Condolences for the Passing of James Boyd

The Empire Health Foundation family would like to express our deepest sympathy to the Colville Tribes after today's sad news on the passing of James Boyd, Tribal Chairman. Boyd was a well known and well loved leader in the tribal community, as well as an accomplished songwriter who won numerous awards for his music. Our thoughts go out to his family and tribe on this sad day. 

You may read the press release from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation here

Trauma Informed Care Cuts Out-of-School Suspension Rates

“I always hate blaming a school because they can’t help who walks through the door,” Fred Schrumpf, Director of Community Partnerships for Spokane Public Schools, recently told the Spokesman Review in a front page article on new approaches to student discipline. Alarmed by Spokane’s high dropout rate, which floated around 30% five years ago, Schrumpf and others began looking at alternative approaches to student discipline.

Empire Health Foundation partnered with Schrumpf and Rogers High School to educate teachers in trauma-informed curriculum. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as abuse or neglect are the second greatest predictor after special education status of health outcomes, behavior and academic failure. If we fail to equip teachers with the tools and education they need to understand how a student’s trauma is likely the root cause of their emotional and behavioral needs, the toxic stress presents a huge barrier to these young folk’s academic success.

Teachers at "Help for Billy” book study

Teachers at "Help for Billy” book study

Through the partnership, Rogers staff has been exposed to a series of professional development opportunities including training by Sound Discipline, Circle of Security and a 6-week “Help for Billy” book study led by Schrumpf among other interventions. As one teacher said, "I really learned strategies to work with the students in my class and how to help them regulate." In the 2015 – 2016 academic school year, Rogers saw a 42% decrease in out-of-school suspension, and the overall rate of disciplinary incidents dropped by 32%. "This work is very much needed at this time in education,” said another teacher, “I love it. Can we have more of this training?"

Projects like these and others led by Spokane Public Schools helped to nearly halve the dropout rate to 15.5% in 2015, but Spokane’s discipline rate was also the highest in the state that year with near 8% of students suspended or expelled. There is much more work to be done. Transforming our region into the best place for young people to learn starts in nurturing healthy homes as well as schools. Our subsidiaries Rising Strong and FIN are working to reduce ACEs upstream by keeping families united, and Empire Health Foundation remains committed to mitigating the effects of complex trauma in our community. 

Celebrating our Front Porch Family

Last week we welcomed the Dirty Queens and Kings to our front porch once more, this time in celebration! We invited all of the folks who had slept on the porch, and all of the passionate people from Better Health Together, SNAP, Volunteers of America, and the City of Spokane who worked, often on volunteered time, to help these young people transition to housing.

There were smiles and laughter, and a few tears, as we came together to share experiences, hopes and gratitude for this group. Many of the Kings and Queens were missing from the crowd, but for happy reasons, they are at work in their new jobs or at their new homes! 

One of the Dirty Kings shared about the importance of relationships in his life. When you are homeless and have so little, someone who will have your back is the most important resource.  “It doesn’t take blood oaths to stick together,” he said while sharing his deep appreciation for the team. Every cup of coffee, simple hello, or kind smile had an impact.

That impact goes both ways. Virginia, a Better Health Together Community Health Worker, said to the Kings and Queens with teary eyes that it was a privilege to be let in to their lives.

We cannot emphasize enough how much pride we have in our team and partners throughout Spokane, who truly lead this work with their hearts. They have worked tirelessly to build trusting relationships and advocate for these young people.

As Virginia said, “Community is beautiful!” and we all felt that so truthfully. Thank you to everyone who has opened their hearts to the Front Porch Kingdom.

Bill Proposed to Reduce Rates of Family Separation

Great news from Washington DC as bi-partisan house and senate representatives have proposed new child welfare legislation, that would work to reduce the number of children in foster care. Mental health and substance abuse issues can strip parents of the resources they need to build loving and healthy homes for their families; this bill proposes expanding access to family, health, and treatment services to empower families to remain united. In addition, when separation is needed, this bill will prioritize children being placed with relatives. 

According to the Ways and Means Committee press release, the Family First Prevention Services Act will strengthen families and reduce inappropriate foster care placements by:

  • Giving states flexibility to use federal foster care dollars to provide upfront, evidence-based prevention services — such as parent training and individual and family therapy — to prevent inappropriate foster care placements and improve outcomes for children and parents.
  • Ensuring more foster children are placed with families by ending federal reimbursement when states inappropriately place children in non-family settings.
  • Keeping children safe by reauthorizing the Regional Partnership Grant program that provides funding to state and local evidence-based services aimed at preventing child abuse and child neglect due to parental substance abuse.
  • Reducing the amount of time foster children wait to be adopted or placed with relatives across state lines by encouraging states to replace their outdated child placement systems with a more efficient electronic system.
  • Supporting family members who unexpectedly assume responsibility for a child by providing important caregiver resources and eliminating unnecessary paperwork.

