Today's guest has dedicated his life to fighting for children's rights, particularly children in the foster-care system. It's  a committment rooted in his own experience growing up as a foster child. Andrew Bridge is a New York Times best-stelling author, children's rights lawyer, and an advocate for children in families living in poverty. After eleven years int he LA county foster system, he earned a scholarship to Wesleyan, became a fulbright scholar, and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Andrew wrote the powerful memoir Hope's Boy about his life and his work, and he's here today to share his knowledge an experience with us.

Learn more about Andrew and his ilfe's work at his official website.

Full Transcript

Katie Wolf:                   Welcome to The Filevine Fireside, where we interview influential, innovative and inspiring legal professionals. I'm Katie Wolf. Today's guest has dedicated his life to fighting for children's rights, particularly children in the foster care system. It's a commitment rooted in his own experience growing up as a foster child. Andrew Bridge is a New York Times best selling author, children's rights lawyer, and an advocate for children and families living in poverty. After 11 years in the LA county foster system here into scholarship Wesleyan, became a Fulbright scholar and graduated from Harvard Law School. Andrew wrote the powerful memoir, Hope's Boy, about his life and his work. And he's here today to share his knowledge and experience with us. Thank you so much for joining us today, Andrew.

Andrew Bridge:             I'm so honored to be here. Thank you.

Katie Wolf:                   Now, you've written this entire beautiful book about your life, which our listeners should definitely seek out and read, but I'm wondering if you could just briefly describe your experience, how you went from your childhood to graduating from Harvard Law School.

Andrew Bridge:             Sure. When I was five years old, I was still living with my grandmother in Chicago. And the reason why I was living with my grandmother, not with my mom and my dad, is that they had actually been arrested and they were in prison in California. They hadn't hurt anyone, but they'd committed some robberies and bank fraud and that sort of thing. And my momma got released, and so she called my grandma up and she said she wanted me back. And so my grandma packed me up in the middle of the winter on a plane, my first plan ride ever, and I went back to LA. And over the next two and a half years, I watched my mom, who loved me more than anything, and that relationship, and I'm sure your listeners know this, I'm guessing you know this, that relationship with your mom, it never goes away.

                                    And I, as a little boy, saw my mom descend into paranoid schizophrenia, and eventually after about a year and half, little under two years, I was removed from her by the county of Los Angeles foster care system. I was placed in a place called MacLaren Hall, which was a violent children's institution, and then placed in a foster home. And the one thing that I found made up for the loss of my mom and made me feel that I had a place that I belonged in was school. And that was because I had teachers who did their job. None of them ever had any idea that I lived in foster care. I didn't tell anybody, I was a quiet, good kid. I learned how to manage tests. And that was the area that made me feel good. And it wasn't just about grades, it was about feeling like I was somebody and that I could be something. And so I got lucky and I got a full scholarship to Wesleyan. I picked Wesleyan out of the back of a book. I didn't know anything about Wesleyan.

                                    And then after Wesleyan, I looked at my grades and I just looked at test scores, and again, it wasn't about having a mentor. I did have some people that cared, but I was a private kid. That was the way I'd learned to grow up. And so I got very lucky and I've had a life of luck, and got into a bunch of law schools and I got into Harvard, so I went. And then after that I represented kids in psychiatric facilities in Alabama. One in particular in a large children's facility, it was very similar to MacLaren Hall, where I grew up. And then after that I was a head of a children's legal service organization, and I just never left. And the kids met the world to me. They've taught me a lot of things.

Katie Wolf:                   It's a really incredible journey that you've been on. At what point did you decide that law was the career for you?

Andrew Bridge:             It's funny because when I first started out, I was determined to be a doctor. And then I got a great summer to job during college working at the UCLA Med Center. And then I had that chance to work with doctors as a little 19 year old. And also I worked on a really hard unit. I worked on the bone marrow transplant ward at UCLA, which was a time when a lot of folks were dying. And the irony of it is that about seven years later I myself was diagnosed with lymphoma. And at the end of the day, I made the decision that I wasn't really cut out for doing that kind of work and I floundered around a little bit.

                                    And then the one thing that I always felt and I felt it mostly out of a sense of the need to defend my mom inside my own heart, and when I heard folks who knew about her illness and about paranoid schizophrenia, to defend her. And I think that was probably where that little germ of a seed or however that metaphor goes, worked to say, "Law school is something where you go back, you can make a difference."

