Leap Voices is a new series lifting up the importance of equity and high performance by sharing the voices and experiences of Leap Ambassadors.
One Kid at a Time Every Day
Samantha Sherrod • May 2022
Before equity became a mainstream term, Leap Ambassador Dr. Jeremy Kohomban recognized that you can’t have a high-performance organization if you don’t apply an equity lens. Leap support team member Samantha Sherrod spoke with Dr. Kohomban, the President and CEO of The Children’s Village, to learn more about what that equity lens looks like in his New York-based nonprofit.
Samantha: In your organization’s 170-year milestone video, you say: “We have found a path forward through our history.” Please help the readers of this understand the weighty history you were alluding to.
Jeremy: The Children’s Village has an incredibly old history. From 1851 to 1903, we moved thousands of homeless kids via orphan trains from cities to Midwest farm families. Also, our educational model for serving non-English-speaking European immigrants influenced the “assimilation education” model used in Indian boarding schools. So, we have this complicated history that includes family separation. When I started with the organization almost 20 years ago, our board of trustees asked, “Does it [our focus on child-family separation] have to be like this?” I said, “Absolutely not. We were wrong then [in the past], and we are wrong now.”
At The Children’s Village, we are not ashamed any more to talk about our history. We talk about orphan trains, Indian schools, and family separation. But we are also proud to talk about how we fight to keep families together and create new families for the loneliest children. We also proved that affordable housing does not need to look and feel affordable; it can be Affordable and Beautiful with all the amenities we would want in a home for our own families. We also talk about the unintended and intended impact of race in child welfare. We are not against residential care. We are happy to get kids out of jail, off the streets, and give them a place to stay for a short time. But our most important focus is one kid at a time, every day and getting them home to a family.
Samantha: I applaud your acknowledgment that The Children’s Village was complicit in family separation. What are some of the inequities directly related to child welfare, and how do you (and how can others) respond with equity at the center?
Jeremy: The greatest inequity in child welfare is overrepresentation and the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown families. The worst thing that can happen to a parent and a child is unnecessary family separation.
National data show year-after-year, 75 percent of children are separated for issues of neglect, not child abuse. Child neglect is often driven by poverty. In the U.S., we are locked into this idea that if you’re poor, you’re choosing to be poor. Or if you are poor, you are also a bad parent. Neither is true. But both drive inequities in child welfare. Everything else is marginal compared to what we believe about Black, Brown, Native people and poor people, and why we separate children from their families.
Samantha: What’s your role in ensuring that equity is paramount for The Children’s Village?
Jeremy: As the CEO, I have the power of the budget and can determine where we spend money. Where you spend money is the most visible example of how you walk your talk. So, if we are talking about family reunification, and we are not spending real money on that, I’m lying. If we are not spending money on building beautiful and affordable housing so that families can be safer and happier, rather than live in shelters, I am being dishonest. Talk is easy, especially on this issue of equity. My staff, board, donors, and I should be held accountable to invest money to undo harm.
One responsibility I cannot delegate is the responsibility to speak honestly about our past and talk about family separation and the influence The Children’s Village’s residential care model has had on the child welfare system. Residential care has become a destination for children and is used to permanently separate them from their families, when it should only be used as an emergency room. When we separate children, we must work aggressively to reunite them with their families, or we must create a family for them through adoption. We owe them that much. We are also saying that we [child welfare system] don’t need more residential care. We don’t need more families separated, but, if there’s a child who needs a bed tonight, our organization wants to make sure we provide the best bed possible. A bed right here is better than jail, shelters, the streets, or kids trading their bodies for room and board. But our primary focus is on family reunification, because children need love and a permanent place to belong. If we don’t meet this target, we are failing.
On a personal note, I feel that I must remind people that my color doesn’t make me a proxy for historical injustice in the United States. I am not a proxy. Many people think that my color means something. It just means that my father is Asian. I get my dark complexion from him—I am proud of it. In the United States, especially in recent years, Asians have not been victims of needless family separation or segregation. That’s almost exclusively reserved for the native-born Black and Native communities. Black children are more quickly separated from their families. And, once they enter the system, they stay longer, penetrate the system to higher levels of security, and exit with the worst outcomes. The only other group that comes close to the Black child’s experience is our Native family experience. White children are separated less often from their families and don’t stay as long in the system. Hispanic children enter a little bit faster than white children; Asian families are barely separated and underrepresented in the child welfare system. That is good. All communities should be underrepresented when it comes to family separation. It is incumbent that we speak clearly, defining who is really impacted. Using the word “color” is inadequate when applied to child welfare.
