A Q&A with Foster Care Alum, Advocate and Adoptive Mom Anni Keane-Riley
As a kid in foster care in New York City, Anni Keane-Riley never really expected she’d find a family of her own. Now, she can’t imagine what her life would be like without one — and she’s spent the last 17 years helping other teens and young adults find a parent who will make an “unconditional” commitment to them.
Keane-Riley, now 38, found her family at the last possible second. At 18, she lived with a foster mother, but her case workers were encouraging her to get her own apartment in public housing. The move would even come with her very own set of luggage, finally replacing the plastic garbage bags she’d always packed her clothes into when she changed foster homes.
At first, getting an adult apartment seemed like a good deal to the teen — but her foster mother, Mary Keane, disagreed. Keane-Riley couldn’t understand why: Every teen in foster care had to become independent at 18, right?
“Mary told me that independence is something you learn over a lifetime in a family, not in a 45-minute class,” Keane-Riley recalls. “She taught me what unconditional commitment was.”
After that conversation, Keane-Riley decided to stay in Mary’s home, and when she was 24, they made the adoption official. Both mother and daughter went to work for the nonprofit You Gotta Believe, which finds families for teens and young adults in foster care. Keane-Riley is now the director of the group’s Nobody Ages Out Youth Movement.
To match youth to parents when case planners can’t, Keane-Riley has focused zealously on identifying the adults already in their lives: extended family, friends, those friends’ relatives, former teachers and group home staffers. And more often than not, it works: of the 10 youth she’s now working with, eight were matched with someone they already knew.
Keane-Riley has also become a foster and adoptive mother herself, adding several teens and young adults to her own family.
Throughout the pandemic, Keane-Riley’s deep personal and professional experience working with young people in foster care has become even more urgently needed.
“Oh my god, these kids need somebody,” she remembers thinking early on, as New York City became the first U.S. epicenter of the pandemic. “I felt more of a push and a rush to find a family connection — or any kind of adult connection.”
Keane-Riley recently spoke with The Imprint about her vision for supporting teens in foster care and young adults who face aging out of the system alone.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
How do you help youth who are really struggling or have a lot of challenges?
I listen, and I’m honest with my feedback. I say, “Hey, I just want to know how you’re doing.” Often it’s just about picking up the phone call — a girl I worked with 15 years ago just reached out from the psychiatric hospital where she’s staying now. She had been a runaway, and she had a high risk of being trafficked. We used to just walk around the city together and talk.
Last week she said, “You was always talking about family,” and that’s my job. When a youth is having a hard time, I ask, “Who in your life has helped you with something like this?”
How did you figure out that that was the question you needed to ask youth?
When I first started, I asked youth if they wanted a family. They’d roll their eyes and walk away. I told our founder, Pat O’Brien, that it wasn’t working, and he said: “Ask a different question.”
I decided to find out more about the youth as people: What are you interested in? What’s important to you? If they mentioned baseball, I’d ask how they got into that. “Oh, my uncle showed me how to throw a ball and hold a bat.” Then I’d ask for their uncle’s name.
I met a girl from Jamaica whose social worker said she didn’t want a family. For her, education was the priority: She wanted to finish school and go to college. I asked, “Wouldn’t you like someone to help you navigate the school system? After school, wouldn’t you like to go somewhere where you don’t have to worry about what to eat or where to sleep?” She was open to that because she needed her needs met: Everybody wants to feel safe and loved and belong.
Do you see other people who work with foster youth having those conversations?
A lot of people in the child welfare system are trying, but because the turnover is so high, it’s hard for youth to believe the workers are going to be there and consistent.
Workers often run from visit to visit, so their questions come out all at once: “How was school? What are your goals? Are you good?” Waiting for a response and asking follow-up questions takes time, and a lot of the workers don’t have that. I can’t imagine being a case planner — their responsibilities are unbelievable to me.
In your early 20s, you interned with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. What would it take for you to accept another job with ACS?
I would not accept a job with ACS because I cannot do the traditional case planner role. On their checklist, permanency is probably number seven, or number 20. Case planners don’t have the time to track down family members in addition to what they’re required to do on a daily basis — it’s just not possible.
