelphia in the 1960s. Makes McGhee’s point.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is the epic story of America’s great migration when six million African Americans moved from the rural South to the North for both opportunity and to try to escape persecution. This book won a Pulitzer prize for the author, and she deserved it. An amazing book that weaves together the experience of actual people with historical statistics and, you know, history. I loved it. It made me understand why some things were the way they were in Philly during my childhood. The story is good too. It was a book I read in only a few sittings, even though it is quite thick. I got sucked in by the power of both the story and the language.

Some of the images of incredible degradation in Florida stick with me today, several years after I first read the book. Black people in the South faced daily humiliation, plus incredible danger from lynching and other extreme violence from angry white mobs. The George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery murders are the modern manifestation of lynching – extrajudicial killings without due process. The NAACP estimates that almost 4,800 people were lynched from 1882 to 1968.

Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s second book, is a more detailed look at how race in America is much like a caste system, with strict hierarchical levels and the dysfunction associated with it. As with all good writing, there are stories about real people, but this book is a more challenging read, and is more structural and analytical than The Warmth of Other Suns. I found it more important to my thinking, and less like a walk through history I hadn’t known.

This book made me think. It has given me a framework to organize my thinking about why the powerful culture does what it does. It’s worth the work to read. Her use of language is exquisite, and that alone is enough pleasure to recommend the book for.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

DCYF is responsible for a small part of the youth incarceration system in Washington, and understanding how law enforcement works and why it is set up the way it is seemed like an important exercise to me when I took the job as DCYF Secretary. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is the hardest book to read on this short list. Hard to read, but it’s amazing. The core argument is that white populations in America created a series of alternatives to slavery once that was eliminated in the Civil War. Formalizing Jim Crow laws was one step, and using law enforcement to put a “felon” tag on Black people allowed the same kind of control of the body and economic exploitation that slavery had. Formal Jim Crow was replaced with the “war on drugs” and other criminalization of Black people to deny economic growth and particularly to deny political power over white people. Think about “legal financial obligations” as another – one reason we are working to eliminate the parent pay statute in JR this year. Labeling someone (vastly disproportionately Black men) as a felon allows the same discrimination that the civil rights experience in the 60s made illegal to do when based explicitly on race. Alexander makes the case.

She pummels you with relentless data and stories that are painful to read. It is impossible to argue against her with a straight face, though many people try. When you are done, you have a renewed commitment to our work preparing the young people we care for to succeed in the world, and more importantly, preventing many of the traumas that our young people suffer from. Alexander’s argument is that that’s not enough, and we have to change the world at an even deeper level. I agree with her. You will too, after you read this.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me is a short book written as a letter to his son. It’s a book I didn’t have to write to my son because he doesn’t have to experience the world the way young Black men do. I never had to have “the talk” with him about interacting with the police. You can’t read this one quickly; you have to savor the language. You have to think about what he is saying and how it would impact his child (and yours.) This is a deeply intellectual and very, very strong piece written by an expert. I remember being excited to get the book after reading many of his articles in The Atlantic Monthly. I wasn’t disappointed. Coates is also the author of many of the Black Panther comic books published by Marvel Comics. I admit that these are a guilty pleasure, as I’m sure it was for him to write them. Maybe in my next life I can be a writer as powerful as Coates and get to write comic books.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

To read more about the unjust incarceration of Black men, you can read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Or, you can watch the movie, which is also terrific. I listened to it as a book on tape (actually, a book on phone, but that’s the modern world…) read by the author while I commuted to and from Olympia. It’s the story of how good lawyers can create justice in the world. It’s uplifting. The space for creating justice is large, as you will have learned from some of the earlier books on this list, with many, many Black men sitting unjustly on death row. The work Stevenson does is one of the core reasons many states have repealed their death sentence laws in recent years. My conviction against the death penalty is a little deeper than the argument here. As a lifelong Quaker, I have the simple belief that there is that of God in every person and that it is not for us to take the life of one of them. The unjustness of the criminal justice system is another reason, if you need one.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March, by the civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis is a set of three graphic novels exploring the civil rights era with a power that words alone can’t convey. A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are three books worth of them here. You could get a middle school kid interested in the civil rights era with this collection, it’s so powerful. If you know any middle school kids, you understand how powerful these must be. I was driving home from Olympia one day and heard on the radio that Rep. Lewis was speaking at the Bellevue Library, of all places. I screeched off the road and worked my way into a packed room where he was doing the book tour for these books. The ability to shake his hand and get an autographed set of these is an experience I will treasure my whole life.

