In an astounding response to the coronavirus pandemic that stunned the California child welfare field, one of the most vaunted foster youth advocacy organizations in the nation laid off most of its staff this week, the majority former foster youth.
The reasons for the Tuesday lay-offs at the Bay-Area based California Youth Connection (CYC) – while staff sheltered in place under a statewide lockdown – were not due to financial constraints, and the announcement of “CYC 3.0” came so suddenly, even the nonprofit’s board of directors was not informed.
Ten of 18 California Youth Connection staffers were let go in a month that saw unemployment soar to 3.3. million claims this week, a half-century record. Yet in a Tuesday Facebook post, CYC announced it would use the pandemic-caused “natural slow-down and stoppage of certain work” to reinvent itself. Executive Director Haydée Cuza described now as the time to “reconstruct our organization internally to one that is youth-centered and built to transform the system.”
Eight staff laid off Tuesday had worked with the 31-year-old organization on some of its landmark achievements, which include extending foster care to age 21, helping foster youth obtain driver’s licenses, and creating California’s first Foster Care Bill of Rights. Two of the former employees appeared to have been laid off last month, during CYC’s annual Day at the Capitol event in Sacramento.
Cuza, who in recent public reports was paid an annual $130,000 salary, described her actions to The Chronicle of Social Change through email messages as taking “an intentional pause.” Her decision was first posted Tuesday evening on Facebook, around the same time her staff learned via email that they’d been laid off.
“I am aware of the pain being expressed in the community and hold that reality as we navigate through this,” Cuza stated. She described her intent as “taking an intentional pause to restructure our operations during this global health emergency.”
Cuza said the timing was right because staff would have access to “the maximum benefits, including unemployment, that is being offered at this time.” She further described the staff purge as taking “an important step back after 32 years of operating.”
Cuza’s move to gut the organization of most of its staff this week confounded onlookers, who found difficulty believing that the organization’s director – a longtime leader in the nonprofit world serving youth with mental health challenges – appeared to see the global pandemic as an opportune moment to let most of her staff go.
Although she appealed to Facebook followers that the overhaul was temporary and the organization would “continue to lean into the strength, compassion, and beauty of our community,” meanwhile, a Change.org petition calling for Cuza to be fired garnered more than 700 signatures in 48 hours.
Darryn Green, a former employee who left in 2018, commented on the petition that he had “witnessed a highly collaborative and supportive work culture descend into a toxic culture that was poorly managed and harmful to the well-being of me, my colleagues and the young people we served.”
Outrage was further stoked because the layoffs appeared to be unilateral.
CYC’s board chair Marissa Guerrero told The Chronicle Thursday morning that although the board had become aware of the layoffs, it was “still gathering information about the situation.” Messages sent later in the day confirmed that information-gathering continued into the evening, when the board held an emergency meeting.
Sources close to the organization said an announcement would likely be made Friday, but that the board had not made any decisions yet in regard to the situation.
Although CYC collaborators on projects and pending legislation appeared confused this week about how to approach the organization given the turmoil, Cuza told The Chronicle that business with her agency continues.
“CYC is not closed and will continue to engage with members, supporters, and stakeholders,” she stated in an email. “We have fundamental infrastructures in place to continue operating.”
But the impact of the layoffs has sent CYC’s partners in California child welfare advocacy circles reeling. Gone are the staffers on bills the group was co-sponsoring, grant-funded projects they had launched, and mentorship, service and outreach programs they were involved in.
Some of those laid off are well-known and respected advocates, who, like much of society, had continued their advocacy work after the state’s shelter-in-place order through phone, email, text, social media and video meetings. Vanessa Hernandez, for example, had been at CYC for more than six years. A former foster youth, she has worked for the Riverside Department of Social Services, with social workers and state and local policymakers. She is appointed to councils and initiatives overseen by the state’s top health, justice and education officials. Kate Teague, an outreach worker, had been with CYC since 2006 before being abruptly terminated.
Sean Hughes, who served as policy director of CYC from 2013 to 2015 and then spent three years on the board, called the decision to restructure now “completely irresponsible.”
“We are going into this unprecedented moment where people are isolated at home and traumatized. I can think of no time that CYC has been more needed across the state,” he said.
There are strong feelings about the California Youth Connection because of its unique role and its longevity. It was founded in 1988 by a group of teenagers that included Cuza, then 16.
One of CYC’s major areas of focus is political advocacy, informed by its statewide network of youth-led councils. The member groups function in a grassroots manner, coalescing foster youths’ needs that are otherwise overlooked. The group’s policy and research staff then develop and sponsor legislation involving issues such as youths’ rights to stay in contact with siblings, stay in schools of their choice, and have basic rights in group and foster homes met.
CYC began as an all-volunteer group of current and former foster youth ages 14 to 24, with just a small number of adult supporters, expanding to its current size of 900 members and 42 chapters and subchapters statewide.
In 2016, Cuza returned to CYC as executive director, after working more than 15 years in nonprofit advocacy groups serving children and young adults who have experienced foster care, mental health, criminalization and homelessness. Prior to coming to CYC, she served as the executive director of the Bay Area nonprofit groups Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery, and Youth in Mind, which specializes in empowering youth with mental health needs to advocate for themselves.
At the time she became director at CYC, former board president Jason Bryant said the hiring committee was “impressed with Cuza’s background and programmatic experience, but it was her understanding of the organization’s focus on empowering youth leadership that proved most compelling.”
Yet over time, members of the CYC staff came to question Cuza’s leadership. In June of 2019, the organization’s Statewide Leadership Council “served the board with a vote of ‘no confidence’” regarding Cuza, according to Amadahy Childers, co-chair of CYC’s Statewide Membership Council. She said that the board never responded.
The close-knit world of children’s advocates in California became more acutely aware of internal strife when Christi Ketchum, CYC’s northern community advocacy coordinator and an employee since 2011, called out Cuza in a letter dated March 22 that was sent to the organization’s members and supporters.
“I can no longer sit back quietly and watch an organization that I gave my heart and soul to for the last eight years continue to be dismantled,” Ketchum wrote. “How can CYC say, ‘all foster youth will be equal partners in contributing to all policies and decisions made in their lives’ when the very organization created for youth voice is silencing the membership?”
Sara Tiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Kelly contributed to this article.
Correction: This article erroneously stated that Jennifer Rodriguez was a founding member of California Youth Connection in 1988. She was a member, but joined in 1998.
Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of former CYC employee Darryn Green. The mistake has been corrected.