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One child, one home: Alumna works to reform foster care

During her job interview, Amelia Franck Meyer made it clear to board members that if they were looking for someone to put more kids in strangers’ homes, they shouldn’t hire her.

Not a terribly popular thing to say around a table of foster parents.

Meyer’s next sentence was even more powerful: If they were looking for someone to transform the U.S. child welfare system—starting with their Midwestern nonprofit—she could do it.

Fifteen years later, Meyer has stayed true to her word as CEO of Anu Family Services in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She is an emerging national leader in the field, achieving unheard of numbers in finding permanent homes for foster children.

Instead of moving 30 or 40 times before turning 18, even hard-to-place kids are finding permanent homes as much as 70 percent of the time through Anu. That’s an increase of more than 30 percent from a decade ago for the agency established in 1992.

“It was my job to put an end to that assembly line,” Meyer said. “It was just so heartbreaking. We were removing kids from families with the idea they’d go to another family and live happily ever after, and that wasn’t happening.”

That reality was not acceptable for Meyer, who graduated from Illinois State in 1989 with a degree in psychology. She also completed a master’s in sociology in 1995 at ISU. The campus was far from the two-bedroom apartment she shared with five siblings in an Aurora neighborhood so violent that she witnessed a shooting at a classmate’s eighth-grade party.

The only one of her childhood girlfriends on her block to go to college, Meyer was influenced by her mother, whom she described as “a closet social worker.” She taught her children there were always others worse off, and that it was their responsibility to care for those struggling.

“We come into this world being the most vulnerable mammals that exist.”—Amelia Franck Meyer

“She was a huge influence, mostly because she believed I could do anything. When I was little, I wanted to adopt one child from every country.”

Meyer also felt empathy for those affected by childhood trauma because of the abuse her father suffered. “I just grew up with the sense children should be protected because no one protected my dad.”

From that background grew a determination to guide a turnaround of the U.S. foster care system, which Meyer believes can be done by first healing the grief of losing parents and multiple caregivers.

“We come into this world being the most vulnerable mammals that exist,” she said. “Children need protection, and they know it from the second they’re born. Without it, their brain makes a switch to ‘I’m on my own and the chances of me making it are slim.’”

Being in survival mode brings on unacceptable or harmful behaviors, from punching a hole in the wall to attacking a family member or threatening suicide.

“When children have this incredible wound of not feeling loved, not feeling safe and not feeling they’re with someone who can meet their needs, that leads to pain-based behaviors. Kids do their grief, they don’t talk their grief. Often when a child is comfortable enough and feels safe enough to show the adults their pain, they say, ‘Get them out of here.’”

Amelia Franck Meyer

Amelia Franck Meyer

Meyer is determined to break this harmful and repetitive cycle by focusing on how to create the best child welfare experience, not the best child welfare agency. She launched a national research project to seek out permanency rates of top-performing agencies when she started at Anu in 2001. She found that the average discharge to permanency from treatment foster care was 45 percent. She and her staff created an “audacious goal” of finding their kids a permanent home 90 percent of the time, knowing that will take years and increased funding.

“What we’ve learned is we have to do the grief, loss and trauma healing the way it should be done alongside an exhaustive search for relatives. Then kids are able to form permanent connections and heal their pain. That’s the good news,” she said. “Until now, we didn’t believe that could be done.”

Normal healthy brains diminish their capacity to connect after multiple unresolved losses, Meyer explained, especially with caregivers. Experts in the field were convinced that once an attachment disorder occurred, the consequences were forever. “Now we believe there are ways to heal that wound,” she said, “that you can form permanent, stable connections later in life.”

This perspective explains the confidence Meyer has in Anu’s mission, which is to create permanent connections to loving and stable families. Meyer knows that this approach makes it more likely a child will stay as part of a permanent family, but the funding to implement such a plan doesn’t exist.

There is also the question of how other agencies work within the foster care system.

“I need all children, all children, to maximize their likelihood of achieving permanence in a loving, stable family. I feel incredibly strong about that.”—Amelia Franck Meyer

“It becomes clear we can do this one child at a time for whoever is lucky enough to come to Anu. But every kid, no matter where they are, should have this same level of care. How do we reform systems so they’re healthy enough to understand what children need to heal?”

The question haunts Meyer, who has a passion to make universal change. With more than 375,000 children in foster care, there is a desperate need for families.

The number of children aging out of care without a permanent home rises each year. Estimates are barely half will graduate from high school and only 2 percent go on to get a bachelor’s degree or higher. One out of four will experience homelessness, and 51 percent will be unemployed. Nearly 70 percent of all adults report some childhood trauma.

“One kid, one family at a time is going to reach a few hundred kids in my career—and my middle name is impact,” she said. “I need all children, all children, to maximize their likelihood of achieving permanence in a loving, stable family. I feel incredibly strong about that.”

It is consequently no coincidence that Meyer has emerged as a national expert in understanding the effects of childhood trauma and creating a better way for children in the system.

She received the Youth Thrive Award for Exemplary Programs in 2014 from the national Center for the Study for Social Policy. Last year she was named a Bush Fellow by the Bush Foundation, founded by 3M executive Archibald Bush in the 1950s to build communities.

She was also named an Ashoka Fellow in 2015, making her part of the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with fellows in 70 countries putting their ideas into practice globally.

Meyer was chosen in recognition of her extraordinary achievement and potential based on her groundbreaking work on healing grief and trauma, as well as her transformational vision for systemic change. She actively shares her plan with leaders, staff, students, educators and legislators. She reached nearly half of the states last year in 110 days of travel.

She is also still a student. The Bush Fellowship makes it possible for Meyer to pursue a doctorate in organizational change and leadership at the University of Southern California. She wants to keep building on her education, which includes a second master’s in social work from the University of Minnesota and experiences at Illinois State that were empowering—including work as a Preview guide and Admissions counselor.

“I know people inside. I know people in groups and families. What I wasn’t bringing to the table was how to move systems,” Meyer said. “We know what to do, but we can’t get it integrated into the system. Why is that?”

foster care 2Education is one solution, which is why she started Alia. It focuses on systemic change in child welfare and means “other and different.” The organization teaches child welfare agencies how to work toward permanent placement. A laboratory for refining her model, Alia offers workshops, certificate and learning programs, along with intensive coaching in workforce well-being and other resources.

“We really need to look at a more systemic reform,” she said. “We’re hoping to build the capacity of systems to create change.”

To do so requires focusing on the wellbeing of the workforce. Children with one caseworker in a year have a 75 percent chance of going to a permanent family. That drops to 17.5 percent when there’s a turnover and as low as 5 percent if a youth has three social workers in a year.

Because the work is so incredibly demanding, Meyer limits her staff caseloads to no more than eight children. She makes self-care for staff a priority. “Until you take care of your staff, you can’t do anything new,” Meyer said.

She also believes more effort should be placed on helping parents avoid losing their children.

“You can’t treat a wound that is not having your mother. What kids need most is for their parents to be OK. If their parents are OK, they’re OK,” Meyer said. “We spend far too much time and money removing and treating children and not enough time and money helping parents.”

She understands the parent perspective, as she relishes her role as a mom to her two grade-school children and three older stepchildren. There is no separating her emotions as a mother from her professional mission.

“I tuck my kids in, and I know they feel loved. I know they feel safe, and I see what that does for them. I think about all the kids in the world who go to bed terrified,” Meyer said, as they don’t know if they will be victimized or moved yet again. The thought keeps her pushing for change, knowing “every kid should go to bed knowing they’re loved and they’re safe.”

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