You don’t understand the Edmund Pettis Bridge until you’ve experienced it in graphic form. It makes your heart hurt.

Any of these books are great. You’d enjoy reading any or all of them. More importantly, you will be a person who thinks more deeply about the world and your place in it.

Ross Hunter | Secretary
Department of Children, Youth, and Families

Office 360-407-7909 | Cell 360-515-8972
Pronouns: he/him/his

Update on nondiscrimination protections for children and youth in Washington

On February 2nd I wrote about the former president’s HHS agency leaders filing a rule that removed protections for LGBTQ children and youth and how Washington was not affected, as we had strong state protections. The order has now been blocked by both the Biden administration and the courts.

From the American Public Human Services organization (APHSA.ORG)

HHS Postpones Regulation Repealing Nondiscrimination Protections

In response to a lawsuit filed by a foster youth organization and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, a court order issued to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) immediately postponed the effective date of the rule. The rule would have eliminated protections preventing service providers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and other characteristics when providing HHS grant-funded services. The Biden Administration has stated that the Trump-era policy is now under review. President Biden issued an executive order on January 20 to extend existing federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ+ people.

View Court Order
Read More on LGBTQ+ Executive Order

Missing from Care

In which Ross wanders around the U District trying to find a 14-year-old who is “missing from care.” Writing good policy is hard and I don’t think it works if you don’t try hard to understand the reality of what you are trying to do.

Many legislators are working on a bill (SB 5290) that makes pretty significant changes to the ability of judges to place children and youth in detention for non-criminal activities, like running away from a foster home.  The agency supports this bill, but has some serious concerns that will need to be addressed before it’s ready to be made into law.

In late February I spent the day with one of DCYF’s missing from care (MFC) locators. We have 9 people statewide tasked with finding youth who are “missing” from care. Typically, this means that they’ve run away from a placement, but there are other scenarios we pursue as well. This was an emotionally challenging experience. Nina Shapiro, a reporter from the Seattle Times went with us. Her article on the situation is here, and I found it to be well-balanced.

Writing about this is hard because I have to be cautious of the privacy rights of the youth involved and if I explain too many details of the demographics of the youth in question I run the risk of identifying her. It’s also just hard to write about.

We spent the whole day looking for two youth. We found neither, which is depressingly common, though the locator lit up when I asked him how many kids he’s found in the last 8 years of the work – “hundreds” was his answer.

We spent most of the day looking for a 14-year-old girl who has a history of running from placements. For context, 300-400 children, mostly older youth, run away from a foster care placement every year. The agency just released a research report providing some descriptive statistics about children who run. This was part of our ongoing effort to comply with the settlement in the Braam case (or here) from two decades ago. More on this later.

First, we visited the University District Youth Center (UDYC). UDYC provides drop-in and basic needs services, case management, and hosts a Seattle Public Schools Interagency Academy for homeless and at-risk youth in the University District. This was a cool place for youth to do laundry, get a bite to eat, talk to other people in the dry, and engage in some cool looking art and other creative pursuits and connect to key services. We had a great conversation with the program manager, but no direct leads.

We visited a drugstore (legal) on the Ave and left a flyer with the staff. I bought cashews, a granola bar and a diet soda for lunch. Made me think about the ease with which I could acquire food, and that it would have been easy for me to skip lunch, though I might have been a bit hangry later. This is not the experience homeless youth have.

We tried the library, often a hangout for youth on rainy days, but no luck. They wouldn’t take a flyer.

Next we followed a tip and talked to all the people in “tents” in a specific area. Living in a tent in February in Seattle is miserable, especially since many of the “tents” were really constructions of tarps and collected materials. Several of the folks we talked to had had contact with the particular girl, and all were concerned that someone that young would be out on the streets. It’s also a little dangerous for our social workers, and they behave very carefully as a result.

