How much do you really know about the foster care environment? What is it really like for children who are in the system? How you can help make an impact in these children’s lives?
In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok speaks with Richard Villasana about how he helps reunite children with their families and how you can help make an impact.
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Meet Richard Villasana
Richard Villasana, the founder of Forever Homes for Foster Kids, is a leading international authority on immigration issues and foster families. A proud Navy veteran, Richard has been featured on CNN International, Univision, AP News, ABC TV, Costco Connections, Washington Post, and EFE, the world’s largest Spanish language media company. He is a columnist with Foster Focus Magazine and an international speaker. For 25 years, his non-profit has worked with government agencies across the country to reunite immigrant and foster children with their families.
In This Podcast
- How Richard realized his gift
- Using his gift to help children connect with their families
- Family finding and environment
- What can make the most impact
How Richard realized his gift – an important message
When I tell you that I have never met someone like you who could do what you just did, that means something.
Richard had a mentor who tasked him with finding someone who worked in the Department of Commerce. This was during a time before the internet or Google but in and amongst the thousands of people who worked in this organization, Richard was able to find the person his mentor was looking for. In a state of shock and surprise his mentor could not believe that he had managed to track down this person. He pointed out to Richard that this was a valuable asset and talent that he had.
Using his gift to help children connect with their families
Richard had been asked to find people professionally during his work as an international marketing consultant but soon enough he started getting phone calls from people asking him to find relatives. After a month of receiving these requests, he figured that there may be something to this. He also spoke with Kevin Campbell who was questioning how it was that the Red Cross could find people after disasters and reunite children and relatives, but yet it could not be done for foster children. This conversation put Richard on the path he is on now where he is 100% focused on foster children.
Family finding and environment
In a family environment they’ve got that stability, they’ve got that safety, they’ve got food, they’ve got a place to live and it increases their chances of graduating from highschool immensely.
Due to opioid addiction, there are thousands of children being put into foster care. This is over and above the children who have been abandoned. As demands for foster and adoptive parents are not being met, there is a higher need for caseworkers to do family finding work by locating the relatives of these children so that they can be reunited with their families.
When children are in a family environment they do much better because they are pressured to go and stay in school. They have someone to help them with their homework and they graduate at a higher level.
What can make the most impact
There will never be enough foster parents especially with the opioid crisis. We will always be in need of foster parents.
One of the best things that individuals can do is to be a foster or adoptive parent. Sharing information about foster children and making contributions also help.
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I sure hope that you have been enjoying this podcast. You know, we do it completely free because of our sponsors because we’ve got some next steps people take where they jump into our different communities. But you know, honestly it’s just awesome to be disrupting the private practice world and to say, “Let’s get some great information out to people in a way that really speaks to them.” You know, depending on the month we get between 50 and a hundred thousand downloads of this show and you make that possible by sharing these episodes with friends, with colleagues, with past grad students on social media. It’s really awesome to see how much you share, rate, and review these and we really appreciate it because it helps other people that maybe don’t know about this show, like I said, it’s sort of your show too, the don’t know about the show to know about it.
I mean, that’s one of the biggest complaints/feedbacks we get from people. It’s, “It took me so long to discover you. Where have you been?” And then they binge listen a ton of episodes. So if these episodes are meaningful to you, will you share them with somebody because they may be thinking, you know, “Maybe I should do a podcast, maybe I should open a practice, maybe I should look into foster parenting like Richard is going to talk about today.” So it’s important work that we’re doing and putting a spotlight on a number of these guests that are doing work for the world, that really demonstrates what we want to see that change be. Today we’re talking with Richard and I used to be a foster care supervisor and to be in that world and to see kids whose parents just aren’t there for them, it’s just heartbreaking at times. Now at times. It’s heartbreaking all the time to see these kids that don’t have as much of a loving family as maybe you and I may have been raised with. And so, you know, dive into Richard’s work and here we go.
Well, today on the Practice of the Practice podcast, we have Richard Villasana. Richard is the founder of Forever Homes for Foster Kids and is leading international authority on immigration issues and foster families. A proud Navy veteran, Richard has been featured on CNN, Univision, AP News, ABC, Washington Post, and a number of other media companies. Welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast Richard.
[RICHARD]: Thank you for having me.
[JOE]: Yes, well the work that you and your organization are doing in regards to reuniting kids, I know this is an issue that for me, my wife and I have had so many conversations just about this topic. And, maybe let’s start with when did you start this organization and what got you riled up about this topic? I think that so many kind of nonprofits, there’s usually a story behind it, that got you involved.
[RICHARD]: Well, this got started back in 1993 and, my story may be a little different than some. I didn’t really get into this. I was kind of pulled more into this activity and there’s a quick story behind that. I was working with a gentleman who was involved in international marketing. Now I’m being very modest when I say this. This person had been hired by fortune 100 companies, worked for the U.S. Government and many countries around the world. This was you know, a very knowledgeable person who took me under his wing as my mentor and because of my working relationship with him, he knew a lot about my personality. So can I share a quick story with you?