Katie Wolf:                   Did you ever consider a practice area that wasn't so close to your own personal story?

Andrew Bridge:             That is so funny. I did. I got to tell you, I left law school and as much as I cared and as much as I was never going to be able to leave my entire childhood behind, there was a little part of me that wanted to be normal. And normal by what other people told me normal was. And I think everybody's felt that at times. I think you feel it every day. And so I went right immediately after loss school and I worked for a big law firm in Los Angeles, they were very kind to me, and of all things I worked in the financial securities practice. And I'm not going to say their name, I'm very fond of them. They know I'm real fond of them. They also know I was bored to tears.

                                    I just could not do it. And I was managing, able to do it, get in those billable hours. If there are any lawyers listening out there, they know that is the plague. And that was when, in the middle of that, I was diagnosed with cancer and went through nine months of chemotherapy. And I went back and tried it again for another six months and I just couldn't do it, and I got a great opportunity to go represent kids in psychiatric facilities in Alabama and took it.

Katie Wolf:                   Wow. As you made that shift and started investigating and working on situations that were really close to home for you, was it difficult to care for yourself emotionally as you're going through some of these potentially retraumatizing situations?

Andrew Bridge:             Thank you for asking that. I don't get asked that a lot and I really appreciate it. It was, because it was a place that was so dangerously close to my own background. These were kids that came from broken families, these were kids who had been traumatized and were kids that were, in many ways, so much like mine. I want to be careful in saying that because every child, every human being has their own experience and that needs to be respected. But it was hard and the struggle was one to know, to remember that and to be able to take care of that, and at the same time remember why I was there.

                                    And I was not there to talk about my own childhood or living in MacLaren Hall, a very similar place for eight and a half months, or what had happened between when my mom was delusional and trying to commit suicide and all those sorts of things, my job was I was there to be a lawyer and I was there to help those kids. And my business was what I hold, their business is what I needed to address. And I tried to do it.

Katie Wolf:                   That's interesting, because at the same time, obviously your experience really informs the work that you do, helps you see what to look for and helps you relate to your clients, but you're saying because you are a professional who was working on behalf of these other people, you're also able to step back a little bit from your own experience as you do it.

Andrew Bridge:             I would like to think, and I do feel it on a very personal level, is I don't need to sit down with a grandma who's had her grandchildren removed because she's too poor, she doesn't have the income to support them or when I sit down with a kid who's frightened and isn't getting what they desperately need. But the thing that I suppose I'm proudest of is that those moments when I have sat down with a grandma who doesn't look anything like me, we have totally different life experiences, she has totally different struggles, when she wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks about herself, looks in the bathroom mirror, looks at herself and thinks of who she is, we have very different experiences, very different feelings in that moment. But she and I sitting together, it doesn't take too long for that moment when I know that there's something of about it, it might be unsaid, but there's something about it that says I get you and I see you. And I got to tell you, that is the most awesome, rewarding experience for me in the world.

Katie Wolf:                   That's powerful. What is your advice for lawyers who are working with clients who are going through difficulties and are trying to care for them under stressful conditions? Maybe sometimes lawyers can experience empathy fatigue or close themselves off from their clients, do you have any advice for legal professionals in those situations?

Andrew Bridge:             I get those things and it is hard work and sometimes it can be the most rewarding work in the world and sometimes it can be the most horribly disappointing. And the best that I can say is to try never to judge, to try to do your very best to listen.

                                    And I found that when I've done that and I'm feeling tired, maybe I've sat there for two hours and it's hot, or I'm sick of having a tie around my neck or wherever I might be, if I can get myself to that place where I am listening, what comes back is so rewarding and just feels so good that so much of that difficulty that I'd been feeling, so much of that part of a bad day that had nothing to do with that child, that kid that I'm sitting down in front of, nothing to do with the fact that maybe he's just told me, and I'm not sure if I can curse on this, but told me to do something that's the most polite thing to do, that I can know or have an idea at least of where that came from and that when he or she has said to F off, what he's really saying is I'm not feeling heard and I'm really hurt.

                                    And for me, what that says to me is I have a chance. And two, even in that little statement, he's actually admitted something, he's actually shared something with me.

Katie Wolf:                   You work with clients who have these personal experiences of these systems of injustice, but your work is also about communicating the wider problem of a systemic wide injustice. Can you share some of your findings and thinking about the scale of the problem?