The tent in the photo wasn’t occupied. I took it mostly to create a memory of the difficult situation homeless people are in. Why do we have so many people living in these conditions? Probably beyond this short essay, but we have to do better as a society in providing treatment for obvious mental health and substance abuse issues so that our kids aren’t living in desperate situations.

A few more spots to look in with no luck and we were out of time for the day. I think our MFC locator could have been more productive without me tagging along, but I’ll bet there are a lot of days like this.

Looking for this child was a searing emotional experience. It must be terrifying to be in a place as a 14-year-old where living on the street feels better to you than the foster placement you were in.

Had we found her our options would have been somewhat limited. Our MFC locator can offer some options that may or may not have been appealing to her:

  • An opportunity to talk to her caseworker in the office or another “safe” location. They may have a relationship that we can make work.
  • Maybe we could offer her a better placement for her. There might be a rational reason she ran away from care. The locator can talk to the caseworker and other resources about what might be available to her.

That’s about it. He’s not a police officer and has no ability to detain her. The youth who run regularly know this. “87.5% of all runs from out-of-home placements occur due to repeat runners.”[1]

When we have a missing youth and we can’t find them quickly we will ask the court that supervises their case to put out a “warrant.” This puts police officers on notice that we’re looking for the youth. They have more options than our locators do, including the ability to bring the youth to a secure place to figure out a safe plan.

Risks Faced by Homeless Teenagers

Increased likelihood of high-risk behaviors, including engaging in unprotected sex, having multiple sex partners and participating in intravenous drug use.  Youth who engage in these high-risk behaviors are more likely to remain homeless and be more resistant to change. 

Greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem.

Increased likelihood of exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter (also known as “survival sex”) or dealing drugs to meet basic needs. Forty percent of African American youth and 36 percent of Caucasian youth who experienced homelessness or life on the street sold drugs, primarily marijuana, for money.

Difficulty attending school due to lack of required enrollment records (such as immunization and medical records and proof of residence) as well as lack of access to transportation to and from school.  As a result, homeless youth often have a hard time getting an education and supporting themselves financially.

Homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning (GLBTQ) youth are more likely to exchange sex for housing or shelter, are abused more often at homeless shelters (especially adult shelters), and experience more violence on the streets than homeless heterosexual youth.

Source: National Conference of State Legislators

Let’s start with the observation that it’s not safe for children to be living on the streets. The risks of drug use, being a victim of violent crime, and being commercially sexually exploited are very real, and we are all concerned about these young people. Youth who are in foster care are in the care of the state and we’re responsible for ensuring, at a minimum, that they have a safe place to sleep.

Given the national data in the sidebar, very few police officers are going to think that they should let a 14-year-old go back to being homeless. The problem is that the officers don’t have a lot of good options. They could

  • Do the same thing the locator tried – get the youth to talk to the caseworker.
  • Take her to a safe, but temporary location where she could get connected to the caseworker and find a better placement. This could be a teen drop-in center like the UDYC, a library, a coffee shop, etc.
  • Take her to a safe place with overnight capacity. This could be a Hope Center, a Crisis Residential Center, etc. It could be a program run by a county. For example, King County runs the FIRS program, providing an alternative to juvenile detention to youth involved in domestic violence cases.
  • Take her to juvenile detention. This is the current default in most cases. Here the youth who have not committed a crime are mixed with a juvenile offender population. It’s always open, there is always a bed, and the officer and the judge feel like it’s safe for the youth.

Unfortunately, we have lots of evidence that being in juvenile detention creates additional trauma[2] for the youth, and that being exposed to a population more inclined to delinquency often results in new criminal activity by the youth.[3]

It’s a hard tradeoff for the officer or our social worker. Placing a child who has run many times before or who has other significant risk factors in a non-secure placement is likely to result in the child running again.[4] The officer knows the risks the child is exposed to. Right now the warrant isn’t clear about what should happen, so the officer takes the lowest risk option, even if it isn’t necessary to have a secure setting for that particular youth.

I’ve had several conversations with child welfare experts who say that we are one of very few states that puts this much effort into searching for youth who run from care. It’s frustrating for many of the reasons outlined above – there are very few options that work out well, so many other jurisdictions just wait for the youth to return to their placement or wind up as a statistic. This is not a good path.

