Janis Avery would like to read a book.
Avery has been the chief executive officer for Treehouse, a nonprofit organization that serves youth in foster care, for more than two decades. Next year she will step down from that role, capping off a career that has seen seismic shifts in the way the foster care system functions in the state of Washington.
In the past five years, Washington has prepared and implemented federal requirements faster than any other state. It created the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which fundamentally changed the way the state approached caring for fostered youth.
Treehouse, with Avery at the lead, has been there through all of it, putting the kids first.
“I think the role we’ve played is to raise up the thinking on what children in foster care are capable of,” Avery said.
Now Avery is stepping aside and has goals of her own. “I have had a completely planned life, my entire life,” she said. “I have a huge pile of books to read.”
Part of Treehouse’s mission is to get the educational attainment that youth in foster care need to have a stable, secure future. Its goal, announced in 2018, is to help students in foster care across Washington state graduate high school at the same rate as their traditionally housed peers.
To accomplish that, foster children need educational help, but they also need material support and opportunities to make education possible. Meeting those needs meant that Treehouse had to grow and change in substantive ways. The organization has more than doubled in size over the course of the past five years.
Amy Mullins, the board chair of Treehouse, has been with the organization since 2011. Mullins began at Treehouse as a volunteer and transitioned into a leadership role with the organization. She grew up in foster care herself, but as a White child in a middle-class household.
Avery brought a racial equity lens to the organization that changed Mullins’ perspective on her own experience and how to best meet the needs of the Black and Brown children that Treehouse serves.
“Our predominately White lens doesn’t serve our kids best,” Mullins said. “The majority of our children are children of color. How do I know, as a White woman, what a child of color experiences?
“It’s made us really step back and gain understanding and roll up our sleeves and do the work,” Mullins said.
It was Avery who inspired Mullins to take on a leadership role at Treehouse.
“When she first asked me to step into board chair position, I said no,” Mullins said. “Who the heck am I? I can’t lead this organization. But Janis saw things in me that she thought that the organization needed at that time, and with her support, I stepped into it. It is a decision I will never regret.”
Treehouse doesn’t pretend that the foster care system in Washington is perfect. Though the creation of DCYF has altered the course of the system, it has a long way to go to truly reform, Avery said. It may take a decade to see the kind of shift in outcomes that foster children deserve.
Just last year, a report from the federal Office of the Inspector General found terrible conditions in Washington’s group homes for foster youth. Every one of the 20 group homes the OIG visited failed its inspection. Some had moldy food, and the majority failed to meet safety standards, according to the report.
While Treehouse can’t fix all of the systemic problems that pervade the foster care system, it can be there to offer support for children in the meantime.
“These are big changes that require visionary thinking,” Avery said.
Avery will stay on in her role until a new CEO comes on board. That person will have big shoes to fill, but the organization isn’t looking for an “Avery 2.0,” Mullins said.
“We’re looking for the next bold, fearless, courageous leader, not someone who just checks the boxes.”
Avery does have some advice for her replacement, whomever they may be: “Be ambitious and bold. There’s nothing gained from being timid.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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