Shaquita's Story

photography by Yalonda M. James for the Juvenile Project

photography by Yalonda M. James for the Juvenile Project

“They’ve had enough people in their lives to walk away from them and to promise them empty promises… If you are raw with them and honest with them, they are more receptive to you… It can be hard in some other roles, if you’re a therapist or psychiatrist to be open with them, but young people really want you to be open. They want to know a little bit about you, even if it’s where you’re from, about your family, that you’re real. They want to be treated like humans, because oftentimes they aren’t. They don’t have many options to make decisions for themselves. So if we treat them like humans, being consistent and honest with them, we’ve done our job.”

Shaquita serves as the Policy & Youth Advocacy Coordinator at MAAC (Multi-Agency Alliance for Children). She works in the Georgia Youth Opportunities Initiative, a collaborative effort between public, private, and non-profit organizations, working to improve outcomes for youth transitioning out of foster care. When she first decided she wanted to advocate for children, she thought she needed to be an attorney, then she thought she needed to be an educator. Her professional background in both these fields ultimately led her to her current position at MAAC. In this interview, she discusses her work with youth, the challenges that they and their families are facing across the state of Georgia, and Georgia EmpowerMEnt, a youth-led advocacy movement that is focused on improving the foster care system. 

Interview with Shaquita, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on September 1, 2017 in Atlanta, GA.

Joann: "So tell me your name and your role in the organization that you work?"

Shaquita: "Alright. So, I am Shaquita Ogletree. My role here at MAAC, which stands for the Multi Agency Alliance for Children, I am the Policy and Youth Advocacy Coordinator. At MAAC we have several different departments and programs. Mainly my program I work with is called the Georgia Youth Opportunities Initiative."

"So the initiative started ten years ago. Jim Casey, which is part of Annie E. Casey Foundation ... They started youth organizing work, working with older youth currently in foster care and did a pilot program here called Metro Youth Opportunities Initiative and partnered with the community foundation in Greater Atlanta. Did some great work working with young people directly in foster care and that also alumni of how to improve the foster care system."

"And so, from that work, Metro Youth Opportunities Initiative did a lot of different things around training case workers, engaging other young people around improvements of the foster care system, and then I guess, in that year pilot program, they needed to find a home. So those young people wrote a RFP and shopped it around to a couple places."

"One of the places was DFACS [Division of Family and Children Services], and then MAAC, and some other small nonprofits and ultimately chose MAAC because they really believed in the principles that MAAC had, a youth force in choice and family both in choice and that it was strength-based and a small organization. And that it wasn't DFACS. It didn't it was telling your parents when you didn't agree with them. For 10 years, Georgia Empowerment, which was Mayo, has now grown state-wide. So it covers the hundred and fifty nine counties of Georgia."

"Working with community partners and young people to really make sure the youth voice is at the forefront, or the center, and it's heard. Young people are very heard. Their needs and the gaps in services they receive. And so we have been here at MAAC for ten years."

Joann: "Tell me what you've learned. First of all, lets back up a little bit and tell me a little bit about yourself. And your background and what led you into this work."

Shaquita: "It's so fun. I never wanted to be involved in the child welfare system. So let's not go deeply in my background, or my growing up childhood. I always wanted to be a child advocate. I always thought to do that you had to be a lawyer. The track that I wanted to go, was to finish undergrad. Go to law school. During my undergraduate years, I did Americorps. Did two years of service. Two years of service in DC. I went to Howard University at southeast DC which is on the of the worst part of the country in the capital of the US."

"And it's horrible but working in school systems taught second and third grade. It was an eye opener. I realized that to really work in communities and to work with children that I could do it through education. So I changed my route. After I did all this work around legal stuff and getting a degree in political science and English. To be an educator. After undergrad I came back home to Georgia, with a pair profession for a year, and I hated it. I hated it because you really ... even the six to eight hours you spend in the school system with the kids... I don't think it was as much impactful as I wanted it to be. Because they go home and they still have to deal with the same issues that they were dealing with."

