Mar 07 2017
Emily Rudenick LeBlanc recently joined the staff of CASA of Travis County as Chief Program Officer. In her new role, she will be working to articulate and implement CASA's strategic vision, ensuring that staff are providing effective support and that volunteers are offering top quality advocacy in the best interest of the children we serve. She sat down with CASA's Marketing Manager, Steven Olender, with whom she worked at SafePlace, to discuss her goals in this new role.
So, what was your trajectory getting to CASA?
For the last three years, I was the Senior Director of Community Advocacy at SAFE, formerly SafePlace. I was over the legal department, the Sexual Assault Advocacy department, the SAFE Futures program, which is their CPS advocacy… I started the forensic nursing program and ran that as well, and then PlanetSafe, which is their safe exchange and visitation program.
The other half was Community Advocacy. I was the liaison for the District Attorney’s (DA) office on anything criminal justice related, so I chaired the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team and the Family Violence Protection Team, all the community-coordinated responses that had to do with sexual assault or domestic violence.
Before that I was trained as a therapist. I worked at Phoenix House for about 7 years, first as a therapist and then as a clinical manager running the residential program, which is for teens with substance abuse problems. I spent a year as the clinical director at the SIMS Foundation and then came to SafePlace as the Counseling Manager.
We both were at SafePlace during the merger with Austin Children’s Shelter (ACS) to become SAFE. Can you talk to me about where you see the intersection between Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence and Child Abuse and Neglect?
Having started my career working with kids with substance abuse problems, it became clear to me very quickly that substance abuse was not their problem. Coming from homes where they had been abused, neglected, sexually abused or witnessed domestic violence was the problem. It was all trauma related. So, to me, it makes perfect sense that those are all the same issues. The families that are dealing with child abuse tend to then deal with abuse later in life as well. We’d see that the same client from ACS would later be at SafePlace.
We know trauma clusters together. We saw so many families who were in the CPS system because the mother had experienced domestic violence. The system removed children because of her failure to protect them, when, in fact, what she was doing was keeping them alive. There is so much intersection and interaction between child abuse and domestic violence that it feels like the natural progression of this work. We're at a position where the child abuse movement and the sexual assault/domestic violence movement are siloed but inevitably need to work together if we’re going to stop cycles of abuse.
So from that point, why CASA? What inspires you about the work, mission and model?
Having spent 7 years at Phoenix House and 7 years at SafePlace, it seemed like the perfect marriage of those two worlds. I’ve counseled as young as three and as old as seventy-eight, but I specialized in adolescents and that has always been my favorite group to work with. So, part of it was asking how I take the expertise I’ve gained at SAFE and apply it towards kids, because I love working with that population.
My expertise has become getting big systems to shift and I love a challenge. The child welfare system needs to shift and CASA was a good fit in that we are enough outside of the system, which is where I work best. I love working at the DA’s office but not for the DA’s office, at the police department but not for the police department. CASA is entrenched enough that it has some power and a voice in that system, there is already some clout built up. CASA is poised to cause change in the whole system, which clearly is at a crux and ready to change and needing to change.
What do you see as the next steps for CASA and the child welfare system as a whole?
CASA is very close to meeting its vision of a volunteer for every child who needs it, which is exciting. So I think step one is asking how we meet that goal, since that’s been the stated mission for so long, but I dream a little bigger than that. I don’t want to lose sight of the rest of the mission, safe families for everyone and promising futures. I think that’s where the bigger system is on the crux of some major change. And I think CASA can have a voice in how that system has to change.
Knowing that you’ve only been here three weeks and are still getting the lay of the land, internally speaking, where do you start?
Step one for me is to learn the system inside and out. That’s why my first goal is to meet with every single person who works here and hear what their experience of CASA is and what their job is and how they do it, so that I can figure out how to make that more efficient and give people the support that they need. We have to think about, if we were serving 100% of children who need us, what would our organization chart look like and work from where we are to that place.
There’s some luxury of dreaming big when you don’t know all of the details. All of the things that will keep us from getting there are not yet in my way, which is great because other people have been focused on short and medium term growth, I can really think bigger than that.
What are you most excited about in your new role?
I really like innovation. The one thing I loved the most about my last job was that I really had license to create. I could examine a system, see a need and build a program to fit that need. I’m excited about having the same license here. CASA’s not stuck in ideas of “This is how we’ve done it so that’s how we’ll keep doing it.” On a philosophical level, there is openness to change, which is a fun place to be as a Chief Program Officer.
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