The bill affects many adolescents who are not in the foster care system. In many cases youth running from a foster care placement have the same needs as other homeless youth, and face the same risks on the street. We do not have the same legal authority or responsibility, but should develop a solution that is flexible enough to work with all of them.

The Missing from Care report, as well as most national research on this topic, points to the more complex behavioral health needs of the youth who repeatedly run from placements. We are concerned about behavior of these youths that place them at extreme risk of harm. We have work to do to either find placements that work better for these youth or prevent the trauma in the first place. Even if we make great progress in these areas we will still have kids who run, and will need a better strategy.

Of course, we also have court involvement in this issue here in Washington. In late January we came to final agreement with the plaintiffs in the “Braam” case, and we now have some new outcome targets that need to be met in this area.

The Braam vs. State of Washington lawsuit was filed in August 1998 on behalf of a class of foster children who had three or more placements while in foster care. The lawsuit alleged that the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) did not provide constitutionally required care to foster children.

Under the Settlement Agreement the Department agreed to achieve 21 individual outcomes. These outcomes addressed a number of areas including monthly visits, sibling placement, sibling visits, annual mental health and substance abuse screens, and youth missing from care.

As of 2017 the Department had achieved compliance or outcomes were no longer enforceable for all but two of these 21 outcomes. The two remaining judicially enforced outcomes both related to foster children who are missing from care. They measured the frequency of foster youth running from care and the median number of days youth are on the run. Court cases shouldn’t go on for decades, and in the last month we came to an agreement on three substitute missing from care outcomes with the plaintiffs. These measures are risk-adjusted, are actually measurable, and are hopefully achievable. Under these new outcomes, we agreed to: 1) reduce the percent of youth with a first run event by 20% from baseline; 2) reduce the percent of youth with a subsequent run event by 20% from baseline; and 3) reduce the mean length of run events by 10% from baseline.

Conclusion to a blog post that is much too long:

We are working with the bill sponsors, the Juvenile Court system, youth advocates, and the Office of Homeless Youth to come up with language that makes sense, works towards eliminating the use of detention where there are safe alternatives for youth, and can practically be implemented.

In the short run, the agency will make some changes to our internal policy to stop using detention in circumstances where it is not warranted. I’ll write more about this as we figure out detailed proposals and the process to roll them out. (There are 40 police agencies in King County alone…)

None of this will work if there are not safe, secure alternative places for youth to stay that are not juvenile detention. Ideally these would be available everywhere in the state. Based on the data we think we could make a system work that had options in the counties that have the most youth who run from care. We would recommend King, Pierce, Spokane, and Yakima counties, with a convenient location in each. 

These facilities will need to be staffed to provide trauma-informed assessment and support for youth. They need to be therapeutic, not correctional.

We also believe that some investments in providing permanent placement alternatives for older youth like the Responsible Living Skills program may be a better fit than some foster or group home settings, and may reduce the likelihood of youth running from a placement.


Missing from Care Analysis: Part 1. Page 11. WA State Department of Children, Youth, and Families, Office of Innovation, Alignment, and Accountability, Olympia. Retrieved from https://www.dcyf.wa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/reports/2019_MissingfromCareAnalysis.pdf

[2] Richard A. Mendel (2011), No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, Annie E. Casey Foundation, pp. 5-12.

[3] Lipsey, M. (2009). The Primary Factors that Characterize Effective Interventions with Juvenile Offenders: A Meta-Analytic Overview. Victims & Offenders, 4(2), 124-147.

[4] “Once a child has run from care there is a 60.1% chance they will run again.” Missing from Care Analysis, Page 11

Take Me Home: Protecting America’s Vulnerable Children and Families

Take Me Home: Protecting America's Vulnerable Children and FamiliesTake Me Home: Protecting America’s Vulnerable Children and Families by Jill Duerr Berrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought this was super-interesting. Her view is that while it makes some sense to invest resources in “upstream prevention,” we can’t fix the entire problem that way and will still need a robust child welfare system. Consequently the upstream investments should not take resources from current child welfare needs, and we should be very intentional about how we approach that project. She goes on to lay out clear and cogent reasons and structure for supporting families and children in crisis. She makes a strong case children need to have permanent homes with stability.

