An astonishing 675,000 children are abused every year in America. Thousands of kids in foster care disappear in the course of a year. Some are missing for days or even weeks, and tragically, others are never found.
Fortunately, there’s an organization committed to doing something about these problems and other issues related to child protection in America.
The Center for the Rights of Abused Children, formerly known as Gen Justice, serves in a pro bono capacity for cases involving abuse, as well as helping kids who have been abandoned and trafficked. It’s also committed to strengthening laws that can save lives.
CEO Darcy Olsen, who joins this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast,” founded the organization in 2017. She’s also the mother of four children, all adopted from foster care.
Rob Bluey: Having followed your work for many years, I’m inspired by what you’ve built with Gen Justice. Can you tell us how it all began?
Darcy Olsen: I was working at the Goldwater Institute and I felt inspired to become a foster parent. I thought I would take in a teenager, and it turns out what they really needed was someone to take in infants because of the opioid use.
So I opened up a crib and my first child came, the first baby came, and before I knew it, I had fostered 10 of these little ones and four needed a forever home. And so I adopted them, and thus we have “The Olsen Five” now.
And it was during that time that I began to see the injustices in the system and all of the rights and privileges we give to the criminally accused and the lack of those similar protections for these little abuse victims. And I said, “That’s not right. We’re going to fix it.” And that was the beginning of Gen Justice.
Bluey: We’ll get into the mission of your great organization, just a moment, but talk about your own personal situation. Did you ever expect to find yourself in a situation where this is how your life took this turn, and I imagine in many ways have been rewarded by the experience of fostering these kids and adopting four of them?
Olsen: I love that question, and what I would say is adoption is the best decision that I didn’t make. I had no idea that so many of these abused and abandoned children would need a forever home.
And I was single, and I’m quite traditional that way. And I think children are best raised with a mom and a dad. And I remember asking the social worker, I said, “But don’t you have any married couples to take in these infants?” And she said, “We have infants who are sleeping overnight in government office buildings because we literally don’t have cribs for them. So if you could please take one, we’d be so grateful.”
Well, I’ll tell you, I said to myself, “A mother is better than nothing and I’ll be the best mother I could be,” and as I’ve told my own folks, I could still get married someday. We can still bring a dad into this group.
But it was very unexpected. And it just goes to show what a tremendous need there is for these good families to open their homes and to take in these children. This shortage is nationwide. And so for every one family you have opening a crib or a bed, there are actually two children in need.
And going all the way back to Ronald Reagan, I don’t know if you know this, but it was President Reagan who declared the first National Foster Care Month, and he talked about how very important it was for civil society to step in to make sure that every child had safety and a future. And really, he’s our North Star today.
Bluey: Thank you for that reminder. Truly a tremendous need. Your organization estimates that nearly 120,000 children are currently waiting to be adopted. How can we ensure that those kids find a loving home?
Olsen: That’s the mission here at Gen Justice. We have hundreds of millions of families in this country and 100,000 children waiting for one. And the only thing standing between those children and the families they need are regulations and disinformation. And so that’s why changing laws is so very, very important. We need it to be able to let good families take these kids in, without it, it’s easier to become a paramedic right now than it is to become a foster parent.
And that’s true even if you’ve already raised your children or you’ve been a doctor or you’ve worked for the FBI, it really doesn’t matter. The regulations make it very, very difficult for regular folks to get in this business and to lend a hand.
And so we’re trying to remove those barriers and really make it about safe families and make sure folks are just safe and loving as opposed to having the right regulatory bedroom with the right kind of closet for the right kind of—that sort of thing that is really inconsequential when you’re talking about children who don’t have families.
Bluey: I want to come back to some of the work that you’re doing to change those laws, but first want to talk about the efforts to protect kids. And you have done so many things, not even sure where we want to begin, but maybe the Children’s Law Clinic would be a good place to start. Tell us a little bit more about that initiative and what it aims to do.
Olsen: We’re working on three levels—micro, macro, and super macro. And the micro is the one-on-one cases in the Children’s Law Clinic. We have attorneys who work pro bono.
And in many states, and this was the case in Arizona where our headquarters are, these little abuse victims go into court and they go alone. They do not have attorneys to represent their basic rights.
So the perpetrators of incest and trafficking and some of the horrors that you read about, they’re armed to the teeth with attorneys. And the state, of course, is armed to the teeth with attorneys, all but the small abuse victims.
And so we started providing attorneys to all of the abused children in the state as needed. And then we were able to change the law here so that now all of these children are appointed attorneys who can represent their basic human rights and constitutional interests in court. So that’s the micro-level work.
