Peace Corps to Foster Care Reform: Ezra Spitzer on Youth Advocacy in New Mexico

Ezra Spitzer, executive director of NMCAN, a foster youth advocacy organization in New Mexico. Photo: NMCAN

Ezra Spitzer is executive director of the New Mexico Child Advocacy Network (NMCAN), which recently saw its bill offering incentives to employers to hire foster youth signed into law. Prior to joining NMCAN, Spitzer spent two years in the Peace Corps in post-Soviet Uzbekistan.

The Imprint sat down with Spitzer in Albuquerque, N.M., following a celebration of NMCAN’s legislative victory.

When did NMCAN first start focusing on youth engagement, and how has the work changed over the years?

The progression on that is about roughly a decade ago, a lot of folks and actually one of the Supreme Court justices started really pushing and saying, this aging-out cohort is something we have to figure out. This is where there’s a problem.

In the last five to seven years we began to see this work is youth engagement work. And this is really about all these young people who know they’re the experts in this field, and none of us should tend to be. Once we made that decision, it really changed a lot about who we are as an organization and how we work and how we’re even staffed – as we figured that out, it changed us profoundly.

You can’t do any work in the system if you’re not doing that youth engagement because these young people coming out know – they know that whole system. They know it so well. Everybody says, ‘oh, it’s complicated. They don’t understand that,’ whatever, but the opposite of that is true.

They actually understand it better. And the more complicated it is, the more they understand the nuance inside it. And I think when we really began to do that youth work, it led us to another place.

And how long have you been with NMCAN?

I’ve been with the organization, I think, 10 years. I’ve been executive director for five, so for half of that time. I actually started at the organization as a volunteer.

At that time, the organization operated substitute care review boards across the state, so I coordinated those. And then I did data and reporting work, and then I was director of programs and then executive director.

Do you work with American Indian communities, and if so what does that look like?

We don’t work with them as well as we should and need to. We do try to be intentional about building relationships to work, but there’s so much. So, obviously, we work with kids who have all kinds of backgrounds. And I think we have a special recognition that when it comes to Native kids, the system as a whole fails badly.

Over about the last two years, we’ve gone through what we call our REDI Initiative; Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiative. As we started to look through data points and think about … even our own service provision, started looking at this huge disparity with Native kids.

We’ve just wrapped up a process that’s resulted in the adoption of some new internal policies and understanding from the board to the staff about what that equity work really means and what our own staff structures look like and our own hiring processes. I think it’s a longer-term journey before we get a depth of relationship, and I think there’s so much historical trauma with those communities that the last thing we want to do is over promise on things that we can’t follow through with. So, that’s still a work in progress.

Have the issues New Mexico’s youth in foster care feel are important changed over time?

I think the answer is no, not really. Because at their core they’ve always been about being able to have normal experiences, being allowed to be kids, having people recognize the trauma that the system created, right? Like not just the trauma that happened in their home, but the trauma that happened by being removed from that, the trauma in the system, and then just being systematized really.

But it’s really for them about just being able to have normal stuff. They can’t have a bank account. Their education gets disrupted; it becomes hard to get a job because they don’t have any work history. So, I would say, no, the issues haven’t really changed.

Maybe sometimes, as adult partners, the interventions we identify maybe change as research evolves, but I think at the root they’re the same.

How has your work with the Peace Corps and United Nations informed your work with young people in foster care?

I think through work with the Peace Corps, and internationally, to be successful in that work, there’s a humbling that happens. Like you come to that work first with the presumption that you have the solutions and the presumptions that you know the answers. And I think when you’re successful in that work, you walk away realizing you don’t have any answers, you don’t have any solutions, you maybe even have more problems, and that the people you’re working with know [that].

I think community engagement also does translate back to youth engagement. I mean, I think there’s an authenticity to doing that work well that translates across those things.

I don’t know if it’s a typical way to prepare for the work, but I actually think it has been very helpful and getting outside of it, especially as a white man, right? It’s like being able to recognize your own privilege and being able to recognize your own sense of things and recognizing there are other senses of things that are equally, if not more, valid. I think there’s a sort of lifelong process, that international work set the groundwork for me.

You’re the co-chair of the New Mexico Children’s Court Improvement Commission. What has that commission accomplished, and what is it working on now?

That is a commission that originally started as a court improvement project focused solely on the foster system, the judicial interface there with the foster system. And about six, seven years ago, the Supreme Court broadened that, made it a full commission, and gave it a purview [that includes] overview of juvenile justice as well. It’s really designed to be a collaborative cross-system approach to bringing in the department, bringing in judicial stakeholders, bringing in community stakeholders.

[The commission] created the youth attorney model here. At 14 [youth] transition to a youth attorney instead of a guardian ad litem.

Currently, there are a couple initiatives. Obviously we’re trying to push them to do a better job of engaging with young people in that work. They’re right now doing a lot of work associated with the exit door to care, there’s a backlog of cases awaiting TPR (termination of parental rights). The department brings one theory of what is driving that. Some stakeholders bring a different theory, and I think some of them are all true.

I mean, I think you have a stretched judiciary who’s having trouble getting to the cases. I also think when you look at the numbers nationally, we’re underutilizing guardianships. And I think in some ways judges, when they continue those cases, are sending a message to the department that maybe the wrong plan was selected here, and they’ve complicated their ability to terminate.

What’s something that you’d like people to know about kids in foster care that you feel people are ignorant about?

I mean, we love that bootstrap story in America, and I think they’re told a lot ‘you just got to work hard,’ just got to do these things. I think they want people to realize that they are, but they also have no support structures. And things were taken from them that have made that much more difficult. I mean, they’ve been to seven or eight high schools sometimes, right? They’ve been through chemistry class five different times and lost their credits because they changed schools. Just a recognition that they are doing their part, and it’s on the rest of us to figure out how to right some of those wrongs, so that they have a chance, and to also realize they didn’t get that space to take safe risks where you learn that stuff. Every kid makes mistakes and does things, and we need to stand by them when they do.

Do you all have any other legislation on the horizon advocacy-wise?

Yeah, our youth leaders do have a policy blueprint they’ve put together with some sort of broad things and, under that, smaller ideas.

I think things we know are a priority are figuring out how to make sure they’re having access to bank accounts when they’re still in care, making sure they’re able to learn to drive and get a driver’s license while in care. More comprehensively, I think we really want to look at and question if 18 is the right age, like looking at what it means to extend care for all kids in systems and how that can be more age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate. [As of the date of this story, New Mexico does not participate in extended foster care for youth age 18 and older.]

I mean, we’ve built this system for small children, and we force teens into it. So, like how do we change that and then extend it out, right? I mean, very few of us at 18 like magically transcend into adulthood.

Most of us were getting support from our parents into our twenties. I don’t think we’re giving them the best opportunity to succeed and to successfully transition out. So, that’s a piece I think we really want to look at and really propose solutions for extending that support, extending and changing that support available to them. Because young people will tell you, look, if it’s more of the same for more years, I’m out. Like I’ll just go do it myself.

I don’t think this is necessarily a unique problem to New Mexico, but we don’t give enough credit to families either. I mean, culturally in our system, the culture inside our system, youth and families need a little more voice in that. I think it’s an important reminder that the best place for children is with families … and unfortunately we fall short there sometimes.

Maureen Lunn

Maureen Lunn is a freelance writer based in northern New Mexico.

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