"Met Sarah Bess Hudson, who is a champion for EmpowerMEnt. She's been in EmpowerMEnt for all two years I've been at MAAC. I met her at an event called Celebration Excellence. It's where we celebrate all the high school and GED and college graduates. So I was there as a recipient that are in foster care. And I met her through an independent lit specialist. Since then she's just been a great mentor, and she taught me about MAAC."

"In the beginning years I was part of Georgia EmpowerMEnt as a member advocating across the state. Mainly working with the court systems so the young people can be heard in the court. So that most in south, for some reason, judges don't believe that young people should be in court, or be able to tell their stories or be heard. Yeah, that was ten years ago. Some still today in the rural areas of Georgia. But we really fought and worked with the court system to make sure that they understood why young people should be allowed to tell their stories. Like, you asked the moms, the parents, you told everyone else about their case plan, but the young person not being heard. And some of the young people can speak eloquently about the situation with out it being a CASO or attorney advocating for you. Young people really wanted to be heard. That was the initial part in how I got involved in EmpowerMEnt; training judges and lawyers and attorney and CASO workers about the importance of young peoples voice."

"Since then, been trying to figure out how else we can be impactful through EmpowerMEnt. Maybe Brittany talked about the youth support program. About mentoring youth who are currently in care. So alumni, mentoring youth who are currently in care. So I developed and managed that program initially when I came on to MAAC because there's something about turning eighteen. It's like the magic number that everyone thinks you need to be an adult now. And back then, five years ago, we didn't have an extension of care in Georgia, so at eighteen you just left. That was it. Bye. Hopefully you do well. And young people, alumni were getting calls from young people who were leaving care like, "We're not prepared. We're not ready." So we felt that this program could really be that force for young people. So they can be part of their case plan ninety days before they leave care to say, "These are my plans and this is what I need help with.""

"For five years, for three to four years, I helped develop that program. And then I saw that in developing that program, that policy was not really being implemented. We have great policies here in Georgia. We have great laws here in Georgia. Young people don't know about them. They don't know their rights. They don't know about the policies that really impact them. We just develop policy. Put in to the files. Train case workers on it; they maybe use it. They may not use it. And then we expect young people to be successful."

"So I thought that it was really important to get young people involved in the policies. And for us to be educated on the policies that are impacting young people in foster care system. With that, it's not always about child welfare. We're lucky here at MAAC to really have a public/private partnership with several different entities from the education system to the juvenile justice system through boarding. Through housing, because housing is a big need for young people as they're transitioning. We work within the state social workers program to make sure that, when they do homeless counts, they consider youths who have been in foster care. And so we believe that the resources don't... are not sallow with child welfare. We need to make sure that we are involved in every aspect of the well being of a young person."

"That was a lot. But I don't know."

Joann: "That's awesome. It was a really great overview. In terms of the state wide policies that you're advocating for right now, what are your priorities?"

Shaquita: "When Mayo came out with Team EmpowerMEnt, they brought their ... it was like seven priority's they had. It was around education, around health to twenty one at that time. Had a health access to twenty one, around housing. So statewide housing. Better relationship with your case managers. Drivers license access and even documentation. Not even just a drivers license, a state ID before you leave care. Because those are things you need. And then one of the biggest ones is teens and care. Young mothers being able to have their babies. Remain with them and not come into foster care system."

"So, those are the original, what, six priority's that came over with Mayo. Since then we are uniquely situated where we are able to update our priority's on an annual basis. Depending on young peoples, and what they feel is most important. Even if policy change. Strength and family act came in did this, was really important for us. And extension of care was really important for us. We educate our young people on it, and we asked them, "is this really an issue in your community?" What's an issue in Atlanta might not be an issue in Savannah. Because everything is totally different. It's a different world. For the most part, young people have the same issues going on, so what's happening in Atlanta, sometimes is also happening in Savannah. Not a lot of resources for health. Not a lot of resources for education and things like that."