And then we’re also helping with the aging-out kids. Any of these children who don’t have families, they need help retrieving their birth records, for instance, so they can enroll in the Army or so that they might have the opportunity to apprentice or go to college. So we help them navigate what is a very, very—as you can imagine—complex, disorganized system so they can have everything they need and it will give them the best chance to succeed.
Bluey: And you estimate, based on what I’ve seen, the numbers on your website, that there are about 22,000 kids who age out of foster care each year. That seems like a significant number. What are some of the challenges that they face beyond those you’ve just mentioned and how are you stepping in to help?
Olsen: These kiddos, unfortunately, there are about a little more than 20,000 who age out every year. That means they don’t have a family. So you can imagine most kids at 18, and then these children, of course, have not been brought up with stability and they lack education, and they’ve been through tremendous kinds of trauma. I knew one kid who’d been moved 47 different times, he’d been in the system since he was 3 years old.
Consequently, these are the kids who are disproportionately homeless. They disproportionately fill up our prisons. They actually have the worst educational outcomes of any kids in our country, including worse than kids who are homeless.
So this particular population of children who have been abused and abandoned, it’s very important from a societal perspective as well that we intervene early, that we make sure they have families to live with and who will raise them with the love and the boundaries and the expectations that turn us into civilized and wonderful people.
These children haven’t done anything wrong, and they can be the best of the best. Right? Steve Jobs was adopted and Moses was adopted. Right? We can go through the list. So we just need the right laws and we need good families to step in and open their hearts and their homes.
Bluey: And you have had tremendous success in the last five years since founding the organization, changing 30 laws across the country. You estimate that has affected 500,000 children. What are some of the ways that you go about doing that? And are there certain states that have been more receptive to making those reforms than others?
Olsen: We started off with the model of being the shining city on a hill. So we’re in Arizona, and we said, “Let’s get it done here.”
And so nearly all of these laws we passed here, we did it in a consensus fashion, which is to say that we’ve had fewer than a dozen dissenting votes on any of these reforms. And it’s not because they’re easy, it’s because we do the hard work of speaking to all people of all parties about the plight of these children. And we are able to get agreement on what they need, which is pretty obvious. They need safe families. So that’s what it all comes down to so.
And then in setting those examples here, we’ve had a number of other states pick up that legislation. We work with The Heritage Foundation, we work with [the American Legislative Exchange Council]. We’ll work with the National Conference of State Legislatures, anyone who is in the business of changing laws to help improve lives. And we work with Grover Norquist and his extensive network across the country.
And then finally, we’ve had some luck with some federal reforms. When President [Donald] Trump was in office, he loosened up the uses of some federal funding to help these children have representation and defense in court to protect their lives. And so that’s really been, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s been a blessing in the lives of many, many abused and abandoned children.
Bluey: Certainly, and tremendous success, and congratulations to you. I know that there’s a lot of work still to do, but for all those kids who have benefited from the changes you’ve already made, I certainly think that they are thankful.
You and I had the opportunity, I think, to first meet, as you mentioned earlier, when you were leading the Goldwater Institute. How did that experience working for a state-based think tank influence your ability to understand this complex system of laws across the country and really focus on those public policy changes that need to happen in order to help individuals, especially these children, flourish later in life?
Olsen: When I was at the Goldwater Institute, I wrote a book called “The Right to Try,” and that was the movement that helped those with terminal illnesses be able to access experimental and investigatory treatments if they had a terminal illness.
And we moved that legislation state by state. And after about, I think we got 35 states, we were able to inform the federal law and get that on a national basis. And that’s really the model that I used here. It would be nice in one fell swoop to help every child in the country, but that’s not how it happens.
And so we started here and started small, setting the example, and now we’ve got the copycats going, and then we’ll be getting some legislation in D.C. as well.
This is one of the few areas from my personal beliefs that I think that we have federal involvement and we do need the bit that we have. There are some things like sex trafficking that cross state lines and that for the protection of children really do require congressional action.
And so I have that experience of, I believe, knowing what is best done locally and at the state level, and the few things where it’s imperative that the rights be available to all children in the country. And so that would be the more federal work.
Bluey: As you and I both know, in order to get these across the finish line, oftentimes you need to put a human face on some of these issues. And one of the things that I love that you’ve done is to feature some of these stories on your website. You call them stories of hope. Can you share some examples of the individuals who you’ve worked with and some of the cases, just so our listeners understand really what they’re up against and the challenges they faced in their own lives?
Olsen: One thing that was news to me when I began in this was when I discovered that when it comes to sex trafficking in our country, most sex trafficking is actually perpetrated against children by their own family members. So it’s moms and dads who tend to be selling their children’s bodies to get money for drugs. That’s the basic, it’s not the only equation, it’s the common equation.