She’s got a well-reasoned argument and it gave me a good perspective on the challenges facing social workers who work with challenging families and try to protect some of our most vulnerable children.

This was totally worth reading, though somewhat depressing.

Special Advocates for Kids

On Friday I completed the second day (of four) of my training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). A Dependency CASA is a trained community volunteer who acts as an advocate for the best interests of children who have experienced abuse or neglect and who are the subject of Juvenile Court proceedings. CASAs are appointed to cases in which children are alleged to have been neglected, physically abused, sexually abused, and emotionally abused and/or if a parent or guardian is unable or unwilling to care for the child.

The training is pretty serious and ensures volunteers have enough knowledge of how the entire foster care and family court system works to be an effective advocate. On Friday we focused on understanding the impact of race, ethnicity, and culture in how families interact with their kids.

I’m trying to learn about how the system works from both the top level (we spend XXX on YYY, then ZZZ happens…) and from the street (they do what?) I don’t think I’ll actually be allowed to carry a case given the conflict of interest I have as the eventual manager of the social worker on the case, but seeing how it works (or doesn’t) is invaluable. Particularly compelling was the final video we watched of a graduation from family court in King County, with the return of the kids.

More info on CASA:


Hard to imagine…

In the Chronicle of Social Change Jerry Milner, Donald Trump’s appointment to the federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees federal child welfare funding and policy, speaks about his priorities in running the agency and improving outcomes for kids. The hard to imagine part is that I agree with almost all of his proposals, at least as they are described in this article..

He starts with an observation about how child welfare systems work today and how we have to get ahead of the game.

Right now, we typically respond only after families have lost much of their protective capacity and children have been harmed. We need to strive to create environments where they get the support they need before the harm occurs, which, in my mind, calls for a re-conceptualization of the mission and functioning of child welfare systems. Tweaking what we already have in place won’t solve the problems.

I totally agree, and the design of the new agency I head (The Department of Children, Youth, and Families) is structured around the same idea – that we should focus on preventing children and families from experiencing the kind of trauma that leads child welfare agencies to need to remove children for their own safety.

It’s worth reading the short interview. In his former life he ran Alabama’s foster care system and did interesting work in President Bush’s Children’s Bureau.

His level of oversight is narrower than I envision our agency embarking on – we are also responsible for the early learning system in Washington. This lets us invest in some of the key experiences in a young child’s life that build resilience and the ability to deal with some trauma, and in many cases actually reduces the trauma a family may experience by providing supports.

I’m also interested in his take on efforts at the federal level to re-structure the funding stream used for most child welfare work so that it more stable. Currently if we’re successful in reducing the number of children in foster care (say, by spending money on programs that provide support for them…) our level of funding goes down. This is super complicated to address, but something that needs to happen. I look forward to working with our federal delegation on this effort, and it’s good to know we have support from the administration.

Flexible funding, thoughtfully applied, will allow us to be a proactive rather than reactive system, which is key to preventing maltreatment, and key to strengthening families.

A new department to better serve children, youth, and families

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill Thursday to restructure how the state serves at-risk children and youth by creating the Department of Children, Youth and Families. The governor also appointed Ross Hunter, director of the state’s Department of Early Learning, to lead DCYF.

The new agency, after a yearlong transition period that begins this month, will oversee several services now offered through the state Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Early Learning. These include all programs from the Children’s Administration in DSHS such as Child Protective Services, the Family Assessment Response program and adoption support, as well as all DEL services, including the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program for preschoolers and Working Connections Child Care.

Starting in July 2019, the new department also will administer programs offered by the Juvenile Rehabilitation office and the Office of Juvenile Justice in DSHS. Those programs include juvenile rehabilitation institutions, community facilities and parole services.

The creation of the new department follows the suggestions of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on the Delivery of Services to Children and Families convened by the governor in February 2016 to recommend a state system that focuses more clearly on preventing harm to children and youth.

Washington’s Legislature expressed interest in restructuring during the 2016 legislative session, prompting the governor to issue the executive order creating the blue ribbon commission, of which Hunter was a member.

Read the rest of the story on the governor’s Medium page.