"Currently right now, we have eight priorities. Education stability is one of our biggest ones. A lot of young people do not graduate on time, before they turn eighteen. A lot of them are forced to get GEDs, or forced to drop out of school, and they don't finish. A lot of young people, they do go to college, sometimes they don't have the supports they need to remain in college. So it's important that we see, we help young people know about resources and services that are available to them in Georgia."

"We're still fighting Medicaid to 26 through the Affordable Care Act, but our state somehow has, somehow our young people are still able to get resources. Even though they don't advertise it. We’re working on that. Parents who are minors remaining with their kids is really a big one that we're still having to educate providers on. Providers think that to get resources for the child, you have to bring everybody in care. And that's not the case."

"Juvenile justice is an interesting one because we had an advocate who was really passionate about juvenile justice reform. Five years ago, Giovan Bazan - and again, our young people drive our policies and our priorities - and so he was really involved in the whole juvenile justice reform efforts. He did testimonies, he did a lot of advocating. Going to RYDCs talking to young people. We had a whole JUSTGeorgia crew, so they met on a weekly or monthly basis. They had events, barbeques, just letting the community know that it was an issue and how to help and support. We supported our young people with their priorities so they're passionate about something, and we support them. We help them, link them with community partners who are working on the same issues. So we not, again just at MAAC doing this."

"We partner with the Barton Center of course, and Voices for Georgia's children, who was also involved in some of those efforts. And of course, DJJ. He got to meet a lot of different people, talking to the commissioner on a regular basis on about his opinion on things, some of the articles in the bill, he was able to say "this is what young people agree on, this is what they don't agree on." Even on a first try, when things were not going the way the justice crew wanted them to be, they came back the next year, they fought for getting some more articles around independent living. That was a really big piece, that they talked about making sure young people who were committed had services once they left. And we weren't just making them pay for their crimes and not giving them the tools and skills they needed to be successful after they left. So that was a really big one that Georgia EmpowerMEnt we believed was important for young people."

"Then all the priorities we really allow young people to decide if they're important. So an extension of foster care is one, that for three years we've been fighting. And we've had some wins and we're fortunate enough that our partners at DFACS, our child welfare systems, they sit down with our young people and have conversations with them. They explain to them, this is how funding works, and these are the priorities for the year for us, and we hear you guys what you're saying but we have to figure out what's best for this system and young people and if we do this, this is what happens. So they are really great at engaging our young people we are fortunate enough to be able to meet with the director, the commissioner, the independent living specialist, the well being specialist. So anytime the young people want to set a meeting, they have the campaign tactics. They can go speak to them."

"Of course we have some great community partners here as well. Child welfare has been a really big issue the last five years here in Georgia."

Joann: "What have been you biggest challenges in terms of the push back? There's not always a political will to pursue certain priorities. Where have you had the biggest challenges and the biggest push backs?"

Shaquita: "I feel like a lot of our answers would be different."

Joann: "Depending on which ones you want to pass most, I guess."

Shaquita: "I think the biggest challenge has been consistency in the leadership level. We've had director now, before Director Cagle, who's been in office for three years, and the ten years before him we had had three or four different directors. And so, just the consistency and the level of administrations has been a really big issue."

"And of course funding is always a big issue. When we look at older youth, there are a lot of funding gaps for our older youth and housing. Good lord, housing here in Georgia is not available. In the metro area is, the Atlanta area, we have so many resources available, but even they can't find enough. We have more young people coming in secured in, actually come in to care in a later age. So we have more young people coming in care between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. And then if they are available for services, the gaps of services has been really big issue for our young people."

"I think on the young people side of things. I don't know what the administration side will say, but I think on the young people side, just a lack of resources, and a lack of education. I would say, not a lot ... we've had case workers turn over, so with the lack of education comes with the support. So, you have case workers turn over, it's like thirty three percent here in Georgia. Or higher. And then you have provider turnover, with staff level. Or just the quality of the provider staff members. With that young people are not getting the education they need. We have young people here fortunately enough that our MAAC kids, I would say they are, I would say that we are really good at letting them know about opportunities. But for our young people who are not connected to that agency, they don't know about the opportunities."

