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Banking on KC – Lori Ross of FosterAdopt Connect

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Click here to listen to the episode, or read the transcript below:

 

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. On this episode, we welcome Lori Ross, the founder and CEO of FosterAdopt Connect. Welcome, Lori.

Lori Ross:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

You are a great example of an entrepreneur who's inspired to found an organization, because you saw a gaping hole in something. And you may not think of yourself as an entrepreneur, but you certainly are. So tell us about why you founded FosterAdopt Connect. What gap did you see and what inspired you to act on that, to actually create an organization that would do something about that?

Lori Ross:

So my husband and I were foster parents and we had been fostering for about 14 years. And over that time, we recognized that there were significant issues that were challenges for people like ourselves in the community. Things like not being able to find the supports that we needed to be able to do our job as caregivers for children, who'd suffered abuse and neglect well, or problems in the ability to get kids the services they need in navigating the complex bureaucratic systems that have to interact with children in the foster care world, like the courts and different school districts. And of course the children's division and all those kinds of things, health care, mental health care. They are complicated bureaucracies for anyone. And when you're caring for kids who have suffered abuse and neglect, you end up needing to be able to navigate all of those things.

Lori Ross:

Additionally, we were all pretty isolated in doing this work. And by that, I mean, individual people became foster parents and cared for kids in their homes, but they weren't necessarily connected to other people who were also doing foster care. So I might have neighbors in my neighborhood that were also foster parents, but I wouldn't necessarily know that. And I wouldn't have any ability then to be able to form friendships or relationships or supportive relationships with other people who are on the same mission as I was, who were doing the same work I was doing. Wanting to make that better for people and encourage people to get into fostering and to stay fostering, remain committed to fostering, and really primarily wanting to make a difference in the lives of children who have suffered an abuse and neglect was the driving factor behind what created eventually FosterAdopt Connect. It was actually not just me, but a group of foster parents that got together and tried to brainstorm what would be an organization that could be about making a difference for kids and families from the parent level, from the grassroots.

Kelly Scanlon:

You created this network, you are all operating loosely, and as you said in isolation. What timeframe are we talking about, though?

Lori Ross:

This was actually between the years of 1998 and 2000 and it was a support group initially. And then the vision grew into becoming kind of an organization, a more defined organization. And we wrote our 501(c)3 application and organized our articles of incorporation at my kitchen table in the summer of 2000 and received our 501(c)3 designation later that year.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about some of the programs that FosterAdopt Connect offers. I know you've talked in general about the support about a little bit about the advocacy, but specifically talk about some of the programs that you've been able to develop over the last 20 years.

Lori Ross:

So FosterAdopt Connect has focused a whole lot on two different areas. One on supporting the needs of the families who are caring for the kids, and the other on really responding to the issues that we see for our children in the foster care system and trying to resolve some of the things that cause them to have negative outcomes rather than positive. Some examples are, we do some very specialized recruitment programs where we're able to focus on keeping children placed with safe and appropriate family members at the front end of the system, that's called 30 Days to Family, or working with kids who have been in foster care for at least two years, sometimes longer, who are at risk of not finding permanency, not making it to be reunified with their parents or to be adopted by another family because they have significant challenging behaviors or mental health issues or other factors, or they're part of a large sibling group.

Lori Ross:

We have a program called Extreme Family Finding that works with those kids. And that really gives them a much better odds of being able to reach permanency. We go from about that 20% figure kids who are over 12, have about a 20% likelihood of being adopted out of the foster care system in general. But if they are able to receive our services, their odds improve to 80%. There's specialized recruitment programs. We work with young people who have just recently aged out of the foster care system until they're 27, to try to prevent some of the terrible outcomes when our system has not done its job and gotten those kids to permanency while they were in the system. Those young people are out struggling, trying to survive in a world without the support that all young people need at those ages. From 18 to 26, trying to solve problems, trying to dig their way out without any financial resources, without a stable family, to help them solve their problems.

Lori Ross:

We have a whole lot of programs that provide support to families and have recently started a kinship navigator program where we're working with relatives and grandparents who have been informally caring for children because their family has had some kind of an issue and are struggling to try keep those kids from having to come into the foster care system. And we're working directly with those families to connect them with supports and resources in the community so those kids can stay safely there. We do a very intensive direct program with young children, well children of all ages, who have significant mental health and behavioral issues that prevents them from having to spend a great percentage of their childhood in an institution, in a residential treatment facility. And we provide the same level of supports and services and sometimes a higher quality of services for them directly one-on-one in their homes so that they're able to improve their functioning significantly and move to permanency more quickly.

Lori Ross:

So we just have a wide range of very specialized programs that really don't mimic necessarily what other child welfare providers in the community are doing. We don't do foster care case management. We do a small amount of foster care licensing work, but in general, we're not really competitors to some of the private agencies in our area that do this work. We are providing specialized, innovative programs that fill gaps in the system.

