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Reflections on My 1st Year at TeamChild

January marks my one-year anniversary as Executive Director, and it’s been an eventful year for me, for TeamChild, and for the young people that we serve in Washington state. This year we have continued to adapt our work to the effects of the pandemic, which continues to deepen the inequities that cause harm to our young clients and to young people in Washington state. Washington is experiencing a crisis in education rights that continues to be exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic – young people pushed to online school where it doesn’t meet their needs, young people experiencing severe mental health challenges receiving little to no support, and young people experiencing the harmful cycles of bullying and harassment without support from caring adults.

TeamChild came into existence in response to a need for legal representation of young people who are being harmed by the very systems of care that are supposed to be ensuring their success in life. These same systems –  education, child welfare, and the juvenile courts; are sometimes doing more harm than good. TeamChild attorneys are expert advocates and navigators who can walk right alongside young people through challenges they face. We believe in helping young people secure the supports they need to achieve positive outcomes in their lives.

You may be aware that at TeamChild we accomplish our goals through the two fold approach of direct legal services on the one hand, to assist young people in need and resolve immediate problems; and our policy work on the other to address systemic issues to prevent future or “upstream” root causes of the problems we are seeing.

For me this approach makes the most sense, because we are in a position to use the legal skills available to us to apply the remedy at hand to solve immediate needs. We cannot ignore that children are being harmed by systems, whose designs are not working for us. So let’s change these systems and get the results that our communities deserve.

I’m not an attorney, so this has been a year of great learning and appreciation for me. Prior to joining TeamChild I have led other nonprofit organizations that also provided direct services and worked on policy change for marginalized communities. Since becoming the Executive Director at TeamChild, I have learned that our attorneys regularly intervene to ensure that young people aren’t pushed out of school by racist or exclusionary school discipline. We ensure that having discipline issues doesn’t mean a young person loses access to education. At TeamChild, one of the most significant things we work on is to uphold a young person’s basic right to public education. This is disheartening, even alarming, and this is why we must couple the direct legal work with systems reform – because in 10 years time, we don’t want TeamChild attorneys to be advocating for basic inclusion at school for youth. We want youth to be included and experience safety and belonging as the norm.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of the youth prisons and detention facilities in our state. TeamChild is dedicated to work toward closing these facilities for good, and replacing them with community based solutions that provide meaningful support. A great deal of work needs to happen, collaboratively and community-led for this to come to fruition. You may have heard that in 2022 our state announced the closing of the youth prison facility at Naselle; located in southwest Washington state. I have not been surprised by the young people I met at various detention facilities. They are no different from my own relatives or neighbors. If you follow us on Instagram you may have seen a post with words from staff attorney Melissa Hamblin, “I wish people understood how much my clients are just like other young people. They have favorite football teams, they play Dungeons and Dragons, they make music, they haven’t figured out exactly who they are yet, and like all teenagers, they make mistakes.”

A common thread in my work life has been the centering of communities served by the organizations I’ve led, and recognizing the leadership of the people we serve. At TeamChild we envision a world where youth prisons do not exist. Where young people thrive, doing their hobbies, pursuing their passions and enjoying their best life surrounded by friends and family however that looks for them. We believe the harmful interventions we have today can be transformed into supportive ones to make this possible.

As we head into 2023 — a year of strategic planning for TeamChild — each one of us on our staff and Board is deeply reflecting on how we can meet the challenges of today while doing the work to prevent harm from happening in the first place. We know that keeping young people out of school is harmful. We know that incarcerating young people is harmful. And yet, our systems continue to perpetuate such harm. In the year to come, all of us at TeamChild are motivated to think big about what our role can be in transforming our systems through the lived experience and wisdom of young people. I look forward to sharing more about the path ahead in the weeks and months to come.

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