"We travel the state and we engage with new providers, or new young people. We have all these great resources, like EmpowerMEnt. Like savings accounts, like, Youth Support, they are like, "What? I didn't know you guys had all that stuff that was available to me." It's very interesting that, even in this day and time, with technology, our young people are not the first the get the information."

Joann: "I know that there was a major juvenile justice, like a code overhaul that happened 2014?"

Shaquita: "Yes."

Joann: "How has that impacted the work that you've done?"

Shaquita: "I don't know. Sarah Bess probably better to explain this. I know we've been invited to table a lot because, again that youth voice is missing. And so figuring out what's next. For the whole coalition around doing justice reform, is like what's our next strategy? We got the juvenile cold pass. So what should we be working on next? A lot of community engagement because we're still seeing a lack of services for young people. For instance, we have in our Le Grange area, which is south Georgia, we have a group home down there, or provider down there and we have our Georgia EmpowerMEnt tribe down there. But there's a set of young ladies in that group home that are not in foster care, but they are in DJJ. And they said this service, can provide all these youth organize skills and models to our young people, but not to them because they're not in foster care."

"We were fortunate enough, because Juvenile justice's priority of ours we were able to finagle some funding through Jim Casey to support them with their advocacy. When we talked with them, a lot of items we hear they are not heard. So I think it's still a lack of young people being engaged. Even though they have these opportunities to receive services and not be incarcerated. They're still, "We need more ... we're just going to go back home and be in the same situation." So I see that even though, even with the virgin programs that we have, it's still not enough for our young people. They're good in those settings. But when they go home, what supports do they have. So I think it's still a lot of work around the community level. Around making sure there's enough resources for young people even when they go home. I think that's right in the community. So. Not sure."

Joann: "Brittany talked about her experiences in the, what do you call it, RYDC?"

Shaquita: "Yes."

Joann: "And how that's more of a temporary placement situation and how she appreciated having a more permanent placement when she got to DJJ."

Shaquita: "Mm-hmm (affirmative)-"

Joann: "From program services that are offered, could you talk a little bit about how did these systems interact and what are the overlaps? What are the services typically?"

Shaquita: "That's a great question. So, Brittany is the pre before the justice reform and things like that. Her experience would been a lot different than currently what's happening now. Her detention sentence depended on her events. And her being placed into, I guess a residential setting. It really depends on your residency in which you are placed in. The services you receive, because depending on that agency what they're able to provide to you, outside of therapy and education and housing. It really depends on what placement you're placed at."

"I wish they were all... I wish it was equally around all the placements. I wish that they would all receive the same services, but that's not the case. Then again, when you're home county, is not the same. For one county, like Fulton or the cap county that you can get clothing allowance. Another county, you come in Lawrence county or Chatham county, and you're in the same placement with those same four girls in the same placements, it's all different services. Everyone you see is totally different from their legal county. And so I really wish it was a systemic system."

"Currently, right now, young people ... so, it's different ways to .. so we have CHANS. Children in need of services. These are young people who have committed minor offenses, and sort of diversion. They are served through foster care. But they have the probation officer, and things like that. But they are served through foster care and there place in the foster care setting. And they can receive all the services that you receive if you were in foster care."

"Youth that are primarily DJJ only, they receive only DJJ services. But they might be places in the same setting as the kids in foster care because that placement takes in Juvenile justice and foster care youth. So you have these young people placed in the same settings and receiving the basic level services of therapy, education and housing. But on their individual service plans, these kids in foster care might get outings, IOP [Intensive outpatient treatment/program] events, and the kids in DJJ, they don't."

"I don't know if that answers your question, but the systems still work separately. It's like funding follows the child. And it's sad. It's not even funding follows the child, it's really the department follows the child. Because if the funding follows the child, then each child would receive individual services and that's just not the case."