Kelly Scanlon:

As I listen to you talk, yes, they are all very specialized programs. But what I like about them is as they work together, you are addressing the issue systemically. You aren't just addressing one piece of it, but things are still spiraling out of control over here in a family, you're trying to address the whole of it. And what that leads me to then is the advocacy piece, because you cannot have a systemic approach and come up with solutions unless you change the legislators' thinking and in some of the other things that impact the system.

Lori Ross:

Right, so advocacy is really the key that is where we started and where we continue to focus a lot of our efforts. We do advocacy at the individual level with children and families who encounter a problem within the system. And that really looks like an experienced foster adoptive parent, helping a newer foster adoptive parent to resolve a problem that has created problems for their kids and families. And that's something we've done way back to our founding in 2000. But what we do on a broader scale is that we look at the issues that come to our attention through individual advocacy or through the experiences of our kids and families out in the community, as we're working with them that are really more systemic in nature, they're present in lots of situations and they create barriers for lots of families and for lots of kids. And we work really closely to build relationships with decision-makers in the community, with the agencies that we interact with our colleagues in child welfare, both in the private agencies and the public agency in Missouri and Kansas.

Lori Ross:

And we work very closely with the legislature in the state of Missouri and in the state of Kansas to try to make sure that not only at the administrative level, we're creating policies that are going to address issues for kids, we review previous policies and suggest improvements or changes to those policies, but also legislatively, we follow very closely what's happening around us. We're paying attention to what's happening at the federal level and how dollars are even sent into the state so that we can try to target some of those for innovative changes. We work very directly with legislators to champion program funding or policy changes, which are going to have positive impacts on children's lives. And we do that in both states. And we actually do some of that work at the federal level as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have so much experience to bring to the table, and I'm sure that is a factor in people listening to you. You foster children yourself. However you had been doing that since 1985, right?

Lori Ross:

Right.

Kelly Scanlon:

Before you ever founded this in 2000, 1998 to 2000 period, when you were getting it off the ground. Tell us about what drew you into the foster care system to begin with and a little bit about what happened with you during those 15 years before you decided to do something about the gaps that you saw.

Lori Ross:

I grew up in a family that had a sort of a social justice philosophy in life and went to private Catholic school actually, and paid a whole lot of attention to that aspect, to the aspect of needing, to provide service to those people who are most at risk, the poor and the sick and the old and the young, and sort of came into, into my own as an adult with a philosophy in my life of wanting to do something that made a difference. But probably the thing that pointed me in this direction the most was that I had a friend in high school who had experienced some abuse and watching that happen to her, made me just more determined than ever to do something to make a difference for kids in foster care. So right after my husband and I got married, we started fostering and it was quite an adventure.

Lori Ross:

We were very young and naive. And so over the years we ended up fostering lots and lots of children. We did emergency foster care and fostered at all different levels. Children with elevated needs down to newborns who came into the system fresh from the hospital and grew a lot in terms of our understanding of the needs of kids and families and our experiences were broad and varied. And so those kinds of things factored into wanting to turn that experience into something that had a bigger effect than on just the children that we could impact within our family. We fostered over 400 children and we adopted 23 children out of the foster care system and then have five biological children of our own along the way. So we did as much as we could personally do. We're still doing that. We still have six children at home. Currently.

Lori Ross:

We've raised, I think, three generations of children at this point. But the reality was that as I watched, it was not enough. I felt like we had some hard-earned knowledge that we could share. And in my passion to make a difference for children beyond those that we could personally reach was what drove me to, it still drives me today, to continue to do everything in my power for as long as I can to make a difference for these kids and families.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, it's a perfect example of you can do a lot individually, but when you can coordinate that with other likeminded people, you can just accomplish so, so much more.

Lori Ross:

Right. Right. It's that Margaret Mead quote, what a small group of committed people can do. And that's really what it's about for me. Life is short. You've only got so much time and we need to make a difference that lasts in this world. And that is our goal here at FosterAdopt Connect. It's not just about me. It's not certainly my thing. There are 250 people now that work in this organization that are doing everything in their power every single day to make a difference for kids in Missouri and in Kansas. And frankly, maybe some of the things that we develop here that are problem solvers for the system will have the ability to make a difference for kids well beyond just our region here in the Midwest.

Kelly Scanlon:

How do you measure the success of your initiatives?

Lori Ross:

Obviously we measure it both in terms of fiscal impact and in terms of life impact. When we're looking at success, we gather a lot of data, but what matters most to me is that we're good fiscal stewards, that we are producing a return on the investment, whether it's state dollars or a private donor wants to trust us and invest in an idea that we have to make things better for kids. I want to be able to demonstrate to them that we have created something that not only makes a difference in terms of achieving the outcome we've set for the program, like for example, the 20% likelihood of getting adopted for the older years, going to 80%. So I not only want to demonstrate the program achieves its goal on behalf of children and families, but I also want to demonstrate that it can be done and it can be done for less dollars and the return on that investment is that we're spending less tax dollars on services that are not resulting in the outcomes we want.

