An Interview With the Very Inspiring Ruth White, Executive Director of NCHCW, My New Advocacy Home

Ruthie (left) and Diane (right), now a dynamic duo of advocates.  

Ruthie (left) and Diane (right), now a dynamic duo of advocates.  

In this first “Biography Blog,” I interview Ruth White, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare.  I'm not the only one who has recently interviewed Ruth: here is her recent  interview by Rise Magazine. NCHCW is my new professional home, the Center from which I will lead the organization's legal advocacy and continue the work we have done together to help to develop United Family Advocates’ policy agenda.  In this Blog, I hope to convey the energy, thoughtfulness, and  inspiration that Ruth brings to her work on behalf of families and youth—work that has led to a national expansion of resources that families and youth urgently need. 

Diane:  What led you to start NCHCW when you did? 

Ruth:  There was an obvious “focusing event” that made forming NCHCW a clear necessity at the time.  But there was also the longer background, of course, and a bigger agenda. The need for a group like NCHCW to exist had been apparent to me through a variety of positions I had held—reasons that also made it logical and necessary for me to be one of the people to step forward to create NCHCW.

The focusing event concerned the  Family Unification Program (FUP)—the Housing and Urban Development’s special Section 8 voucher program for families who had child welfare involvement and who needed housing resources in order to prevent separation or reunify after a family separation through foster care placement for the children.   I had held housing policy advocacy positions at the Child Welfare League of America and with Catholic Charities USA, and in those positions, we had been lobbying Congress for nearly four years to re-establish funding for FUP (after steady annual funding, the Program went dormant under the Bush administration). But then we were notified by the Senate Appropriations committee that FUP had been reauthorized, with $20 million for new vouchers.  My mentor, Bob McKay, and I realized that there was no entity that would be able to take on the task of notifying all the housing authorities about the new vouchers and how to apply for them.  So, together we decided to create the Center for the purpose, initially, of re-igniting interest in this wonderful program.  

Before 2007-2008, while the Family Unification Program had been around since 1990, it had been static for quite a while.  I had been the person who had been taking the lead on working with the housing authorities in whatever position I happened to be in.   But with the new reauthorization, the job I had been doing all along suddenly got much bigger. The work needed someone who could take it on, with a more explicit responsibility to see that the work got done.

The longer background is that we recognized the urgent need for housing supports for families in the child welfare system. That need was much greater than simply to notify housing programs about the expansion of the authorized FUP vouchers.  There was an ongoing need to advocate for further expansion of housing and other economic resources for youth aging out of foster care and for families involved in the child welfare system. There was an ongoing great need for advocacy for more preventive and reunification concrete services with both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  Advocacy was needed at the federal, state and local levels.

I was tremendously inspired by Bob McKay and his work over the years in the housing policy and youth and family support arenas.  I was privileged to work with him closely.  He was a real mentor.  We have had a lot of great leaders who have been willing to stand up to help make the case for housing resources for youth and families.  We have had a strong board with real leaders in the field.  That’s part of why I was willing to take this on.

 It was clear to me that the intersection between housing and child welfare was vast and important, but that both housing and child welfare authorities didn’t know very much about how their counterpart systems worked.  Making housing resources available to families in the child welfare system and to youth aging out wouldn’t just magically expand without some consistent advocacy and technical support of the sort NCHCW could do.  Since studies have consistently shown that 30% of children in foster care would not be in care if their families had adequate housing, the need for advocacy for housing resources to support families was huge.  And when one considers the needs of youth aging out of child welfare into homelessness and incarceration at alarming rates, the need was urgent for that population too.  If child welfare agencies were graduating youth into this appalling condition, what did that say about the purpose and practices of child protection and child welfare services agencies?  To me and to many others, this reality for foster youth said we were failing these children and families and we could do better. That was the underlying longer background and longer term vision that supported creation of NCHCW at that time.

Diane:  What was the longer history that led you to recognize that need?

Ruth: Do you mean my personal history or the history of these programs?

Diane:  Let’s start with your personal history as a social worker and get back to how that intersects with the history of these programs and the need you and others saw in 2008.

