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Interview with Lesli Suggs, new President & CEO
of The Home for Little Wanderers
Lesli Suggs, LISCW, took over as the President and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers on January 3, 2018. Lesli has worked in Human Services since finishing her undergraduate degree in Texas, where she grew up. She has held many positions between residential counselor to CEO.
Q: Ft. Worth is a long way from Boston…
LS: I grew up in Ft. Worth and went to Texas Christian University (TCU) for my undergrad. I actually have a Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW). Upon graduation I wanted to explore. I spent most of my time in Texas and rarely travelled outside of the states that bump up against Texas. But I had always been infatuated with the Kennedys and everything that was going on in Massachusetts. Michael Dukakis was running for president at the time (1988) and it was at the tail end of the Reagan years. So why not move to Boston?!
Back then you went to the bulletin boards in school to look at job postings and there was job in Western Mass., so I applied. It was with the Department of Mental Health and the area director reached out and asked why I was applying all the way up here in the Berkshires which I thought was a suburb of Boston! He told me if I’m going to come up, I might as well interview with several provider organizations. He helped me plan my trip and schedule interviews so I hooked up my U-Haul to my Datsun 200SX and moved! I took a position working in residential care for the Key Program in Pittsfield.
Q: Did you know about The Home or ever envision yourself leading the oldest child welfare agency in the country?
LS: That was not front in my mind when I first moved to Massachusetts! It wasn’t until 8-9 years into my career that I became more familiar with The Home. I was working for Health and Education Services [now part of Lahey] on the residential side and we were trying to do some innovative things around stepping kids down from residential to foster care. I was a real believer in foster care and my boss at the time was colleagues with a senior leader at The Home so we visited the Baird Center [now South East Campus] in Plymouth. We were there to pick their brains and that’s probably the first time The Home was on my radar screen. Then I was with Communities for People and we were in the process of merging our adoption and foster care contracts and I was told to reach out to the Home because they had an almost identical adoption program. That’s when I really became aware of The Home’s expertise, talent, its voice in the child welfare community – being a leader in that way.
Q: What was your planning like between September 15, 2017 when you were named President and CEO of The Home and January 3, 2018 when you took office?
LS: It was probably while I was VP of Programs at Communities for People that it really became clear the importance of driving policy, how policy impacts practices, it impacts funding, the tie between our fiscal reality and what we’re able to accomplish. That’s been front and center in my mind. I had a tremendous opportunity when I came to The Home to be a part of conversations that were potential game changers, involvement in the Association for Behavioral Health, the Children’s League of Massachusetts, partnering with other providers thinking about kids who are aging out of care, the Transition Age Youth Coalition [TAYC], those types of opportunities allowed me to just crystallize my thinking.
I had the opportunity at The Home to drive some of those things, permanency for example, that was something that was near and dear to my heart and I felt that was something that child welfare needed to be.. To have the opportunity in an organization to change practice so that we actually impact the lives of kids in a real way and then think about how we get policy to support that activity was something that was front and center for me at The Home. So I would think, “If I were to sit in that seat (CEO), this is how I would move our organization to continue that effort, until it becomes real.
Q: You brought a focus here at The Home on permanency. What is Permanency? And what drove that in you?
LS: Residential cannot replace family. Child welfare is intended to come in at a time when children are vulnerable, when their safety is at risk, and to make sure they are safe, they get the treatment they need, and that we find family for them; temporarily through foster care, but then we find a permanent family. Permanency means a legal and an emotional connection to a family, however that’s defined. And all children deserve that. We know children do better when they grow up in families. Children in foster care have worse educational outcomes than homeless children. Why? The biggest factor is that a foster kid doesn’t have a primary attachment figure. We are wired to attach. That’s how we grow. That’s how we learn. This notion that substitute care is better than family care… over and over, time and time again, we understand that’s not the case. We have to preserve families and invest in families so that families can take care of children, but we have to protect kids at the same time. It’s hard work and it takes resources. It really is the responsibility of the entire child welfare community. You have to resource that. It is not the sole responsibility of DCF. It can only be done in partnership.
Q: I know you have a special Interest in older youth who age out of the system and you co-chair the Mass. Transitional Age Youth Coalition. Do you see an intersection in permanency and aging out youth? And where do you see the coalition and policy around aging out youth going?
LS: The numbers of kids who age out of care on a yearly basis are staggering. And we know the outcomes for those kids are not good. We have to get those numbers down.
There are always outliers. There are kids that do amazing things every single day. These are kids who came into the child welfare system by no fault of their own and now have to do it all on their own. They have to finish their education, provide housing, and support themselves. They have to navigate mental health systems. The way to get those numbers down is to make sure that more kids achieve permanency. Kids who age out of care did not achieve permanency. So that’s the important of permanency.
