Q&A with Investigative Reporter, Steve Volk
I prefer to think of this project as open-ended. I don’t really want to leave it alone until the system is better understood by the public and media, more transparent about its workings, and functioning at a higher level.
What is Our Kids?
Our Kids is a community journalism project that covers the foster care system with a thoroughness that the media hasn’t previously displayed toward this subject, with a focus on input from the community.
How did this project come about?
I was very intrigued by what was happening with Broke in Philly and contacted a fellow reporter, who it turned out knew Jean, the co-executive director (at the time) and co-founder of Resolve. He introduced us. I remember the first conversation being hugely cathartic for me because Jean had already done a lot of thinking and acted on that thinking to deal with some of the problems I found most difficult in journalism, including a lack of respect for “sources”—aka people—and a persistent inclination to report on problems and not solutions. I remember hanging up thinking I’d talked way too much but also feeling like we’d vibed. Next thing I knew, we were talking about potential projects, and I think it was only a few months before Jean got in touch and said, “How would you feel about covering the foster care system?”
The opportunity to cover the foster care system and apply Resolve-type principles to it was an immediate “yes” for me.
What is the Our Kids Vision Hub?
Some time toward the second year of my working this beat, I was offered a Stoneleigh Fellowship to expand my work beyond producing stories to work with the community in a more meaningful and direct way.
The Our Kids Vision Hub is the chief result of that: a group of 14 people with lived experience of the foster care system, as young people, parents, and family members of people in foster care, and also as foster parents. They look at my work and critique it, offer input into current reporting I’m doing, and suggest stories.
The Hub has also been an opportunity to expand my work within Resolve. So Dionicia Roberson, our community narrative editor here, co-founded the Hub with me, helped select the members, and works as my partner in all things "Hubbery." Dio is there to support Hub members as we prepare for community events where Hubbers might speak or to support them in potential writing projects.
The people who have been involved in this system have a lot to say and it’s good for the public to hear them without the filter of a reporter working in the medium of a feature or news story. I’m a reporter admitting that.
What’s your favorite part about working on our Kids?
So, to be real, it is very often a parade of misery. There are a lot of people who’ve suffered for a variety of reasons, but my favorite part is simply bringing attention to an entire field of stories we’ve ignored as a society.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Stories in this subject area take a long time to produce.
So, people working in this field are often very reluctant to speak with reporters, and there is often, even among people who want to talk, a huge amount of reluctance to engage, so I spend a lot of time explaining myself and my project and making interview requests, then waiting for people to respond.
Families often want to share their stories, but they have been through so much—people complain the word “trauma” is overused, but it’s not in this case—that it can be a challenge to work through all of the facts and emotions.
And the system itself, of child welfare, has erected a big black box around itself—court proceedings are closed, and the people inside child welfare agencies often frankly try to avoid supplying information. I can understand this on one level because the media has generally only covered the system at all in the wake of statistically rare, catastrophic failures, such as a child death. But the bunker mentality the field has assumed leaves them in this position of operating in the shadows and absolutely breeds distrust and dysfunction because the light of public scrutiny does have a cleansing effect. That just never happens here.
What does success look like at the end of this project?
I prefer to think of this project as open-ended. I don’t really want to leave it alone until the system is better understood by the public and media, more transparent about its workings, and functioning at a higher level. This field is filled with well-meaning people, but they have been dealing with the same problems for decades, including the unnecessary separation of many families, first and foremost, rampant workforce turnover, high caseloads, and young people in foster care not receiving the services they need. Generally, professionals in the field want to do better. They just don’t. Decade after decade. It’s the definition of a systemic problem, and I think I’ll know when the project is over for me only when or if Jean pulls the plug or I see some fundamental shift.
Can you tell us a bit about the Our Kids reporter guides that you’re developing?
There has been this wild feedback loop: the system operates inside a black box, and the media only covers it deeply in the wake of some high-profile child tragedy, and so the system retreats further inside its black box, and so the media only covers it in the wake of a high-profile tragedy. These guides introduce topics like kinship care, workforce turnover, and other longstanding problems in the field, and for reporters, they should serve as, for lack of a better term, “story packs.” There are suggested sources, suggested reading, and potential solutions-oriented angles to pursue to encourage reporters to cover these important issues so that the foster care system and the people in it receive the attention that they have always deserved. The field is so hard to report on for all the reasons I’ve mentioned that this is my attempt, for fellow reporters, to make it easier. I’m not saying these guides have all the answers, but they can get any reporter rolling on powerful, important stories that need to be told.
Besides the reporting guides, what are you looking forward to over the next few years?
I spent so much time on these guides that I am looking forward to publishing some long, in-depth investigative pieces with strong solutions angles to them. I’m a journalist. I’ll see you in print.
Our Kids Reporting
- Philly took $5 million in foster children's Social Security payments without telling them
- Bill would bar Philly from keeping Social Security payments meant for foster children
- In the Child Welfare System, Black Families Should Matter
Stay tuned for more reporting on the child welfare system.