Andrew Bridge:             Yeah, sure. The scale of the problem is enormous and the scale of the problem has been around. It is not new and it is not something, sadly, that folks weren't aware about, weren't aware of. Folks have known about these issues. It starts on that big scale with a fundamental disrespect for families. And without going too deep into the weeds, when you set up a massive system with billions of dollars behind it, and at its core, the way it operates is we will pay a foster care jurisdiction for the number of kids that it takes into care and for the length of time that it keeps them. Those two incentives are so hostile to families and particularly to families in need. And there has been some change in policy about recognizing that we can do better.

                                    I think if anything, if you want to put aside that those long lasting scars that you get that are the result of that kind of policy, but just what I ask people to do is just look at the raw results. You don't have to be an expert in foster care to know that what we call traditional foster care has failed. You don't have to be an expert to know that kids who spend any length of time in foster care have among the worst long lifetime results of children and adults in the country. And that should tell us something. And that should tell us this way isn't working. And I think a lot of this is about the way we view families and the way we view families in poverty. And I have to say this and I have been glad to see that it's gotten some press, if you will, some knowledge, but it hasn't gotten enough, and that is the impact of racism in these systems.

                                    Children of color, children from black families, babies from black families are overwhelmingly taken into foster care more frequently, more often, more easily than white children. And this is not because of poverty. God knows this is not because black families don't love or are not treating their children as well as white families. This is about a system that if you can go from the very beginning to what families are more likely to be reported to foster care agencies and what families aren't. You can look at a teacher or as a pediatrician or is a police officer more likely to pick up the phone and make that mandated reporter call if the child, if the baby is white or black, and overwhelmingly, if you look at both kids, white baby, black baby, you find that it overwhelmingly happens to black families more often than whites. And those are things that we really need to come to grips with and we really need to understand. And then what I will say and then I'll stop, you got me going here.

Katie Wolf:                   No, keep going. This is powerful.

Andrew Bridge:             But what'll happen is when that child of color, when that black child or that Latino child or that Pacific Asian child gets into the system, they're more likely to stay in that system longer. And the longer they stay, the worse their outcomes are compared to their white peers. They're moved more frequently, their educational results are poor, they move from schools more frequently, they're more likely to be placed in congregate care rather than individual homes and they're less likely to ever go back home. We need to be straight up about those things, it means look at them. Do something.

Katie Wolf:                   Every step along the way is harming and disadvantaging black and brown children.

Andrew Bridge:             That's exactly right. I'll use a very specific example, if you are a black or brown child, you entered a young age, and let's say the rights of your parents have been terminated, whether that should have been done or not we'll leave to the side for a moment, but they've been terminated. You're five years old. The chances of you being adopted are so much smaller than the chances of that five year old Caucasian child. And there are a whole lot of reasons for that, but we need to look at that, we need to understand it, we need to start addressing it, and we need to take away what is, at its core, been a child welfare system that has been hostile and has been frightening to communities of color in this country.

Katie Wolf:                   This makes me think about the Native American children who were overwhelmingly taken from their families and put with white families or into boarding schools. And that's something that there's actually been policy change on, hasn't there?

Andrew Bridge:             So funny you mention this because one of my very dear friends, she is Yupik from Alaska and her community, children in her community, were regularly taken down to the Lower 48, taken from their families without any choice. I'm so glad you brought that up, because if you look at those numbers that we're just talking about, about disproportionality and what kind of kids end up in these systems and what kind of kids don't regardless of the absence of abuse or how a situation is responded to, overwhelmingly, the one group in this country that is disproportionately taken into foster care beyond any other, to an absolutely shocking degree, are Native Americans communities.

Katie Wolf:                   And that's still the case?

Andrew Bridge:             That is absolutely the case.

Katie Wolf:                   Wow. What could be done? We're dealing with really deep systems of racism, colonialism, poverty. Is there anything that gives you hope on this wider policy level?

Andrew Bridge:             There are actually. Now, I know everybody, myself included, you look at these because you see initiatives and you see, oh, we're going to do this new thing and I think everybody... A lot of people, I won't say everybody, excuse me, I approach it with a level of skepticism because I've seen it before.

