Episode 37: Supporting Foster Parents & Children in Foster Care
with Aubrey Sullivan
SAFY of America
Clinical Onboarding and Development Specialist
Lori Poland is joined by Aubrey Sullivan of Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth (SAFY) for a discussion around supporting children in the foster care system, preventing child abuse, who should consider being a foster parent, and resources for foster parents.
SAFY’s website: https://www.safy.org/
The Louder than Silence podcast is brought to you by The National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect (EndCAN).
Transcript of the Louder than Silence Podcast
Episode 37: Supporting Foster Parents & Children in Foster Care with Aubrey Sullivan
>> Lori: Hello everybody and welcome to the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect’s podcast. This is the Louder Than Silence podcast, I am Lori Poland, the Executive Director for EndCAN. Today we have an amazing guest with us who I’ll let you, Aubrey, tell us your role. Is it “saffy”, “safey”, how do you say it?
>> Aubrey: We get all renditions but it’s “saffy” which stands for Specialized Alternatives For Youth.
>> Lori: Excellent. Well why don’t you tell why you’re here. Why don’t you tell us about you, and if you could pronounce your last name, I’m going to chew that up too, but introduce yourself and your role at SAFY.
>> Aubrey: My name is Aubrey Sullivan, you’re probably seeing my maiden name in my email which is Obradovich but I’ll respond to anything [laughs]. I’ve been with SAFY for over 7 years. I Started my career with SAFY in the Louisville division as a clinical psychologist and a case coordinator. My background is in art therapy which is something I’m very passionate about. Then this led to me becoming a lead therapist and then eventually into an assistant treatment director. I dabbled in that role for a few years however I kind of felt this shift in desire to try to have a bigger impact so to speak, and to have me potentially affecting more lives in an outreach through all our clinicians so I’d believe or like to hope I was affecting lives in my day-to-day work with my caseload and the youth I served but I only had this one caseload and I wanted to do more and when you have an outreach of all SAFY clinicians, that feels really impactful and inspiring. You’re reaching all those caseloads of all those clinicians. So now I’m on our clinical innovation and technology team here at SAFY as the clinical onboarding and development specialist. I’ve been in this role since January and I adore my job.
>> Lori: Excellent, very cool. So help our listeners understand what SAFY’s mission is and the impact it has on our communities, or is it just communities in Louisville?
>> Aubrey: Absolutely, so SAFY is in 7 different states. We’re in Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio and South Carolina. So our community so to speak reaches across the country but our mission is preserving families and securing futures. In doing that, just that, we are able to see the positive impact it has not only on the youth we serve but our families as well. We’re helping their success in those communities so whether that’s a school setting, stabilizing those behaviors and having passing academics or in their home life with emotional stability and wellbeing by integrating them into what a healthy family dynamic looks like, whether that’s their ability to make social relationships and connect with peers. You know I think our impact kind of crosses the board of communities.
>> Lori: Wow. So I’m thinking about the next question which is how our missions are similar. Our mission is to end child abuse and neglect in our lifetime. How would you say SAFY’s intertwines with that?
>> Aubrey: Absolutely. So you know, a phrase I hear all the time is we never want children to come into care, we never want to have a lot of children we have to work with but our missions seem really married in that, not only caring for those children who’ve experienced child abuse whether that’s through our therapeutic foster care program, but also to work directly with those families that are in crisis to prevent abuse from happening. I feel like SAFY’s message is loud and clear in that way that all of us really make a difference in preventing child abuse from happening in the first place by that support of families. You know, poverty, challenges with transportation, not having access to social services, substance abuse programs are some of the factors typically we see present in situations of child abuse and neglect so kind of honing in and identifying those challenges and getting families the help they need. Many times we can try to prevent the abuse from happening before it happens, getting ahead of the abuse is that whole prevention component. So we’re trying to stabilize humans, trying to avoid the need to remove them from their home. At SAFY we have a family preservation program and that whole focus is working with families before they come over to therapeutic foster care. We are getting in there ahead of the stressors, really trying to weather whatever storm we’re seeing. That’s connecting families to financial aid, whatever it may be. That component of SAFY, family preservation, is really about preventing that child abuse from happening anymore. I could go off on a lot of tangents so rein me in if you need to.
