Former Foster Youth Laid off From Advocacy Group Amid COVID-19 Crisis Are Re-Hired

Christina Parker, Vanessa Hernandez, Jordan Sosa and Blade Oestreich are among the employees who have been rehired after the shocking lay-offs. Photo: Facebook.

Following two weeks of chaotic upheaval that felt like a personal blow to many longtime advocates in California’s child welfare circles, all employees let go in layoffs at the nationally recognized foster youth group, the California Youth Connection, have been rehired.

The whiplash move to rehire eight of CYC’s 17 employees on Monday follows the resignation late last week of Haydée Cuza, one of the group’s founding members and executive director since 2016. Cuza abruptly dismissed the employees – the majority of whom are former foster youth – in what she saw as an opportune time to reorganize the nonprofit, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged lives and financial stability across the globe. 

Now, all laid-off employees have rejoined the organization, according to a statement from the CYC board of directors sent Monday afternoon that described their decision as a hopeful move to “begin our journey of healing.”

Individual board members and a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management and public relations firm hired by CYC did not respond to repeated inquiries from The Chronicle of Social Change over several days, but stated in a widely distributed email Monday: After a thorough review, all staff recently subject to a layoff have been offered the opportunity to resume their prior employment.”  

Two of the rehired staff members will come back full time, while the others will work half-time due to a coronavirus-related furlough that was in place prior to the layoffs, the board stated, adding that they are “working expeditiously” to end the furlough as soon as possible.

The board members did not state who was acting as interim executive director, or how the search for a new leader would be launched, but stated broadly: “During these uncertain times, the health, safety, and well-being of our staff and members must be a top priority, and will be a focus of CYC’s new leadership.”

Founded in 1988 by a small group of teens, the California Youth Connection is now a highly-regarded advocacy group with 900 members, a more than $2.5 million annual budget and assets of roughly $600,000. The majority of its funding comes from government grants and donor contributions. The group has fought hard for landmark legislation, including the extension of foster care to age 21, helping foster youth obtain driver’s licenses, and creating California’s first Foster Care Bill of Rights. 

On March 24, eight CYC staff members — some of whom had been with the organization for more than a decade — received a late-night email from Cuza telling them they were being let go from their jobs. Seven of the eight are former foster youths themselves. Along with two other staff members who had been laid off earlier in March, they made up more than half of the organization’s total staff. 

That same night, Cuza posted to CYC’s public Facebook page that in addition to the layoffs, all programming would be cancelled as part of an “intentional pause” to give the more than 30-year-old organization time to restructure into what she called “CYC 3.0.” 

Inquiries to the board of directors revealed that the layoffs had taken place without their knowledge, but they shared little else to the public about what had gone on. 

Less than a week later, Cuza resigned

Before her resignation was announced, Cuza had said that the pandemic provided the right moment to halt programming and cut staff because it allowed the laid off employees to access “the maximum benefits, including unemployment, that is being offered at this time.” But the eight who were let go on March 24 were completely caught off guard and were thrown into uncertainty about the stability of their housing and healthcare benefits in the middle of an economic and health crisis. 

Two former employees who shared an apartment grappled with whether or not they could afford to stay in their home. Another reached out to everyone in her professional network and was repeatedly told hiring was on hold until after the shutdown. Several struggled to maintain their mental health in a time of mass panic and anxiety. 

CYC’s members, composed of hundreds of current and former foster youth across California, reacted immediately and vocally to the sudden lay-offs and programmatic halt. They rapidly organized a campaign to have Cuza removed; their Change.org petition garnered more than 700 signatures in the first 48 hours alone. 

“Some people may say we’re being over-dramatic or we were fighting with too much emotion. 

What those people don’t understand is how traumatizing this was and still is for all of us,” said Amadahy Childers, a co-chair of CYC’s Statewide Membership Council. “It was like I was in foster care again,she added. “It’s going to take a long time to get over it.”

The laid-off employees may have a difficult task ahead, returning to legislation and advocacy projects they had to abruptly drop, and rebuilding relationships with partner agencies after having been tossed out and then reeled back by their employer in such a seemingly erratic manner. Inside the small organization, they will have to work alongside some of the same people who may have participated in letting them go, onlookers speculated.

Some longtime CYC supporters remained mystified, or angered, that the layoffs happened in the first place.

But for many, Monday’s board message felt like a glimmer of good news amid all the horrors of late – and the surest, quickest way to begin building back the reputation of a widely beloved organization. Many prominent child welfare advocacy groups in California celebrated the return to work of the laid-off CYC employees.

“I’m thrilled to see CYC staff who were recently laid off returning to their jobs,” said Susanna Kniffen, a senior director with the nonprofit Children Now. “Youth voice and engagement are more critical than ever during this pandemic.”

Neither the board nor its hired public relations firm Camino Public Relations responded to questions about what catalyzed their decision to rehire the laid off staff. 

Late Monday evening, CYC’s website greeted visitors with a statement from the crisis management firm: “A MESSAGE TO OUR SUPPORTERS.” Although there is no name attached to the statement, it sends media requests to: loretta@caminopr.com.

On the staff page that held 17 photos just days ago, there are just six now. The laid off employees’ pictures were quickly taken down. Cuza’s photo, however, remains. In it she beams in a bright red dress.

In its message to supporters, the media management firm also chastised some of those reacting to the layoffs:

“Many have chosen social media and other forums to express concern about the recent layoffs and related issues. Using the power of our collective voices for change is a strong California Youth Connection value,” the message stated, adding: “We are simultaneously mindful of our obligation to be a respectful and harassment-free community and strongly oppose bullying or any form of intimidation. We ask our community to be mindful of these intersecting values.”

The public statement urged readers to join CYCC in working with compassion, care and respect, and encouraged them to “remain focused on the important work of authentic youth engagement, including being responsive to our community during the pandemic.”

Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Karen de Sa contributed to this article.

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Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change 121 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.