                                    But I think now that there are new efforts, new ways in which money is being streamed that is designed to support families and not take them apart. So it's designed, for example, for social workers who are informed about what families go through, about the trauma, about the difficulties, I'll be as specific as I can get, who know that when they walk into a kitchen and look inside the refrigerator, if the refrigerator is empty, that does not mean that family's a bad family. That means that family needs help and that there are ways to help that family that are going to keep that family together, they're not going to scar that family and the kids in that family are going to do a whole lot better. And the other thing I would add that, in my mind, does not get enough attention is the terrible scars that it leaves on a woman, on a mom when her children are taken from her. That doesn't go away.

Katie Wolf:                   What are things that legal professionals... Whether they're working in family law or other areas of law that where children are affected, what are things that they can do to try to support families in this way?

Andrew Bridge:             Well, that's a big question, but I love those big... That's a great question. And I'll just name a few things. The first thing is to understand those families as well as they possibly can and to invite those families, meet those families where they are, invite those families into the system that is so intimidating and work on plans, case plans, on supervision plans that sit down and are plans that are based on trust and based on understanding what the family wants and needs. It is very, very rare that a lawyer or the best of social workers is going to be able to walk into a home, enter a family that they don't know, tell that family what they think they know and have that ever be successful. So that would be the first thing, is that families are number one and that means you got to put aside a whole lot of ego, and you got to have a lot of patience and you got to go up against a bureaucracy and a level of existing systems that in some ways aren't molded for that.

                                    They're not made for that. And so you got to be, you got to be patient. The other group that we haven't talked about, and that's engaging foster parents and having them understand when you are a lawyer, making sure that they understand that the number one job of foster care is to get children back to their own families, back to where they came from. I've run agencies that recruited, trained to provide foster parents to children. And I've seen the tears in their eyes when they have fallen in love with that child, I've seen the difficulty of them letting that child go, but they need to be supported, they need to know along the way that they are doing a great, great good and if they succeed in that great good, that child will go home to that family.

Katie Wolf:                   That's what success looks like. That's interesting.

Andrew Bridge:             That's what success looks like.

Katie Wolf:                   I feel like when children are invoked in a problem, think of the children, but the safety of the children, we can also often become very defensive and maybe punitive and there is real abuse that happens in families as well that is terrible and needs to be stopped. But I just wonder what your thoughts are about those really messy, tricky situations when we maybe have this knee-jerk response of, oh, we got to protect the children that involves a really punitive action.

Andrew Bridge:             Such a really important topic with a whole lot of meaning behind it. I am going to say straight up, yes, there are people, there are adults that have done and will do horrific things to children, in my mind, beyond forgiving, just horrible things. But the first thing that I'd say is that after decades of working in these systems, the number of people, the number of adults that I've run into, that I've known, or that I've worked on cases that I've read case files on, the number of those kinds of folks are very, very rare. And the best way that I know how to put it is if we just put everything down and think about it, we all know in our hearts that monsters are rare things. And that is absolutely the case of child welfare fair and foster kids.

                                    And what I would ask, maybe it's where we started, is to try not to judge, to try to understand, to be curious and curious in a good way, to want to know, and to see and to never ever presume. And again, I'm going back to what we said in the beginning, but to never ever think that you know what it is like for that impoverished woman to look in her bathroom mirror and see yourself at two in the morning.

Katie Wolf:                   Andrew, your work is so powerful, your vision is so compelling, and just all the best of luck to you on all of the work that you're doing going forward. You are working on another book. Is that correct?

Andrew Bridge:             I am. I have just finished the second manuscript to my second book. Folks may have heard the big woo at least around the block, I don't know how far I got beyond that, but it is now in the hands of my editor and so the publishing gods are now in charge.

Katie Wolf:                   And what is the subject of this book? Is it your work with Eufaula lawsuits?

Andrew Bridge:             Yeah, the book is a coming of age story. And so it is about after having succeeded in a lot of what we talked about here, about having succeeded, having made it on the outside and not being able to leave those kids behind. And after having made it, going back to an institution that was so dangerously like the one that I grew up in and representing and fighting for those kids in a legal battle that was a pretty rough one. It was against the State of Alabama. It was the longest and one of the most bitterly fought mental health lawsuits in the country. So it's exciting.

Katie Wolf:                   I'm super excited for that book. Everyone check Andrew's other book, Hope's Boy, and, Andrew, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Andrew Bridge:             Thank you so much for having that. I've really enjoyed this.

Katie Wolf:                   Me too. I'm Katie Wolf. And thank you for listening to The Filevine Fireside.