>> Lori: That was great, and I smiled because I wanted to go there. One of the big things that I’ve watched culturally is really this shift from more of a reactive response from our family systems into one of trying to help families before it becomes problematic and foster care needs to become an option. So I’m just curious, how has that looked for you? Has it changed your focus? Has that family preservation program completely expanded? Just curious about what that looks like from an organizational perspective
>> Aubrey: Yeah so you know I’m gonna kind of jump into more of the family preservation aspect and kind of what we can do to ensure preservation of those families. Like I said it’s a program that works with our families in order to get ahead of those stresses, addressing those issues or crises as they arise or when they are arising rather than waiting for the buildup and the spillover to happen. So our family preservation…here’s the thing, when you work for a company like SAFY it’s like acronym city over there.
>> Lori: Like you need a dictionary for acronyms [laughs]
>> Aubrey: [laughs] Yes I’m trying really hard to use the whole title of things.
>> Lori: Well thanks [laughs]
>> Aubrey: Usually we refer to it as FPP, Family Preservation Program but I’m going to try to use the full title of it. So our family preservation program works very hard to connect our families to resources, plugging in those foundational components that really helps a family be successful so I gave a couple examples earlier but I didn’t dive too far in. So that can be in the form of financial aid – groceries, helping with paying the bills that month. The program really helps the families and assess for social, emotional, behavioral needs of children that are in that home. Then this program provides recommendations for support for families outside of SAFY. So our goal is to really help families achieve that safe, healthy, sustainable kind of environment for every member in that home but while keeping the family intact without removal if that’s the best and safest option or members of that family. I only say that because that’s our #1 goal, we want to ensure they’re safe and that everyone in that home is safe.
>> Lori: So is there a lot of partnership with child welfare and the legal system and schools, or where do you see the cross-collaboration the most prominent.
>> Aubrey: Every day, everywhere. Child welfare system as you know, through our state, through our county, through our schools. You know we try to bridge any gap that we work with and just be a collaborative front all around in every community that they dabble in.
>> Lori: Okay. Wow, that’s so beautiful and that’s one of the things I think as a culture it’d just be nice for us all to know it’s not really a burden but it’s more of an opportunity if we worked collectively as a community to help our children and families. Really just seeing that it is prevention. The long-term impacts of not intervening are so much more costly from an emotional, cultural, community-based; our legal system, our justice system, crime, all of it; the medical models, we don’t even go there but if we were to collectively unite and brought everybody that’s impacted or even has contact with children and families – which is pretty much everybody, even grocery store workers. But if we all came together we could really have a greater impact and you know I think there’s a part – and you said it earlier – if it keeps children safe, if the plan is safe and healthy for families and that’s where they need to go, that’s what we do. But that’s not always the case and I do want to just go there because I’m trying to really help people see that child abuse and neglect affects more of us than any of us know. There is a large population of people that are abused and neglected and have no involvement with social services, that they are okay and it is possible for us to grow and heal. A lot of that is because I find so often, when something is hard to comprehend we typically put it so far away from us so that we can’t relate to it, right? Which is oftentimes severe cases of abuse or when a child has to be removed. There are foster homes and they have to exist in order for our kids to have a safe, healthy, nurturing place they’re meant to go to. That’s the thing that as community members we can do and be part of and help out in our own way. So who should consider being a foster parent? Who would be – I’m just thinking of the most nurturing, sweet grandma that makes meatballs. Like the little lady on the Wedding Singer that pays the guy in meatballs. That would be the best foster mom in the world, but who would be an ideal parent?
>> Aubrey: Lori I love your description of the ideal because I have this initial answer in my brain of older adult or empty nesters, those are a perfect fit but that’s so limiting and it’s so much more than that on who should consider becoming a foster parent. You know I think that those who have a caring, safe, and flexible home are key candidates. Those that can grasp working with a youth or youths who have had trauma present in their childhood.
>> Lori: Which I would emphasize that word flexible, right? I think the intent is there for so many people to take in foster kids and to work with this population however whenever there isn’t that flexibility it really creates a lot of push/pull and there’s power struggles and we have a whole other problem.
