Cortney Jones of Austin told The Imprint about the inspiration for her advocacy work, which encompasses everything from creating restorative justice practices in the child welfare system to taking “children without placement” in foster care on spring break outings.
Before becoming a social worker and, in 2017, the founder and head of a nonprofit advocacy group in Austin, Texas, Cortney Jones experienced the foster care system at its worst.
In 1993, she was led away from her elementary school by police officers after she reported being abused at home. Placed in foster care, she was separated from her closest family member — her grandmother — without explanation. Over four years, she said she was moved through multiple residential programs and foster homes where she often felt profound discomfort. She was adopted at one point, but was returned to foster care after being physically abused.
Through it all, Jones said social workers kept her from the woman she has long considered her “everything.” So she tracked her grandmother down herself, by searching for her name in the phone book. Eventually, the two were reunited when Jones was 12.
But the time in foster care left Jones with a new set of traumas, and she acted out in ways her grandmother couldn’t handle. Although she repeatedly asked the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for support and services to help her granddaughter heal and to catch up academically, “they just wouldn’t help her,” Jones said.
As a result, she went back into foster care as a teenager, aging out at 18 and becoming homeless. It’s an all-too-common trajectory in Texas, and one Jones works to prevent. Her time in the Texas foster care system informs every aspect of her life, from her determination to help individual youth in state custody, to her decision to foster, then adopt, her two children.
In an interview with The Imprint, Jones, now 38, discussed her work to elevate the voices of foster youth and foster care alumni; why she founded Change 1 — her Austin-based nonprofit working with foster youth ages 15 through 26 and their families — and why she believes family reunification is so important.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and length.
Having grown up in foster care and become a social worker and advocate, how did your experiences influence your perspective of the system and how you approached your work?
I originally went into social work wanting to be the case manager I didn’t have. I had one case worker at the end of my foster care experience and she believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I felt like everybody needed someone like her. I thought I would probably have more empathy, or give them more benefit of the doubt, because I was once in their shoes and that was what I needed.
You are an advocate for people with lived experience helping to drive policy and changes within the foster care system, and to make it more responsive to the needs of youth in state care — especially marginalized youth, youth of color, and LGBTQ+ youth. Are those voices being heeded? What role does your nonprofit, Change 1, play in achieving that goal?
The system is trying to listen to kids, but how they’re doing it is through tokenism. I witnessed that and I experienced that by being an employee, and I didn’t like it. I felt like I was being retraumatized as a professional, and that’s why I quit working for the department, because it became clear they didn’t think my voice mattered. That’s when I started Change 1, to focus on amplifying the voices of people with lived experience.
I created a framework called All Children Included, which teaches people and agencies how to engage with people with lived experience, to make sure they have a seat at the table, and to do it in a way that does not perpetuate tokenism, and is not causing more harm or exploiting them. I infused positive youth development into my framework. People need to have a seat at the table from the beginning to the end, and to be respected. All my personal experience is bottled up into Change 1.
We focus on public education. We explain why kids come into care, what happens to them while they are in care, and, ultimately, what happens to them if they don’t get adopted. We urge the community to get involved, as a CASA volunteer, or respite provider, or mentor. Everybody can play a part in a child’s life. And we provide support services to foster care alumni. Because I aged out into homelessness, I want to provide support services for that population and fill that gap.
“We don’t tell people what or how they should behave. We’re providing a path for conversation that does not cause more harm.”— Cortney Jones
The Imprint recently published an investigation showing that in Texas, despite state and federal laws that are supposed to protect foster youth until they turn 21, youth are being denied access to housing when they turn 18, leading to many living on the streets. When compared to other states, even states with significantly smaller foster care populations, fewer Texas youth are going into the state’s extended foster care program. Why do you think that is and what needs to change?
I believe the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is not a good parent. As a result of not being a good parent, that means there are unmet needs for youth in care. Because of those unmet needs, then the child has certain behaviors that are troubling. And, instead of helping them through that troubling behavior and giving them tools for their tool belt, the state says “I’m sorry, I did a poor job. But, you’re 18, you’re no longer my problem.”
