Bringing Lived Experience to Child Welfare
In April, I had an opportunity to speak with Leroy Berrones Soto, Jr., a youth impact project manager at the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, about a variety of topics in child welfare. We both have lived experience in Texas foster care that informs our current work. Our conversation explored reflections on our work in child welfare and ideas to help improve the system for children and families.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you start by telling me a bit about yourself and what you’re currently working on?
I have a lot of experience with foster care, having lived through it myself. I was in and out of the system for about five years. Despite facing the difficult outcomes that many foster youth experience, I obtained a bachelors and a master’s degree, which took me five to six years due to the lack of support that many of us experience. However, thanks to those degrees, I now work with the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services and provide support in youth engagement at both the local and state levels. This is actually my dream job, and I get to do something that I love that doesn’t feel like work while making a change and making the system a better place for the families that we serve.
Could you tell me about your professional career since graduating college?
My first job was while I was in college at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where I assisted the university’s foster care liaison in several projects with the local Child Protection Court. I then moved to JBS International, where I became a project coordinator for the Child and Family Services Reviews, which are periodic reviews of the child welfare system. In that role, I supported states in making sure that they were ready for the review season, which started a few months ago.
Now, I’m with the Alliance of Child and Family Services. When they offered me the job, I couldn’t believe it. But the thing I learned is that those of us with lived experience are more valuable than we think. We sometimes experience imposter syndrome because of our past experiences, but we also deserve to be acknowledged for the knowledge that we have within ourselves. The Alliance gives me the space to do that.
Have you faced any challenges working in child welfare as someone who has lived in foster care? I know for me, there were definitely some growing pains when I first started working at CPS at age 21.
Definitely. But those of us with lived experience are the experts in the field. I know that sometimes there’s resistance from organizations or the people you report to, but we’re able to create that change that we wish was there when we were in the system. We think differently and see things differently because of what we lived and went through. So I try to use my experience to show them a different way to think about things. It doesn’t have to be my way, but challenging people to look at things differently helps us work together to make change happen.
What has been the biggest disconnect you’ve seen from people that you know with lived experience compared to others who work in child welfare who do not have lived experience in foster care?
I think there’s still a lot of that power struggle. I think there is resistance to change. That’s what my experience has been for the most part, those working in child welfare not being able to recognize the importance of those lived experiences and seeing young people as partners. And we’re not babies anymore. My local CPS still says, like, “Oh, you’re my kid!” I’m like, “I’m here as a professional, and I know my stuff.”
Some of that has happened to me as well. It kind of stopped, though, because I got older. But when I was working at CPS, there were very, very few 21-year-olds. When these things came up, were they addressed?
I work with a lot of people in leadership positions that are at the regional level or even statewide. And those people have really given me the space to help them. They want to get my input, which I think is very important when they’re trying to create change. What I appreciate is that this specific person that I’m thinking of—just a leader in DFPS—she’s like, “No, people who have been through it are the experts here. And he’s going to help us create a change that we need.” And so, even though a lot of her staff is really resistant to that change, she’s really pushing for it. She truly believes that young people should be at the top of every decision that affects their lives.
There has definitely been a growing movement to embrace and integrate lived experience in foster care. Can you give me an example of how you’ve been able to help increase understanding in others by using your perspective?
There was a time where I was working with a young person who was having some issues. So I tried to tell the caseworker, “Give this kid a chance, because they may be going through a lot of trauma which we know almost all of us go through. Just be more understanding.” I told them, “You need to meet with them halfway, gain their trust, work together, and just don’t give up on them.” That’s the hardest part when they have constant change in their lives, and they don’t have that stability. I told that caseworker that one person that’s even able to do one small thing, they’re going to remember you, and they are going to respect you for that because we don’t often see that in our schools and communities.
One caseworker asked me, “What can I do to support that youth?” And I’m like, “Well, first of all, you can start by doing something as simple as remembering their birthdays. You know, those are really important milestones or if they tell you something they are passionate about.” And then whether it’s a birthday or graduation, if they invite you and you don’t show up, it’s kind of like a downer. I would feel depressed if they didn’t show up.
When I invited my caseworker to my high school graduation, she was there. And that made me the happiest person, regardless of everybody having their parents [there]. It just goes back to the point of trust, working together with you, and keeping that open and honest communication.
That rings true with a lot of the research that I’ve done with young people in foster care, and those that are aging out, with our Texas Youth Permanency Study. That’s exactly the same thing: open communication, honesty, meaningful engagement, connection with people by remembering important dates, and trying to nurture a relationship. Those are all the hallmark characteristics of authentic relationships. And those authentic relationships tend to be the ones that youth in care often lack. These authentic connections can have massive implications on well-being.
What do you see as some of the biggest barriers to positive well-being for young people in foster care?
It goes back to our connections with other people, our relationships. It took just one person to be there for me who helped me navigate. And then that same person helped me connect with someone I trusted, which helped me start going to get my health taken care of, both physical and mental. Having those long-term relationships is what’s really important. I felt very empty without them.