Lori Ross:

So if a kid has to age out of foster care, rather than being adopted, because they just happened to be a 13 year old, who needs a family, that is going to cost our system exponentially more than the dollars they invest in allowing us to do this program. So you talked about being an entrepreneur, I'm also a business person. So it is important to me that we are a fiscally responsible business and that we take the tax dollars that come to us as well as the private and foundation dollars that come to us and we use them for the best possible purpose to achieve both outcomes, return on investment and obviously our primary outcome, a positive improvement in the lives of children and families.

Kelly Scanlon:

Do you have any specific situations that are memorable that really stick with you, whether it's a piece of legislation that you impacted profoundly, whether it's a situation with a parent, with a child that just really sticks with you?

Lori Ross:

I mean, there's obviously both. I think there are five pieces of legislation in the state of Missouri that we helped to draft and spearhead through the legislature that we contributed to, that we testified for. There's a foster youth bill of rights. That is the most recent one that was a few years ago. That wasn't me by any means. It was a group of young people who work within this organization that came together to create their own foster youth bill of rights. So that was a piece that I'm super proud of, but there are millions of stories. And one I can think of as a little boy who had come to the state of Missouri with his mother who had severe mental illness from California. And he ended up in a residential treatment facility and mom, because of her mental health issues just basically disappeared. So this little boy was about, I don't know, seven or eight years old, and he's living in a residential treatment facility and has no family in the region.

Lori Ross:

And he is not an accurate reporter. He has significant behavioral and mental health issues and obviously trauma of his own to deal with. And we were able to get that child connected with our Extreme Family Finding program and do the work to identify relatives of this child in California and found an uncle who was not frightened off by this child's own mental health diagnosis or the diagnosis of his mother, came to Missouri and was able to get background checked and home, studied in California and ended up adopting his nephew. That story sticks with me to this day.

Kelly Scanlon:

How can our listeners get involved with FosterAdopt Connect? Surely you have some avenues where you need volunteers or donations or other ways that they can connect.

Lori Ross:

Absolutely. I always say everyone can't be a foster parent, but there's always a way for anyone to make a difference in the life of a child. And one of the things that we pride ourselves about here at FosterAdopt Connect is that we are a really great way for the community to get involved in making a difference for these kids. And we certainly have lots of volunteer opportunities from participating in assisting us with specific programs, to assisting with fundraising events, to sponsoring children for their birthdays or for holidays. Or right now we're looking at school supplies, trying to collect school supplies for kids, anticipating that they're going back to school in some form or fashion, and they're still going to need those school supplies. So there's always ways like that. We accept donations of clothing and furniture and all kinds of things that make a difference for young people who are aging out of foster care or children who are fresh coming into the foster care system who come in with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Lori Ross:

Those are ways that folks can get involved. We are always, always excited to get donations from the community, whether it's for, they get on our website and they find a specific program that touches their heart and they want to give to that specific program, or whether it's just in general or if there's an organization or a foundation or someone out there with deeper pockets that really wants to get behind sponsoring something more significant, helping us fund a new program idea or helping us to really make a difference in the life of a specific child or family. There's always those opportunities as well. We are thrilled to increase our name recognition in the community, because I'll be honest with you, it's been a very rare thing that I've ever met anyone who did not have a heart for kids who have suffered abuse and neglect, and our system tends to be kind of private.

Lori Ross:

There's a whole lot of the word confidentiality thrown out there. And it's almost seems like it's a barrier to try to really get involved and make a difference. And through FosterAdopt Connect are certainly many, many opportunities for people who have a heart for these kids to really find a way to use their talents and passion to get involved.

Kelly Scanlon:

And you can find a lot of those, maybe not all of the ones that you described, but many of them at your website, fosteradopt.org.

Lori Ross:

Right, and certainly anyone who was interested could reach out to me directly. My email is lori@fosteradopt.org. Couldn't be much easier than that. L-O-R-I at fosteradopt.org and our website is a great source of information about our programs and ways to be involved.

Kelly Scanlon:

Lori, thank you so much for being with us on this episode of Banking on KC. Thank you for being a difference maker in these kids' lives and in the community.

Lori Ross:

Thank you so much for having me.

Joe Close:

Hi, I'm Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Lori Ross for joining us on this episode of Banking on KC. Kansas City needs more people like Lori and the associates and volunteers at FosterAdopt Connect. Every child deserves to grow up in a healthy environment, surrounded by people who love and care for them who ensure their safety and who provide them with a solid footing for taking advantage of life's opportunities. The foundation of every community is its children. They are our next generation. Join us at Country Club Bank in working with people and organizations that raise up our community by supporting its children. Love a child, improve a life, enhance a community. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.