There are always going to be kids who age out of care that have not achieved permanency, and that’s where the role of the coalition is so vital. We do need to advocate for resources that are targeted to those kids. Right now, those kids are served by the Department of Children and Families, for example, through their existing buckets of money: congregate care, and support and stabilization. The older children compete for dollars with all the little ones who come into care, who are vulnerable and truly need intervention, protection, safety, and their needs eat up the dollars. Policy needs to be targeted at protected dollars that continue to support kids in cares as the age out.
Q: Permanency is a relatively new term for policy makers. Do you see bringing together permanency and aging out together to create discourse around new policy for both permanency and aging out issues?
LS: There is so much intersection between the permanency initiative and the folks who care about transitional age youth. I think we have already started those conversations across the two sets of advocates, if you will. The Home has partnered with three other providers, Youth Villages, JRI and Plummer Youth Promise, to form the Massachusetts Permanency Practice Alliance. We are bringing other providers to the table to help drive policy and practice as it relates to permanency. Some of those same leaders are also in the transitional age youth coalition. The beauty of the coalition is that it brings together all of the kids from other state departments: Department of Mental Health [DMH], and Department of Youth Services [DYS]; so those constituencies’ stakeholders are at the table. It’s important to think about all kids who age out of all critical services, not just child protection.
Q: What does a successful model look like when aging out?
LS: Aspirationally, for a kid who ages out without a permanent, legal connection, the child welfare system is the parent and acts as the parent and needs to stay involved until that person has successfully launched into adulthood, whatever it is for that young person. If they want to finish their education, they should have the opportunity to do that, if that takes them to the age of 24 or 25 they should be able to. If they have to dropout and want to return; we should have a mechanism that allows them to do that. We should support them in housing; they cannot be successful, functioning adults if they do not have a place to live. How many young people go off to college or start and stop college and go back and live with their parents? That is the time we are in. Young people who age out of care do not have that opportunity. They become homeless, they couch surf. What are the odds of them finishing their education? Through no fault of their own, they came into the child welfare system and the child welfare system should continue to provide them those resources, in a reasonable time frame, so they can successfully launch into adulthood. It is not only the right thing to do, it is good economic policy. That only serves our greater society, when those kids enter the workforce and become successful.
Q: What role do you see The Home playing in the opiate crisis?
LS: Well we’re right in the middle of this opiate crisis, we’re not at the tail end of it. We have more and more kids coming into care than ever before, and kids who are coming into care and re-entering care over and over again. A kid comes into care and then we find a kinship family placement and then they’re touched again by the opiate crisis and they come back into care. We have to create stability for those kids. Certainly, for a child welfare provider providing stability for those kids is important, but, in addition, The Home is applying for a Bureau of Substance Abuse Services treatment license, because we understand we need to treat the entire family and we need capacity in a formal way to provide that level of treatment to families.
The treatment of kids and families needs to come together. I do think that is something that the secretary [Executive Office of Health and Human Services] understands and the Baker administration has pledged to increase the number of family residential treatment models that BSAS contracts with. They get it.
Q: So, what do you do when you’re not running a child welfare agency?
LS: Raise three children. I still play the piano. I have the piano I grew up playing on in my living room and my girls play. I love live music. I swear I was blues singer in my past life or I will be.
Q: We were told you were a voice major at one point.
LS: I was while I was at TCU. I was supposed to be the music major in the family. I played piano and sang and played string bass since I was itty-bitty all the way through. I made Texas All State Choir. And when you make Texas All State Choir you’re almost guaranteed scholarship money somewhere and the music schools start to throw scholarships your way. TCU was very generous and I thought it would be wonderful to study there.
Q: What was the shift at TCU?
LS: I enjoyed singing but I wasn’t going off to study opera somewhere. I didn’t have that type of love. It was so competitive. They cut you down so they can build you back up. I was going to switch to music education but I didn’t want to be a music teacher. I loved music, I was a choir director in places, I got money to do it but that’s why I did. I loved it too much to be feeling how I was feeling. I wasn’t feeling that passionate about it to take it to that level. I had always been involved in volunteer experiences. I had volunteered for Habitat for Humanity twice both in the states and involved in social justice stuff through my church youth group. Social work I felt really was my calling.
Q: If we sat down again a year from now, what would you hope to be able to list as accomplishments in the first year?
LS: The Home has been known, historically, as a child welfare organization that has worked with some of the most vulnerable kids here in the Commonwealth. Child welfare, broadly defined, is behavioral health, substance abuse services. Early childhood, education; it’s supporting the entire family, not just children. My goal is to widen and deepen our brand and our mission so we are seen not only a child welfare provider, but as a large integrated child welfare, behavioral health organization that supports the entire family.