Ruth:  I got my Master’s Degree in Social Work at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio. (I’m an Ohio native, with my undergraduate degree from Ohio State too, so I’m a solid Buckeye!). I was working as a case manager and an administrator in homeless shelters.  I noticed very soon into my work there that some families get motel vouchers, provided by the child welfare authorities, and other families would be turned away from any resources.  I couldn’t tell what distinguished the families who got help from those who didn’t get help at all; the decisions seemed arbitrary. When I tried to get a sense of what the standards were for giving one family one set of resources and denying another family, I was basically told that the county child welfare systems was “not going to announce the resources it had available because it didn’t want people to think they were the ‘“Day’s Inn’" or “Motel 6.”  I took that to mean that,  In other words, there was a built-in arbitrariness and discretion that was all kept very secret for reasons that I couldn’t quite fully understand. This struck me as deeply unfair.  And the child welfare agency’s attitude that families shouldn’t be told about resources seemed very peculiar. 

Diane: How interesting!  When we filed the Norman case (Norman v. McDonald, a class action I filed with Rene Heybach, Joan Matlack and Susan Wishnick in 1989 to seek housing and cash assistance for child-welfare involved families), we were told almost the same thing:  the child welfare agency is not “Century 21.”  In other words, the system didn’t want to be in the business of providing housing for families even though they recognized that lack of housing was a major reason why children were coming to the attention of the child welfare system.

Ruth: I have few theories, too, as to why the child welfare system is so resistant, oftentimes, to give out housing and cash assistance – or unwilling to be too public about it.  In part, there is a legitimate concern about moral hazard—creating a perverse incentive to have child welfare intervention in families in order to get resources that should come from other sources. But the really pervasive problem is that the child welfare system keeps its dollars for providers inside a closed network.  Sharing cash resources with families and providers outside of that closed network has proved to be  extraordinarily difficult, for reasons that seem illegitimate to me.

Diane:   There are many examples of misallocation of child welfare resources and the difficulties of getting the right resources to families in need.  Our colleague Richard Wexler (on whose board we have both sat at different times without realizing it until just recently),  writes about these sorts of “follow the money” stories a lot.   I'm recalling the story of an Illinois attorney who reportedly made $800,000 annually under a control to process DCFS adoptions. That amount of money could have housed 30 or 40 families pretty nicely for a year, right?

Ruth:  Yes, that's why we need to change the narrative and open up access to the resources families genuinely need.   We need to make people aware—including administrators at the top and ordinary people and other advocates—that lackof housing and income security more broadly are root causes of many families coming into child welfare systems, and having their family lives and youth futures destroyed rather than supported.  22,000 children are taken every year because of lack of housing.  Studies consistently show that 30% of the child in foster care could go home immediately if their families had housing.  We are wasting resources on foster care instead of supporting so many families. 

Diane:  That’s the fiscal case we are making, right? And it's the finding of the federal court in the Norman case too:  providing housing and cash assistance to families can actually save states money on foster care, for a net fiscal benefit. But Ruth,  how did you actually start to make child welfare agencies and housing agencies talk to each other?

Ruth:  Well, part of the impetus for this work came through litigation, including the litigation you brought—the Norman case.  In fact, you and Rene Heybach had been my heroes long before I got to work with you so closely.  The Norman case really gave us a shot in the arm to say to both housing authorities and child welfare authorities, “Look, it’s not just a good idea to help families with their housing needs and other supports, but if you don’t have a process and available resources, you too might get sued.” The threat of litigation was potent. There wasn’t just Norman, though that case was very far reaching in setting up a strong program with the backing of the federal court.  There were 4-5 cases in litigation that helped make this case. In the Norman case, Illinois brought in talented people to run the program.  John Cheney Egan in Illinois is a well-regarded advocate nationally who has been making the case for these supports for a long time, thanks to his position as the Norman services coordinator.  I work with him very closely.

Diane:   Which states do you think are models for providing housing supports to families?  What does it take to be effective at this?

Ruth:  The best state in my book is Connecticut. There is a real partnership in Connecticut between the housing authority, the child welfare system and the non-profit sector, with real expertise.  But Illinois is also a state that at least has the infrastructure in place to deliver supportive concrete services. It’s interesting, because Connecticut, like Illinois, had a consent decree that mandated these services.