[JOE]: Absolutely. Yes.
[RICHARD]: So, we’re in the office one day and he comes to my desk and he says, “Look, I want you to find this gentleman named Barry.” And that was a last name. “He says he works for the Department of Commerce.” So, I’m sure you’re familiar with that agency. It’s huge. There’s thousands and thousands of people, about a $400 billion budget. And he said, “Barry is in Washington and that’s all I know. Do what you can, see if you can find Barry.” Now this was pre-Google so there was no internet to go use and later that day I dropped off the information on his desk and you know, he said, “What is this?”
I said, “That’s Barry’s phone number like you asked me.”
And he looked at his watch. He said, “Well, I asked you five minutes ago.”
I said, “Well, yeah, I tried to be fast.”
He said, “No, you don’t understand. There was only five minutes. Tell me what happened.”
I told him that I’d made about three phone calls and I got Barry’s phone number and I’m ready to walk away, and my mentor, his name is Antwan Morrison, he said, “I want you to understand. People don’t do this.”
And I said, “Well, I do it all the time,” and like a staffer, I’m ready to go back to my desk. Job done.
And he stops me and says, “You’re not listening to me.” And I knew him well enough that that was the magic term. It meant I was missing a big message.
And I came back. I said, “Okay, what am I missing?”
He said, “Do you know who I am?”
“You know the people I’ve worked with?”
He said, when I tell you, “I’ve never met someone like you who could do what you just did, that means something.” And that was very important because all of us had these gifts and all of us as business people, we have these talents and skills and sometimes we downplay them. We feel that they’re not really important, that’s not something that we could really capitalize on or it could make a huge change in industry or to our clients and customers. These are talents that we just kind of blow off because we do them so easily and we imagine that because we do them easily, everyone does them easily and so there’s no value to this. And I needed this man to tell me this and point this out so directly that this was a valuable asset talent that I had. And if it wasn’t for that, I would not be doing what I’m doing now.
[JOE]: You know, it reminds me, and I’ve told this story before. We had this guy from South Korea that was living with us early in our marriage and he had graduated college and moved in to kind of learn English and kind of learn more of kind of American lifestyle. And it was awesome to have the young guy living with us. And this one night I was making stir fry and I went to make rice and I was just going to make it on the stove in a pan. And he was blown away that I knew how to make rice on a stove rather than in a rice cooker. And he said, “It’s easy when you know how.” And I feel like that’s so true that, you know, when things come intuitively to us it’s just easy and we don’t recognize them often as skills until someone else points it out and says, “Wow, this is really awesome that you were able to find this person so quickly. So what did you do with that skill till where it started to connect with helping kids unite with their families?
[RICHARD]: So the word kind of got out. You know, I’d been asked to find people professionally. I use that in my work as an international marketing consultant tracking down government officials, finding the right individual in the company to wheel and deal and do our work with. And so after a while somebody must have talked and I started getting phone calls and people asking me to find a relative and then I started getting phone calls from strangers saying, “I hear that you find people.” I’m thinking, “Well, I do, but I don’t. That’s not my business.” And it actually took a month of getting these ongoing phone calls before I thought, “Hmm, there might be something to this.” And that was the start of the work that I’m doing now.
And, there’s one other story. I had been working with foster children. It wasn’t like 100% of our effort because we had people who were calling us for business reasons. But about 12 years ago, I got a call from someone that I respect highly. His name is Kevin Campbell and Kevin had started about the same time I did in the early 90’s. He started in Washington state with the idea of how is it that the Red Cross can find people after disasters and reunite children and relatives and we can’t do that for foster children? And he was really the architect of this concept, family finding this, idea that you go out and you find lots of relatives when a child goes into foster care and that one of those relatives will step up and take in the child. And he’s the gentleman who called me and that conversation really shifted and put me on the path that I am now, where I am 100% focused on foster children.
[JOE]: Yes. And that, I mean that population. For years I worked with foster kids in the juvenile justice system, then wraparound I was a foster care supervisor. You know, even when I went to the community college my boss, she was my old foster care supervisor boss and she followed me over to college. And so we created a program to help kids as they were transitioning into college to have a bunch of support. And it’s just amazing when you start to dig into the stats around, you know, homelessness, around opportunities, around how just tough life is for those kids as they kind of leave those systems. What are some ways that you help support these individuals as they’re working with your organization?