Empire Health Foundation has been working to build a more family supportive child welfare system in our region through the work of our subsidiaries Family Impact Network and Rising Strong. We look forward to following this bill as it is introduced.

For a summary of the bill, click here.
For draft bill text, click here.

The Peril of Good Intentions

Recently our President Antony Chiang shared a blog post, "It’s Time To Restore A Sense Of Mission To Mental Health," by Octavio Martinez, CEO of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. The author argues that reason and knowledge are insufficient to face the most pressing challenges of our time: "Without an old-fashioned sense of shame at the suffering we allow to endure through neglect and selfishness, we don’t have the motivation to act. Without a shared sense of values, about who we are and what we care about, we won’t know where and how to act even if we can mobilize a sense of moral urgency."

The article struck a chord with our leadership team, with some asking questions like:

  • "How do we approach our work with a sense of mission?"
  • "Do we relate to our community authentically from the heart versus relying on theory and technique?"

It's a compelling argument. I believe that all of us are capable of moments of true moral clarity and sense of purpose, where the course of action seems clear and incontrovertible. I also believe this state is relatively rare for most of us. Why should this be? Why are we unable to maintain a clear-eyed view of the world, its needs and our proper role? Because along with passion, creativity and love lurk other human traits that can corrupt the purest of intentions. Here are three of my personal greatest hits:

Confirmation bias, or "the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to errors." I have witnessed and practiced this in virtually every endeavor in my career. Once we have invested our time, energy and talents in a particular direction, it becomes almost irresistible to shape new data to fit our mental model. As John Kenneth Gailbraith put it, "faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof."

Fundamental attribution error, or the tendency to interpret our own behavior as a logical reaction to circumstances, while see others as driven by their particular character. When you see a homeless teen on the street, have you ever told yourself a story about how they got there? Did it involve a poverty, abuse, mental illness or other external factors, or did you focus on their failure to pull themselves up? This is not to say there is no individual responsibility, but rather that we cast more of that burden on others than ourselves.

Humans are herd animals and we breathe in our culture like air. The most telling example I've ever heard came from Nelson Mandela's autobiography: "We put down briefly in Khartoum, where we changed to an Ethiopian Airways flight to Addis. Here I experienced a rather strange sensation. As I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly an airplane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat, and chided myself for such thoughts." If it happened to him, it happens to all of us.

That's not to dismiss the value of moral clarity and conviction. For me those are treasured gifts that seem to come from somewhere beyond me. I can try and create the conditions that will lead to them, but I cannot will them to happen. And all the while, inner forces are at work trying to bump me off the path. 

Thankfully I am not alone, and there are ways to control for the effects of our faulty perceptions. Some of the ones we use at Empire in our work include:

Wisdom of Crowds: In 2004, James Surowiecki showed how groups tend to be consistently wiser than any individual member for problems ranging from making predictions to locating a lost submarine. This power can be hard to harness in teams, with uneven participation and a tendency toward 'groupthink' but there are ways to counter this.

Diversity of Teams: Recent research has demonstrated that socially diverse groups (race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups. Interestingly this effect has nothing to do with the individual attributes of the team - but rather "simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort."

Design Thinking: pioneered by David Kelley and colleagues at IDEO and the Stanford, it helps us build empathy with those we are trying to serve, by experiencing their reality as closely as possible. It also encourages frequent prototyping with rapid feedback cycles, so we are continually adapting to the client's actual needs as opposed to our perception.

Lean startup: one of my favorite maxims from this approach (which drives much innovation in Silicon Valley) is the 'pivot.' Startups are encouraged to hold their business model lightly, and continually test their assumptions. We should expect that feedback will lead to significant changes in direction (the pivot) and that the willingness to sometimes dramatically adjust our course is perhaps the single greatest predictor of success.

On one level, relying on techniques versus moral clarity as a daily guide seems like a poor bargain. Yet the power of techniques like these lies in their ability to mitigate the impact of our own flawed perceptions. In the same way, free societies often feel unguided and disorderly, but tend to correct problems over time. As Winston Churchill put it, "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

-Mike Yeaton, Chief Strategy Officer for Empire Health Foundation