And so we had a situation where we had a relative who discovered that this was happening to an 11-year-old in the family and who came to us and said, “How do we rescue her? What do I do?” Just say, “I’m a grandmother. I don’t have any particular rights over this child.”
And we were able to help from the very beginning to the very end—to rescue that child from that horrible situation, to help make sure that the therapy was there, all the things. And then finally, to finalize the adoption to this very loving relative.
So sex trafficking, incest, we’ve had situations where we’ve even had children who have seen a sibling murdered. And so really, it’s very grim, and I don’t mean to be grim, but it’s work where regular people like us and regular families really do need to step in because there is a lot of darkness out there and there’s a lot of brokenness.
And it requires this pro bono legal service to help these families. They don’t have $50,000 to try to get an attorney to rescue a child. And if you don’t use an attorney, it’s called kidnapping. So we really do need the courts and we really do need the rule of law.
And I’m so thankful to all of the supporters who support places like Gen Justice and The Heritage Foundation who make these fights for rights and safety and basic human life possible.
Bluey: For those individuals who might be listening to this or reading the transcript, if they know somebody’s in danger, how can they work with you to reach out and provide that pro bono legal support?
Olsen: It’s very easy. On our website, you just hop on there, there’s a phone number to call, but there’s also a form you can fill in. And it’s a short form, but it keeps everything confidential and legal, and it protects anonymity and things like that. So that’s one way.
And of course, if you know of child abuse, calling the authorities is absolutely essential. And sometimes people are afraid to do that because they think it’s going to be worse for the child, but it’s the only legal way to go about helping a child at this point in time. So that’s pretty important to be aware of. If you don’t make that call for the abuse to stop, it won’t. I mean, that’s just how it has to be done.
So, all the states have hotlines, and it is important to, I think, to err on the side of making the call. And if you’re wrong, it’s annoying for the family who got interviewed, but if you’re right, you might just save a life.
Bluey: What are some of the other issues in the short-term window here your organization is working on, areas that you plan to focus heading into 2023 that really need our attention? I mean, there will be a change in so many state legislatures. I imagine that there’s a piece of it that’ll be focused on the public policy aspect, but then there’s also the work that you’ve just been talking about doing at the micro level to help those kids have a better life.
Olsen: We’ve got a lot of laws that need changing. One of the basic ones we’ve worked on is the safe haven laws. I think most people know that in most states, if you’ve got a newborn, you can take the newborn to a fire station or a hospital within the first, usually, 48 hours, and you won’t be criminally prosecuted as the mother if you’re dropping off this child that you want to make sure is safe, but that you can’t care for.
So those safe haven laws are meant to protect children. They’re very, very, very important, especially when it comes to people who have been using drugs and maybe weren’t able to plan for an adoption or for care once the baby was born.
So in Arizona, we helped expand that law from 48 hours to 30 days, which is much more realistic for someone who’s maybe a first-time mom on drugs, doesn’t know where to turn, and it takes some time before she figures out that she can go to the church and have that baby be safe and not suffer criminal prosecution for a decision to really save that child’s life.
We’re also really working on relative searches. Many of these children get taken into the system, and then the agencies are so disorganized that they don’t go down the family tree and call all of the relatives who might be available to take a child in. And the family is the first place we should be looking, the extended family.
So those searches need to be rigorous and they also need to be documented to make sure the agencies are being held to account and doing the work they need to be able to do.
And then that also preserves our foster families for the kids who truly need it when there isn’t an extended family or isn’t an extended safe family for a child, or, as often the case, many siblings need to go, and then the foster families like mine can step in and open their homes for those little ones.
Bluey: And we certainly hope many are inspired to do that. Darcy, as we wrap up here, tell our listeners where they can learn more information about your organization and get involved and other ways to help.
Olsen: Thank you. Well, we are revising our name because Gen Justice really doesn’t tell people what we do. So when this comes out, we will be officially The Center for the Rights of Abused Children, so people know exactly who we’re fighting for, and it’s about rights and justice. We can still be found at genjustice.org. And we would love to hear from people. We’d love to help you navigate the system to become foster or adoptive parents.
If you’ve got a child in your state who needs help, we’d love to be able to help there. If you have ideas for changing laws, we’d love those. And if you just want to support us so you can help a child in need, we’d love to have your support. That’s how all of this has occurred, is just the kindness and generosity of good people. So every single person matters and we appreciate you.
Bluey: Thanks so much for joining us today. We appreciate you sharing not only your story and the impact that you’ve had, but the work that your great organization is doing to, again, help those who are in need.
Olsen: Thank you for spreading the message. May it help many, many children.
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