[RICHARD]: So the best way is for me to share another story. This is about Veronica. She’s 15 years old, she’s living with her father, she’s getting ready for her junior year. Her whole life changes. Her father gets sent to prison and she goes into foster care. Now the agency jumps into action and they try to find those relatives that I mentioned a moment ago, but they can only find one relative that was an uncle and he had died three years ago. So as far as the agency knew, there was not one other living relative of Veronica’s in the United States. Now most likely she was going to stay in foster care until she turned 18 years old and 18 years old, they don’t get a birthday cake, they get to put their clothes into a trash bag, a garbage bag. That’s usually how they carry their clothes. Whatever they have, they get dropped off somewhere.
And at that point, her future most likely was going to be becoming homeless, becoming a, tour into crime, maybe ending up in prison, many foster children do, or what’s happening now is that she could become a victim of sex trafficking in as little as six hours from the time she’s dropped off. That is what is facing the majority of foster children right now in the United States. At 15 years old, her chances of being adopted were less than 1%. Her really only option at this point was that her mother had divorced her father and moved to Mexico, agency had no idea how to do this. So they came to my organization. In three weeks, we found her mother and her mother told us about two aunts living in Houston. And that’s where Veronica is right now. She’s back in school, back on track, and she’s with relatives who will love her and keep her safe. That’s what we do.
[JOE]: Wow. So, what are some trends? I know that with you know, whether it’s politics or society or, when I was a foster care supervisor, that was back in 2009, 2010, somewhere in there. And I imagine things have changed. What are things that you’re seeing that are maybe trends that have come up in the last couple of years that kind of general clinicians should know about?
[RICHARD]: Well, the biggest challenges that is facing foster care right now is the Opioid crisis. There are many parents who are now addicted to this medication and I do want to point out that for a lot of parents, they were put on this highly addictive drug by their doctors, either after an operation or for some kind of an accident that this was prescribed to them. And the addictiveness of this drug was not very well known. And so you’ve got these parents who are on these drugs, they didn’t ask to be turned into addicts and they essentially are at this point. And this drug is so corruptive that these parents are neglecting their kids, they’re just not paying attention to them, they don’t have the frame of mind to do this. They are addicts at this point and children are coming in by the thousands into foster care and we already are not meeting the needs of foster children as it is right now.
There is always a desperate need for foster parents and for adoptive parents. And now more than ever, there’s a greater need for people to, the caseworkers to do that family finding work, to do and put out the effort to locate these relatives. Whether they’re in United States or whether they’re 30 minutes South of the border, it doesn’t matter. They need to do this not only for the children. That’s a huge benefit for the children, but also is an economic benefit for everyone in society if we get these children back to a relative.
[JOE]: Yes. What kind of research is there around how successful kids are when they’re with a relative versus not? Do you have any stats on it or ways that we can kind of see the impact of this kind of work?
[RICHARD]: There was a report done. Now it is a little dated as reports are about six, seven years ago. They didn’t put any specific numbers that I could quote right now, but they do better in school because whether they’re in a family environment, you’ve got the family pressure. So they’re pressured to go to school, they’re pressured to stay in school, they’ve got someone there when they come home to help with their homework. Those children graduate at a higher level. Generally anywhere from 40 to 50% of foster children don’t graduate from high school. And then they’re going into the situation where they don’t have a place to live, they don’t have a place to eat, they don’t have a place of safety. And on top of that, now they’ve got to have their school work and study and do all that at the same time. We can imagine how difficult that is.
So, in a family environment, they’ve got that stability, they’ve got that safety, they’ve got food, they’ve got a place to live, and it increases their chances of graduating from high school immensely. And then of course those families are pushing them to go either to a technical school or to go to college. So the level of kids who are going into the college is much higher. And again, I can’t give a specific as far as a percentage for that by can tell you this, only about 3% of foster kids ever go and complete college.
[JOE]: Wow. So I guess what are some things that a general clinician should know if they’re working with someone, a kid that’s in foster care, someone who’s been in foster care, if they just want to get involved. What are the things clinicians can do that can help with this problem?
[RICHARD]: They need to be very sensitive to the fact that many of these children have deep rooted trauma. They may have been traumatized by watching their parents thrown on the floor by the police who are usually there when a child is removed to make sure that there is safety for the children. That is the utmost importance and focus when a child is removed; is to ensure that the child is safe. So you may have police, to the child though this is five people coming in who are large, who are in this outfit that they may or may not recognize who are attacking their father or attacking their mother as far as the child can tell, because the parents usually are not quiet about this. They’re upset, they’re surprised, they’re embarrassed. So they’re reacting in a very emotional manner and this child might see their fathers slammed to the floor, handcuffed, yelling their mom yelling, and that’s all they know.
They’re taken out of their home, they lift their toys, they’re put in a car with strange people and they’re leaving their home. That’s what they know. And some foster kids have equated this with being kidnapped. And with what I just described, if you looked at it that way, yes, it sounds like a kidnapping. And that is the trauma that many of these foster kids have, not to mention the fact that they move on average twice a year. So twice a year they’re at a brand new home, brand new beliefs, brand new way of doing things, brand new religious habits. And that’s just the norm. There are some kids right now, there’s a lawsuit because the children in that class actually lost it with the state, they were moved more than a hundred times. Imagine that. 100 times. If they were there from birth until 18, that’s nearly, that’s more than four times a year.