>> Aubrey: Absolutely. And you know a child could be coming to your home, could seemingly look like there is no “trauma” in their history such as sexual, physical, emotional abuse. But if that child is coming to your home, they’ve been removed from their biological home and that in itself is traumatizing. So I think you know having that mentality that the definition of trauma really reaches past what our initial eye sees it as. I really think it boils down to willingness and openness, that’s what we’re capturing when we look at this. Willingness is looking past these very standard definition boxes of “what is trauma”, willingness in parenting differently than you did with your own children or how you think you should parent, you know, with your blinders off. You know we have this great assessment that parents can take if they’re interested. It takes no more than 30 seconds and just addresses that willingness component that factor into inquiries about foster care. So willingness in working with a variety of youth, particularly with trauma, youth coming from a different background. Things maybe our inquiries haven’t yet thought about. It’s a really nice assessment for that and a super simplistic snapshot of fostering. It does give us, on the other hand, our recruiters and our family development specialist, an idea of what may work best for you whether that’s fostering to adopt, becoming a respite provider or being a parent that takes an older youth to bridge the time and space between them going from care into adulthood.
>> Lori: Yeah, that aging out process. I think one of the things I find so challenging – and you are the expert at this. My question to you, is there a greater need for foster homes for that age bracket, the 12 -17 year olds, than there is even for the littles?
>> Aubrey: Kneejerk reaction, yes. I will never say there’s never a need for any age however we find so many inquiries for parents wanting to become foster parents that really gravitate towards that younger age range. With us, with therapeutic foster care, they’re coming to us because there is a therapeutic need. Which means most likely we’re getting the older children so we’ve found that a lot of the times we’re working with our parents, so to speak, stretch them, bumping up maybe to that 12 -13 year old range. But yes my kneejerk reaction is to say absolutely because I don’t think that’s the top pick when it comes to older youth and they are desperate for someone to come in and help our older youth with bridging that gap
>> Lori: So I am so curious about what it looks like. Say someone who’s listening is in one of the cities where you have programs and they want to do it. But then there’s a 14 year old male who’s going to move in, he’s got this criminal record and mom and dad were addicts and so on. So he’s going to come to me and he’s going to break my house. What does that look like when somebody moves in and there’s a therapeutic foster experience? Do you train the families, do you provide support, are there support groups for parents? What does that look like for them?
>> Aubrey: Fantastic question and I appreciate the question because I often speak like everyone knows our process so I apologize.
>> Lori: No not at all, when you’re in it it’s hard to know.
>> Aubrey: So our therapeutic foster care parents go through a very – I don’t want to say intense, that’s the wrong word – but in-depth training content. Trauma-informed care, it’s very trauma focused and our recruiters are the ones who gather our potential foster care parents and our family development specialists are the ones that kind of raises up our foster parents and teaches them what they’re getting into. In that process, Lori, I think is where they find out if this is for me. Something about our process lets us know if they are a candidate to come on board, but in that training I think our parents really learn what does trauma look like, how does trauma literally change the wiring of these youth’s brains and how it does biologically, emotionally, socially, what are we going to see? Even then when you’re training, it’s still – I don’t want to say just training. But it’s experience
>> Lori: It’s the information, it’s not the living, right? Now you’re informed so take that and put it into action.
>> Aubrey: Exactly. So once you’re in it, totally different story when the child is in the home living with you so that’s when we have our case coordinators, our therapists, our treatment directors. Everyone in the divisions has to work closely together because that is one of our SAFY homes and we love and care for that home and wrap as much service around that. You know if a foster parent is struggling we have a mentorship program where we connect them with a veteran kind of foster parent or we have support groups so we wrap our parents up with a lot of support for sure.
>> Lori: That’s amazing. I do want to ask one hard question. Maybe they’ve all been hard but I want to ask one raw question because one of the things that I think has been hardest for me, as a clinician and professional and an advocate to end child abuse and neglect, is that when we find a foster home for a family, a child, a sibling set or anybody, and that foster home isn’t a safe place or there are things that happen in the home that aren’t safe so now there’s a new layer of abuse. I’m just curious, how do you protect your kids in that way? I know that’s a loaded question and in no way am I putting the responsibility on you Aubrey in any way but I do think one of the things that hits the news often is those kinds of stories. The people that were supposed to help our kids be safe hurt them so how does SAFY work around that?