Diane: It’s good to know that the case we brought nearly 20 years ago has made a real difference.  But I see so many obstacles to getting resources to families, mainly because the child protection investigation system really doesn’t focus on getting help to families—it focuses on “is this family guilty of abuse or neglect?” and “should this child be taken into care?”  Even traditional child welfare services (like counseling, parenting classes) can be hard to access, but concrete services are even harder. A family's housing needs are still often used as a weapon to separate families rather than help them, even in a state where we do have skilled programmatic people like John Cheney Egan who deeply understands the need to help families with these basic concrete supports.

Ruth:  I sometimes think that the model is entirely wrong:  we need to realize that the child welfare system is never going to be the best system to support families in meeting their basic needs.  We need to really pare down the child welfare system and beef up the social safety net because child welfare systems do not have the answers for the basic needs of so many of the families and youth who come to their attention.  Child protection services need to be reserved for the kids who are truly endangered at home.  Not for families who need shelter or whose kids walk home from school alone to a latchkey home.

Diane: How did you get the housing support programs implemented in the beginning? What were the road blocks?

Ruth: Shockingly, in the beginning, there simply wasn’t even a relationship between HUD (the federal housing agency) and HHS (the child welfare human services umbrella).  I helped to convene an initial meeting in August 2008. The Children’s Bureau within HHS hosted the meeting.  The housing folks wanted to understand the role of the Children’s Bureau in cases in which housing vouchers were provided to families involved in child welfare cases.  They wanted to know who gave the services to the children so that they could start to do better coordination at the state and local levels.  But the Children’s Bureau folks had no answers to some really basic questions at that time.

Diane:  Was that because housing simply wasn’t on their radar?

Ruth:   Maybe, but in fairness to the Children’s Bureau and the child welfare system in general, the question of service delivery is a whole lot more complex in the child protection realm than it is for housing officials.  HHS and child welfare systems live with very ambiguous and complex dynamics.  With housing, the authorities have just three options—process an application, put someone on a waiting list, or deny an application.  With child welfare, there are a host of questions that need assessments and the standards for making determinations under those standards are not always clear.  But then again, why are we assessing these things and why have case managers if there are no services that help? You should read Eileen Gambrill’s article on assessment—she makes this point powerfully

[At this point in my interview with Ruth, Ruth handed me her copy of Duncan Lindsay and Aron Shlonsky (eds.), Child Welfare Research, Oxford University Press (2008). And after I read three of the articles, including Gambrill’s, I ordered my own copy.  Working with Ruth is opening up new vistas and intersections between legal advocacy,  social science, social work, and policy advocacy.]

Diane:  So what do you see as the future for NCHCW now that we are joining forces?

Ruth:  That’s a topic to be continued, but obviously, it is enormously helpful to have some legal firepower, legal expertise, and someone with a history of working on these issues from the legal side as well as on the issues of the child abuse register and other misuses of state power to hurt rather than help families.  It’s an exciting time for us to be working together, because now just about everyone agrees that the child welfare system is broken.  And we’re people who can say that forcefully, with long experience in the trenches. We can also explain some steps that will help to make the system more responsive to the actual needs of the child and families.

It’s galling, but I see all the time that there is resistance to actually giving families what they most need, which are the resources to raise their kids.  I sit on lots of committees and task forces and there are loads of advocates out there who are studying problems but when the actual proposal is made to give money and resources to families and youth, they will say that we need to do more studying as to whether money and housing make a difference. 

Diane:  This was what Leroy Pelton says so powerfully in the article in the Lindsay and Shlonsky book you gave me.  We don’t need research to tell us that housing people gives them a roof over their head, right?  But yet so many times, leaders in foundations, non-for-profits and government want to study problems rather than do the hard work of fixing the problems we know exist and just need some meaningful support.  When we filed the Norman case, there was a $25,000 fund already in existence—the Harris Fund (established by philanthropist Irving Harris) to help families with security deposits and first month’s rent. So the child welfare system had already recognized the need and DCFS had accepted the money.  But $25,000?!  That could house 1-2 families, not the 6,000 or more families who needed housing supports to prevent removal of their children or to reunite their families.

Ruth: I’ve sometimes been a lonely voice at these tables so it will be nice to have a partner who comes to the same conclusions through years of complementary experience.

Diane: Thank you Ruth.  This is a conversation to be continued, of course.  Blog readers, stay tuned!