[JOE]: Yes. I know a number of years ago, the state of Michigan lost a lawsuit because they had misplaced, I think it was a third of their foster care kids. Like they couldn’t figure out where they were at. It was just like, it was nuts. And to think about you know, a kid going into that system and just how tough that can be for them. So the trauma, you know, I know one thing that really can help with trauma, you know, once someone’s out of that is EMDR and a number of our EMDR trauma therapists really great with that. We’ve got quite a few that are listeners. Other than kind of the technical side of it, what can people do, say there’s a listener and they’re not necessarily specializing in treating kids that have been through the foster system or adults that have been through it, but they say, “You know, I want to get involved in my own free time to volunteer or donate.” What sort of things are most helpful to make an impact?
[RICHARD]: What are the best ways that an individual can help is certainly by being a foster parent. There will never be enough foster parents, especially with the Opioid crisis that’s going on. And another looming crisis is coming. So there’ll always be a need of foster parents and will be a need of adoptive parents. And here’s the difference. As a foster parent, that person is kind of at the will of the agency. So the person may have done all the testing, be ready, waiting, have that room set aside and might not get a call for a year, which is very sad that there are people that have done that. They’ve taken the time to invest in, to be ready, and they opened their hearts and their home to a foster child and for whatever reason, the agency doesn’t respond and leaves them hanging.
Now as an adoptive parent, they become yours. And that is very permanent and that gives the child the most permanency and stability and a sense of home and family; is by having adoptive family. And a lot of people will start to foster and then find a child that they really love and then move into doing an adoption. So those are two very strong ways that people can help a foster child. But for those people who are listening who say, “I’m not quite ready to bring on another child,” or “I’m not ready to start another family,” there are many other ways that they can help; sharing information about foster children, and I will kind of talk about you know, we have a very strong Facebook presence and we have a lot of people who come to us and ask us questions about foster care, about children. It’s a great place where we educate people.
So, we tell, you know, people who want to help and want to do something a little easier than being a foster parent. They can share the post, they could share the information, they can leave comments. Of course any charity is always welcoming of donations. That’s what charities run on and ours is no different. So there are fundraisers that people could do. Again, on Facebook, it’s so easy. It takes less than two minutes. They could do things with their business. Many businesses want to be socially conscious and give back to the community. So there are many ways that people can engage and help a foster child and know that it will make an impact.
[JOE]: Wow. So the last question I always ask is if every private practitioner in the world were listening right now, what would you want them to know?
[RICHARD]: I’d want them to know that there are ways to help these children. That it is a matter of people taking action. Though the good wishes are really wonderful, but it’s people stepping up and sharing a post or talking to their friends or seeing if they can become a Casa, where they are a Court Appointed Special Advocate for child, that usually takes 10 to 15 hours a month where you’re actually working with a child and you’re advocating for them, becoming a foster parent, thinking about adopting a child from foster care. Those are always, and again, if you’ve got skills, charities are always looking for that too. So these are ways that these people can step in and be that inspiration and change the life for a foster child.
[JOE]: So tell us your website and if people want to learn more, what’s the best way for them to connect with you?
[RICHARD]: So our website is foreverhomesforfosterkids.org, and that’s foreverhomesforfosterkids.org and we have a donate button there on the home page. They can also find us on Facebook, Forever Homes for Foster Kids. And again, we make it super easy for people to donate. And for those people who want to give their time, their expertise, their talents, we’re always happy to talk to them and they can certainly contact us with our number on the website there. We will be very happy to interact with them and to see how they might be able to help. But there’s always a way for people to help. It’s not simply by being a foster parent or an adoptive parent.
[JOE]: Oh, that’s so awesome. Richard, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast.
[RICHARD]: You’re so very welcome. Thank you for having me.
[JOE]: You know, I still remember one client, I did this therapeutic sailing program where we take kids out on this 50-foot wooden sailboat and I do therapy right on the sailboat for all bunch of the summer. And this young man was probably 16 or so and he was finally in a foster home that he knew he’d be in until he turned 18. And I think they’re going to even keep him there until he left. And he said that on Saturday mornings he loved to just watch cartoons and sit and eat cereal because he never got to do that when he was little. And so as a teenager, he would wake up early, he would go watch cartoons, eat cereal and it was sort of like he was reclaiming this part of his childhood that he didn’t have and walking through those steps of maturity. And I would just love to know what he’s doing now because he was taking the time to kind of reclaim those spots that had been rough for him. And you know, it’s people like Richard that are doing this work out there that it’s really awesome to see.
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