You can’t treat young adults the same way you treat kids zero to 18. We do not have providers that are equipped to work with young adults with complex trauma. We need to recruit willing participants who want to work with this population. Traditional licensing does not meet the needs of young adults. You have to think differently about licensing, you have to think about policy differently.
They want to be treated like young adults; they want to be treated like their peers. You can’t say to an 18- or 19-year-old they can’t spend the night with somebody or they can’t have visitors. You can’t treat them that way. When DFPS starts to co-create policies with people who are experiencing what is out there, they will have better outcomes.
Last fall, you launched a new initiative based on the concept of restorative justice, called Restorative Practices, a method best known for use in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. What inspired you to apply the method to child welfare and how does it work in that context?
I was introduced to restorative justice through being a school social worker. I saw children’s behavior change. I saw great reduction in harm. I thought, if it has worked in jails and schools, why couldn’t it work in child welfare?
It is a voluntary process where victims and offenders participate in “circles” where they address trust issues, harm and trauma that offenders have inflicted on the victim, and, when possible, healing. While family reunification is the goal, we are not married to an outcome. We just want to make sure that families are equipped with the tools necessary to be able to communicate, to hold themselves accountable, and to be able to repair the situation. We are there to facilitate the process.
There are different circles for different situations. Maybe someone is about to graduate from high school, so you have a transition circle. Maybe there’s been an incident, so you have a repairing-harm circle. We don’t tell people what or how they should behave. We’re providing a path for conversation that does not cause more harm. We’re just trying to give tools to the family, to help the family heal from the harm that has been done. We hope they leave the process better than when they came in.
You said programs like Restorative Practices could, ultimately, help prevent an over-reliance on psychotropic drugs given to youth in foster care who are struggling with mental health issues or may be labeled as “troubled” because of behavior resulting from untreated trauma. How so?
The system is not giving them tools to be able to work through mental health issues. That’s what Restorative Practices is doing: We’re giving them the space, in a non-judgmental way, and we’re giving them the tools to be able to heal.
I was once someone who was forced to go to therapy and forced to go on medication. I didn’t know how to self-regulate. It was very challenging for me to go through college, it was hard for me to maintain a job or even have positive relationships. Because the system said: “You’re misbehaving, let’s move you. You’re misbehaving, let’s restrict you more. You’re misbehaving, let’s give you medicine.”
Restorative Practices is a way to say let’s stop blaming the kids. Let’s stop putting a Band-Aid on it. Let’s be real. Let’s hold everybody accountable.
Because of your experiences in foster care, you decided as a young woman to never have children. But eight years ago, you agreed to foster your cousin’s children and then decided to adopt them. The kids came to you when they were 1 and 2; you adopted them when they were 3 and 4. They are now 9 and 10. What made you change your mind and how have your own experiences informed how you parent?
I had made the decision to never be a mom because I would never give CPS an opportunity to take my children away from me. I know what it did to me. I know what it did to my family. So when I was presented the opportunity to be a kinship provider for my cousin, I was hesitant to say yes. But I also knew that my own feelings had to go to the backburner, because of the fear of what that system could do to them.
The department did not support me as a kinship provider, so I became a foster parent in order to get more support. When my cousin did not do what she needed to do to get her kids back, I decided to adopt. It was the best decision I ever made. I was making the decision to save them from that system. And, in return, they saved me just as much as I saved them.
I parent in a way to empower my kids to have a voice, to communicate with me if they feel any type of way about anything, that we are sure they are well-equipped, well-informed, and that they’re advocates for themselves. Because I barely knew how to read and write when I aged out of foster care, I made reading fun for my kids. My daughter was reading at the fifth grade level when she was in the third grade.
I want my kids to experience things that they probably wouldn’t have experienced if things were different. I want my kids to have the best life that they can have.
Change 1 received funding from the Reissa Foundation, which is also one of the financial contributors to Fostering Media Connections, The Imprint’s parent nonprofit company. Per our editorial independence policy, the foundation has no editorial role in our news coverage.