>> Aubrey: Yes it’s a raw question but not much about this job isn’t raw so I appreciate a raw question like that, and we see it. We think any program working with the child welfare system or the foster system like this sees exactly what you’re talking about. What I try to remember, because from my personal experience that is happening and our goal is to never have that happen and to prevent that from happening but to try to remain that bright light in that youth’s life so that means you advocate the heck out for that kid. I mean, sometimes you are the only bright light in that youth’s life and I don’t say that to put the burden on anyone listening. That’s empowering and that means you do everything in our being to keep that child safe. Whether that means that we’re reaching out to the state to make sure the next place that child lands, we’ve done everything in our power to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to give them a safe, best fit situation whether that means trying so hard when we remove the child from that foster home that turned out to not be a safe environment or trying to keep their school the same for continuity. Having one constant in a child’s life can be everything for them. You know, advocating is number one and letting them know you are that advocate for that and doing everything in your power. You know, I say connecting them with all these other places because if I remove them from a home, it doesn’t mean they’ll be going into another SAFY home. They could be going to another agency’s home so making sure you’re making those connections before their next place.
>> Lori: Wow that’s a lot of layers, I hadn’t even thought about that. You guys are really the spider web trying to piece it all together and that must be so hard. I want to thank you – I have goose bumps – I want to thank you for the work you do because there is such a need and that sounds like hard, hard work. I used to run a residential treatment facility and what was nice was that our kids were at home with us for 3 – 6 months and sometimes even longer and it was our safe place. We’d have people come visit, or we would take them out to visit or to explore foster homes or things like that but I couldn’t even imagine all of the moving pieces you are describing so thank you and thank you to the SAFY staff for all the work you guys do. A couple of things, and I want to end on a higher note, but I want to start with where can people learn more? Where can people go to find resources to help you, to volunteer, to get engaged, to maybe become a foster parent or to be a supportive person for foster parents?
>> Aubrey: Absolutely. So I would encourage everyone to check out our website which is safy.org. From there you will find where you want to connect. Our services, about us, our locations, career opportunities, becoming a foster parent. Then there’s also a place on our website where if what you want to do is not any of that but you want to donate or support in some way, there’s an option for that as well. Tons of resources. Our marketing department has done a fantastic job of really revamping our website. I’m very proud to talk about it because they’ve done such a wonderful job but it has a ton of resources and connections and information if any of the listeners want to dive more into it
>> Lori: Excellent. Okay so on a joyous note, what makes you the most proud about being a part of the SAFY team?
>> Aubrey: Oh gosh. I would say to know that I am working for an agency that continually strives to make changes. Not only in our families and our youth but also as an employee as well. I feel SAFY does a really good job of pouring back into me as an employee because of the hard, heavy work we’re doing. There are a lot of people in this agency with longevity and I always think that it speaks volumes in and of itself that not only do people want to be here, they want to stick around so I enjoy that part of SAFY as well but I feel we stand on a mission that is worth doing each and every day. It serves a really valuable life purpose. That does feel good to be giving back to the world or to the community, like being a bright light in this seemingly at times really dark world. I say all the time that we are seed planters, planting these seeds in our kiddos or our families we work with or our staff with the hope that one day we would see those seeds come to fruition. I can attest to this from personal experience, when you see those seeds come to life while you’re still in the work and doing the work, it makes all the heavy work that we’ve been talking about well beyond worth it.
>> Lori: That is amazing. Well I honor you and I thank you. What a commitment for all of your years and finding a home. You’ve found your own home at SAFY, you’ve grown with it and helped expand it and are doing really beautiful things so thank you Aubrey for being who you are. And professionals as well, it sounds like you work with the whole gamut.
>> Aubrey: Thank you for the recognition as well. SAFY is a fantastic agency.
>> Lori: Well great, those are gems to hang on to. Well we will wrap it up here. I want to thank you again. You can find Aubrey’s organization SAFY at safy.org. Aubrey thank you so much for being with us, for your voice, for being a light and for being Louder Than Silence. I’m Lori Poland with the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect, you are listening to our Louder than Silence podcast. I hope everybody has an amazing day. Please continue to be a bright light for all of our kids. Take care, have a good one, goodbye.
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