Betting on the Bay with Katie Albright
Since 2007, attorney and children’s advocate Katie Albright has led Safe & Sound, an organization that has pioneered a data-informed approach to preventing child abuse and reducing its devastating impact. Safe & Sound educates and supports families, children, and the community in the process of creating a more healthy, just, and vibrant society in which every child grows up safe, protected, and loved. Safe & Sound has been a Fund grantee.
Recently, Walter & Elise Haas Fund Executive Director Jamie Allison spoke with Katie as part of our Betting on the Bay series of interviews. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Jamie Alison: Hi Katie! Thanks for being part of this. Can we start with a broad question? What does it mean for a community to be vibrant?
Katie Albright: Of course. Let’s define our terms. Vibrancy: it’s about how a community comes together and about how a community is alive for everyone — for toddlers, teenagers, professionals, and seniors in every neighborhood and in every community. It’s about the values people share, community interactions, and how government leads. It’s about everyone finding their belonging in a place.
JA: I really like that. What do you find most challenging about the economic boom in the Bay Area?
KA: We are struggling in San Francisco. The economic boom is a good thing, but it’s had consequences that we could have foreseen: massive wealth disparities, rising housing inequities, homelessness, and increased violence in communities. But, I’m an optimist. If we think about the region and the vibrancy of the Bay Area, the current economy also brings opportunities to address these challenges.
For example, I just got off the phone with folks from Napa, Sonoma, and Marin. We’re planning for regional partnerships to support kids and families and prevent child maltreatment in the North Bay — that’s new and that’s exciting. The Bay Area has the infrastructure to support kids and families, and then — if you leverage the innovation and the opportunities that the economic boom brings — there can be incredible solutions that improve the lives of so many living in vulnerable circumstances.
JA: Why did you come to the Bay Area? And what keeps you here?
KA: The possibility and values — that “Bay Area dream” that we can make a difference for future generations. Here, it’s possible to create a new and shared value system. What the Bay Area allows us to do is share ideas, engage in values-based conversations, and confront each other’s perceptions and beliefs in a way that moves us forward.
JA: What’s your vision for Bay Area children?
KA: For children to be able to grow up and thrive — every single child.
JA: What do we need to do in order for young people to thrive?
KA: Some in our community are structurally set up to thrive, but others are not afforded the same structures or opportunities. For example, our education system is not set up equitably for all children. Some of that has to do with our funding structure: our tax base and how we fund schools. Other examples of inequities are found in housing, health care, our economy, and even our transportation system. I spoke with a parent last week who told me that it takes their child two hours and multiple buses to get from the Bayview to the Presidio to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean Why is that? These natural resources and landmarks are meant for everyone. That’s a problem!
JA: It’s interesting that you bring up public transportation. Does public transit play a role in creating a vibrant community?
KA: Absolutely, 100%. If we can get around and see each other and see the different communities where people live, then the vibrancy of diversity becomes part of our daily life.
JA: I wanted to talk a little bit more about Safe & Sound and the work it does. How do you leverage the vibrancy of the Bay Area to support young people and families? How do you build the necessary partnerships?
KA: Partnerships are part of the DNA of Safe & Sound. That’s how and why we were created: through public-private partners coming together to protect kids and strengthen families. But, I’ll be honest, it can also be hard to build effective and long-lasting partnerships that support kids.
Everyone has a different idea of what’s right for children and what’s right for families. When adults can keep the best interests of children in mind, that’s when the magic happens.
The partnerships we create take a lot of nurturing. What I have consistently found is that anytime there’s strain in a partnership, we can bring people together if we go back to the reason why we all came together: for the children.
We may wear different hats in a partnership: the educator hat, or police hat, or child welfare hat, or whatever — but we’re all human. And we all want the best for our kids. That humanity is what pulls partnerships together.
JA: And child abuse? How do we define that?
KA: The legal definition of child maltreatment focuses on four areas that cause kids to be unsafe: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Of these, neglect represents the largest percentage and presents unique challenges to prevent. Neglect is most closely tied to economic instability and poverty; and, to prevent neglect we have to prevent this root cause. But what if we thought about “neglect” as a factor of family economic immobility and instability instead of a lack of care?
Imagine a family in which a single parent works multiple jobs to make ends meet and, therefore, need to work nights to provide essentials such as food. Imagine that in order to protect their kids while they’re at work, this parent locks their front door, leaving their children alone in the house sleeping.
Locking them in the house may protect those kids from one set of dangers but it exposes them to others. It’s a hard choice for a parent to make — they are working to support their family, but they have no child care so they lock the doors. Is that neglect? The law would likely say yes.
Lack of economic mobility and support systems force many parents to make choices such as these. It’s not because they don’t love their kids. They just don’t have other options. If we could increase family economic mobility and end poverty, instances that we’re currently defining as neglect would likely plummet. Structurally, we should support interventions that create housing, family support, child care, and job opportunities — all outside of the foster care system.