I’m on the phone most days from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. I was supposed to be off last weekend, but I went on a visit to help a grandmother find relatives. She told me I know more of her family members than she does! It’s a lot of time, detective work, knocking on doors, writing letters and not getting responses. At You Gotta Believe, we get the oldest kids, the runaways, the ones acting out — they’re not easy people, and every placement we make is a fight.
In the last year there’s been a lot of discussion about racial disproportionality within foster care and racial representation in child welfare leadership. How do you think having a leadership largely composed of white professionals shapes the child welfare system?
I notice that people of color do most of the direct work, and supervisors and clinicians and commissioners are usually Caucasian. It’s a huge difference in pay, because of the educational opportunities they receive — people of color don’t have the ability to go get a degree.
When I was younger, I used to say, “Race doesn’t matter, I don’t see color.” But the older I got, I realized that people see me as a Black female, and that means I’ve got to fight harder, I’ve got to do better and I’ve got to have everything in order. If I don’t, then I’m in big, big trouble.
If a white person tells me they don’t see color, that’s dangerous, because it definitely exists. When I get pulled over, I’m afraid of the ways the cops look at me. When I do presentations with my white mom, people don’t realize I’m the speaker and ask me to make copies instead. Recently, I passed a woman on the street who I’d just met in a meeting of child welfare leaders, and I started to say hi. She grabbed her bag and walked away so quick. Outside of work, she was really afraid of people of color.
No matter how high your self esteem, you start questioning: Why are they looking at me like that? Why do they treat a whole bunch of us like we’re the same?
Have you seen improvements in the 17 years that you’ve been working in foster care?
I see major improvements, like more focus on family finding. I see more agencies value youth’s opinions and bring youth to the table at their treatment and planning meetings. Youth know what they need — if they don’t, I always ask: “What’s important to you? What do you want to do?”
How did ‘youth voice’ start to be talked about more in child welfare?
It started six or seven years ago. Being a foster kid or alum used to be a negative thing, so people didn’t share it, but today a lot of alums like me want to change the system in a positive way. I believe the system is in a position to learn and wants to learn.
Did you always feel that way?
No. When I was in the system, they told you what you wanted, and you had to go with it. I was used to just being housed, and as long as I came home and was respectful, I was OK. Nobody spoke to me about adoption or family.
I realized I wanted to teach kids they have the right to a family, and that they deserve one. A family isn’t something youth have to earn. People think kids belong in an institution if they aren’t behaving, or if they committed a crime. They say, “Oh, that one’s too bad for a family.” I tell them to give me the kid that's in trouble, because they need the love.
What kept you going through those tough days and motivated you to stay in this difficult line of work?
It was the successes — and there were a lot more than failures. It was seeing the face of a 17-year-old girl when she reconnected with the babysitter she’d had at 5 years old. It’s the young man who thought his whole family had written him off, but we found his older sister. Now when he’s missing, she calls him, and she keeps it 100% real with him. We also found him a mentor who he talks to almost every single day — that’s what he needs for the rest of his life.
Do you think child welfare systems value kin as a resource?
I think in theory, yes, and in action, no. Usually when a youth is referred to me, the worker says they have nobody, nobody, nobody. Often they immigrated with a parent who can’t care for them now. Well, a lot of people come to America because they have connections to someone else who’s made it and can help. In one recent case, I found 16 people that the youth could be connected to in the community and his family.
What's your approach with youth if you can’t find relatives or adult connections?
I always come back to the family. Even if their mother or father may have done something or their rights have been terminated, they’re the ones who have the information. I talk to uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends of the family — anybody and everybody who has not physically harmed or abused the child.
One time, one of my recruiters decided not to call a child’s father because he was incarcerated. I reminded them the father had parents and siblings, and when they met with him, he gave them his mom's number. It turned out she’d been looking for her granddaughter all those years.
Everybody that’s connected to a youth is a person of value, and they can help me get the youth one step closer to a family. Relatives have so much missing information — the parents’ background, their mental and physical health, the relationships the youth have had — and that’s really priceless.