Joann: "You mentioned the young man who, I didn't get his name."

Shaquita: "Giovan."

Joann: "Giovan."

Shaquita: "Yes."

Joann: "Is he still in Atlanta? Is he still working with"

Shaquita: "No. He's on an international motivational speaker. He is like killing the game. He's like my little brother. He was here recently. So, he's here often. He comes back. His story's really impressive, so if you get a chance to look him up, or if you get a change to reach out to him, he's one of the ones that you'd be mesmerized by hearing him speak and things like that."

Joann: "You personally, what do you feel most proud of about the work that you've done since you've been here?"

Shaquita: "I don't know. I just haven't done enough. I don't think I've made a really big impact yet. Being here. I don't know, our young people are so awesome. Like, I've been fortunate enough to, like Giovan, I remember meeting him. He had to be like sixteen, seventeen, and now he's twenty three, twenty four. Just seeing our young people, who are so passionate about this work, to see them grow up and be like these young men and young women and still be involved in the calls. It's just so many of them."

"We hear so much about the negativity about young people not succeeding and the failures but there are some young people from Georgia, from Georgia EmpowerMEnt that are involved in our work, that we seen, they are successful because they define their success. And that sense. They've changed the game for us. They have made the impact, so we've had young people who have been really impactful in different ways. We had young person who his whole soul goal was to make a housing guide, because he was tired of seeing young people who were leaving care and asking for, I don't want to call 211, or 411. "Where can I go?" He wanted to make sure that they had something that they can tangible that we can send to them and they can do the advocacy themselves or they can call the numbers."

"I feel like our young people have did some really great work of just ... I can't be ... I don't know ... we just kind of help them develop their passions. Just watching them develop their passion and find it, that is inspiration to me. That's the only reason I keep staying. One of the reasons why I keep staying. I haven't done anything successful. I don't know. We've done a couple things here at EmpowerMEnt, but it's all the success of the young people. Like their stories matter and it's really awesome to hear their stories that they're willing to share and let us be a part of it. I'm always amazed by them. Nothing from me."

"EmpowerMEnt has had some great wins."

Joann: "As somebody who at first thought that you had to be a lawyer, and then you had to be an educator, and you end up where you are now, what would your advice be to young people who want to do this kind of work? Like, who want to pursue this field of supporting and advocating for young people?"

Shaquita: "Wow."

Joann: "Like, young professionals, or people who are in high school. Even people who maybe come to it in an around about ways. What's your advice to people who are advocates?"

Shaquita: "Same advice young people give, be consistent. I guess as you're finding your passion, really engage with young people. We engage so much with professionals, and things like that. I was really fortunate enough to be able to engage with young people early on in life. I always found my calling in young people, because we're talking about the future. We can do so much, now and in the past, but when you try to build for the future, the young people really are the future. You got to be able to understand them and engage with them."

"But as far as this work, advocating and not having to be a lawyer, go to law school. I would say, being consistent. Yeah, they've had enough people in their lives who have walked away from them, and to promise them empty promises. Being honest. Really, young people, they act so surprising, if you are raw with them and honest with them, they are more receptive to you. They will give you whatever, really being honest with them."

"I know it can be hard, with some of our other roles. If your a therapist or physiatrist, or being open with them. But young people really want you to know a little bit about you. Even if it's where you're from or about your family. That you're real. Because they want to be treated like humans. Often times they aren't. They don't have many options to make decisions for themselves. We treat them like humans and be consistent and honest with them. I think that we've done our job."

Joann: "Is there anything that we've missed that you want to talk about?"

Shaquita: "No. Did I miss anything about EmpowerMEnt? I think I was supposed to be talking about EmpowerMEnt, not myself."

Joann: "I think this is great. We covered a lot."

Shaquita: "Okay."

Joann: "Well, thank you. Thank you for your time."

Shaquita: "Thank you."