At Safe & Sound, we’re focused on increasing family resiliency, building parenting knowledge, and providing concrete supports. Our model follows the evidenced-based framework developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C. Their incredible research identifies the essential components that families need to keep children safe and, particularly, to prevent child abuse. Specifically, these Five Protective Factors that strengthen families are:
- parent resiliency — whether or not parents can bounce back from tragedy;
- child social emotional competency — can children make the connections that keep them safe;
- parenting knowledge — parental ability to distinguish age appropriate behavior;
- social connections — a family’s ability to create community connections so they can reach out in need or in times of celebration; and then
- concrete supports — basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and safety.
What I love about these factors is that they’re multi-generational. By this I mean that if we’re going to keep kids safe, we need to keep their caregivers safe, as well.
Every family has strengths that can be amplified through our programs. Even just the ability to ask for help and come to a family resource center is a protective factor that we can help a parent build upon.
JA: Are there community protective factors?
KA: Absolutely. For that, we ask the following questions: Is there housing available? Is there access to high quality early care, education, and schools? Are there parks? Public transportation? Is there access to quality healthcare? Grocery stores? A focus on reducing community violence? Does the community work together with a goal to improve itself?
JA: And how does the Bay Area rank in terms of providing these protective factors?
KA: That’s a good question. Let me give you a few examples of bright spots: San Francisco was the first jurisdiction to have preschool for all. And, San Francisco voters launched an initiative several years ago called Our Children Our Families to improve the wellness of families. It focuses on the full spectrum of care from toddlers up to transitional age youth — meaning young people who are out of foster care or state custody and perhaps struggling to get started without the resources a family would provide.
Additionally, California and many Bay Area counties are focusing on increasing access to healthcare; providing for refugees and newcomers to our community; and increasing affordable housing. On housing, however, I am concerned about recent legislative action throughout our region and state that limits long-term access to affordable housing. We have the opportunity to make a real difference with housing. We have to, but we’re not there yet.
JA: Can you tell me a story about a family that your organization has worked with?
KA: Yes. A few years ago, we began supporting a mom named Anne who was suffering from a mental illness. Her oldest child had been removed from her because of neglect and she was desperately trying to keep her youngest child. For the first two years of this child’s life, the mom and her youngest kept themselves shuttered in a small room. Anne was really scared to go outside. She didn’t want her child to be removed. She didn’t know how to parent in public.
Finally, a friend in her housing complex gave her our phone number. She called and worked with one of our volunteer counselors and eventually she felt safe enough to come into our family support center. We were able to support her and help her parent safely at home and in public. She learned how to do something as simple — and yet as complicated — as taking her toddler to the zoo and have a good time doing it. Now, she loves taking her son to the park and playground — they have a good time, and everyone is safe.
That’s not a dramatic story. But, it’s about the realities of life and it’s about how supporting caregivers ensures that they can parent in the safest way possible.
JA: Who needs to help for your organization to succeed? Are there any partnerships that could further your work?
KA: We need businesses to be at the table as prospective partners. And I think there’s an opportunity to engage business in the importance of creating safe homes and safe family structures. The impact of family violence on workers is significant in terms of their own productivity, absenteeism, and stress.
A recent report published by Safe & Sound calculated the cost of child abuse to California to be $19.3 billion over the course of the lifetimes of those children who were victimized in 2017. That’s just 2017! That’s the cost of child welfare, healthcare, special education — because victims of child abuse are more likely to struggle in or drop out of school — incarceration, and loss of productivity. Research shows that someone in the Bay Area who experienced child abuse is likely to earn $12,000 less annually than someone didn’t experience child abuse.
JA: How does philanthropy play a role in your work and in your leadership journey?
KA: What philanthropy really understands is the importance of leadership. Leadership is hard to foster, and it needs to be fostered. And, philanthropy supports not just the formally-named leader of an organization, but all the informal leaders within an organization: all the voices.
Philanthropy also allows us to innovate. Government allows us to sustain. That marriage creates a really transformational dynamic.
JA: What’s your secret Bay Area hangout spot that brings you joy?
KA: I love the Presidio. I also highly recommend people go on the free library tours of neighborhoods. They’re amazing. Great historians who know the city and the neighborhoods lead walks around Alamo Square, the Mission, the Haight, and Chinatown sharing the history of those neighborhood and of San Francisco. I’ve learned so much about our community from these wonderful walks
JA: I will just share that my husband and I have a project where we’re trying to walk every street in San Francisco. We keep track of our progress by marking each route we walk on a paper map.
Who inspires you in the Bay Area?
KA: I have to say it’s the kids. I was in Grattan Elementary the other day observing Safe & Sound’s educators as they taught our safety awareness class to students. Children have such incredible perspectives on the world. Adults have a lot to learn from them: we just need to listen!
JA: Awesome. Do you have a favorite record?
KA: Anything by Earth, Wind & Fire.
JA: Love it. Thank you so much for speaking with us!
KA: My pleasure.
Before joining Safe & Sound (previously called the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center), Katie Albright represented San Francisco’s public schools as a Deputy City Attorney. She has directed policy for the San Francisco Education Fund to improve teacher quality and increase student retention, and campaigned across California for universal preschool. She lives in San Francisco with her family.