Relationships are key. People would ask me all the time, “Who do you credit for your success?”, or “What happened in your life that gave you that resilience?” I credit my relationships with my friends, their parents, and even my girlfriend as the factors that kept me on the right path. These are really important relationships that I think people in foster care are all too often dismissive of. Sometimes people are only focused on birth relatives, foster parents, and adoptive parents, but there are also so many other types of people out there. A lot of times, people are dismissive of peer relationships and don’t prioritize them or feel that they’re not worthwhile, but only the individual themselves can determine what relationships are important.
What barriers do you see when it comes to relationships for young people in care?
Funny story, I actually did a panel with a youth specialist and one of the caseworkers was new at the time. She was about to quit her job, and then she heard our testimony. And she actually stayed. The reason she stayed is because she heard my message, which was that you can see youth in care as more than a client. It’s okay to see them as human. I think this is a big struggle. A lot of staff members feel scared of what policies say. They ask themselves, “Are we getting too close? Are we going to get in trouble? Is this against policy? Are we going to receive punishment?”
These questions create barriers to real relationships. I think it goes back to them getting proper training because a lot of the caseworkers are new and the system doesn’t really prepare them to work with young people or the trauma they experience. But I feel like they need to work towards a connection. I understand caseworkers’ fears about getting too close, but I would do anything in my power to make sure that youth had what they needed. Like I said, love can be given in different ways, like remembering birthdays or things like that.
What are some things we can do in child welfare policy that can improve the lives of young people living in foster care?
I think we need to be careful when it comes to removals. Community and connection are so important. The system shouldn’t be removing so many people so easily. My removal turned my life apart. Until this day I always think, “What would have been today if the system had never picked us up? We would have probably still been struggling.” But if we have the proper supportive services that families need, I think my parents would still be alive. My mom would still probably be alive, and maybe she could have gotten some help.
Poverty, mental health, substance abuse, and these people need help. But they’re scared to get that help. What happens? CPS will take away your kids, and then what happens? When they pick them up, the families are not the same. We don’t feel the same connections. I’m 28 years old now. I don’t talk to my seven siblings. We don’t feel like we’re part of what we were. So I just wish that child welfare could come together and just have those services better to support each other. I think that it’s possible to just provide family-based safety services, or whatever services there are. It’s not like they are bad people, they just need extra help.
One point that you’ve made regarding family separation really resounds with me. I think that that’s one thing that people who don’t have lived experience in care just don’t understand. They don’t recognize how significant and traumatic removal, separation, and termination of rights are and how permanent it can be. Once that separation happens, that bond that is severed is a very significant and severe thing.
My caseworker told me, “Oh, well, you know your parents’ rights have been terminated, and now you’ll be in foster care long-term until you reach age 18, or if somebody adopts you.” I mean, that’s a horrible prospect to tell somebody who’s 15 years old that you’re gonna have to spend another three years in the foster care system until you can leave. So, yes, addressing family-based services or things to keep people together is really important because you need to preserve those bonds and avoid the trauma associated with removal.
I know that Hallmark movies and all these other feel-good stories try to paint this picture of people ultimately getting back together. But that’s not really the case. That’s not in my case, not in your case, and not in many other people’s cases that I’ve known over the years. Severing that bond is very significant and should be done only with the most careful consideration.
What about for people that are transitioning out of foster care? What can child welfare do differently to improve people’s experience when transitioning to independent adulthood?
I’ve been thinking about this one a lot. I think there are a lot of good things that can be done. For one, we should have youth automatically signed up for Medicaid and extended foster care before they turn 18 and leave. I’ve had to use Medicaid and it’s so complicated. I wonder if anyone who makes these policies has ever had to try to use Medicaid, fill out applications, find providers who take it, book appointments, deal with that bureaucracy… it’s a lot. Having automatic enrollment would be great.
I also think that we should do a lot of streamlining with the different dates. There are too many foster care benefits that have different ages for eligibility and deadlines. Like extended foster care is 21. Medicaid is 26. But the Education and Training Voucher program is 23. And the tuition and fee waiver deadline is that it must be used before your 25th birthday.
Yeah, that’s always been confusing to me.
It’s confusing to everyone.
Maybe it’s a contributing reason as to why young people often don’t use these things when they leave foster care.
Adjusting these deadlines and automatically enrolling people could help reduce frustrations and really make a difference for young people. We have to meet them where they are. I’ve used these benefits and I can tell you it’s not easy to keep up with everything. I think small changes like this can really help improve the way youth experience the benefits given to them.
My conversation with Leroy included rich discussion that far exceeded the word limit I planned for this article. I find it reinvigorating when I have an opportunity to speak with others with lived experience. Talking about our experiences always leads to refreshing conversation and generates ideas for improving child welfare
In reading this interview between Leroy and myself, consider how these ideas may be useful in your own work. Lived experience grants a perspective for investigating challenges and solutions that can improve the lives of those in foster care.