Samantha: How do you center equity when reaching for high performance?
Jeremy: In addition to investing money to undo harm, we put our energy behind movements and opportunities to dismantle unjust structures. For example, we played a key role in creating and advocating for the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which allows states to transfer about $10 billion per year to family support services that otherwise would have gone to residential care. In 2016 prior to FFPSA, New York State spent 51 percent of federal funds on foster and residential care and 13 percent on family support. Until FFPSA was passed, a child welfare agency had to separate a child from their family to access these federal dollars. Now that FFPSA has been passed, we get 12 months of federal money to keep a family together and provide support. With the support of our board of trustees, we put our organizational reputation and our historical business model on the line for FFPSA. Some colleagues still won’t speak to me because we upended the entire business strategy of kids-in-beds. That is okay, because we shouldn’t build our business on family separation and terrible outcomes for kids. I think many leaders are beginning to recognize this fact. The children we are privileged to serve deserve the same as my own children. They deserve love, they deserve belonging and that only comes from family.
Samantha: Not only do you have courage, but you’ve also enrolled other people in joining you to change the child welfare system. Can you talk about your partnerships?
Jeremy: There’s no room for lone rangers in this business. We know that to be successful, we have to bring people along and win hearts and minds. There is nothing we do that we do alone. We want to partner with people who are willing to put their boots on the ground and take the risk of doing something difficult, even if they end up being wrong. That means that we put a lot of time into partnerships. When Harlem Dowling, the oldest African American child welfare organization in the country, was going bankrupt, we stepped in and spent about $4 million. Without them, we would not have built that first Affordable and Beautiful building in Harlem.
We did not go to Harlem Dowling because we wanted to build a building in Harlem. We did not say, “Well, we’ll save you from bankruptcy if you help us build a building.” We went because we were not willing to let the first and the oldest African American organization in the country go bankrupt. As our trustees noted in 2012, there is something wrong with the idea of letting that happen. But by stepping in, we ended up with this amazing opportunity to try our new idea, Affordable and Beautiful.
Partnerships often lead to opportunities that we could have never imagined. When you work with people and you work transparently and as honestly as you can, you never know where the opportunities might come from, because it is not transactional work anymore.
Samantha: Can you share a story that exemplifies one of the challenges and/or a success story from your experience?
When we started transforming our work in 2004, at that time, we were mostly providing residential care to teenage boys, who were Black and Brown. Many, including colleagues, told us that no one would want to adopt them because they were older. That’s true. Most older children of color never get adopted. My team and I went on a mission to prove that the teenagers could find permanent homes and families, and we did. Today, nobody argues when we say teenagers can go to a family, because we have proven time and time again that you are never too old to be loved. We consider proofs of concept, like this one, part of our high-performance strategy.
Samantha: What is needed to transform the child welfare system to reduce inequities?
Jeremy: Follow the evidence, including evidence of success related to disproportionate impact. Target the issue of neglect versus abuse. Yes, we must remove children when we need to, but only then. How do we step in when we see a mother who is really struggling to do the right thing? If she is socially isolated, she could be a victim of domestic violence. How do we begin to build a community of support around families so that we do not have to take the children away just to make sure they are not exposed to risk?
We must re-educate ourselves about this issue of poverty and race. What we believe matters. If a child-welfare worker knocks on a door, sees a Black woman, and assumes that she is a terrible parent just because she’s Black, that’s wrong. We must change that. We can never be the democracy we want to be as long as these perceptions dominate the systems that are designed to help.
Also, another bias in the system is that we do not consider the father. This is because mothers are often involved, and the system discounts the fathers’ contributions. The system often assumes the mother’s family should be the resource, because the father was a “loser.” But that is not true. Even if a father left the mother and walked away from the children, it does not mean the father’s entire family feels the same way. Kids deserve that we exhaust every avenue when it comes to giving them the family they deserve.
For the past 170 years in the United States, we have seen a system that gave children government support and charity but not belonging and love. Relationships heal. The human soul is a complex piece of work. What heals us, what heals our brokenness, is always a relationship.
Jeremy reminds us that the journey to equity involves a data-informed approach and an emotional connection to the work. His empathy for children and families linked to the child welfare system drives his vision. His focus on love and belonging through relationships is transforming the child welfare system. This way of working can have a greater positive impact on the people we serve. We’re grateful to Jeremy for his candid wisdom.
Listen to this playlist to hear more top quotes from Samantha’s conversation with Jeremy.