Celebrating Women’s HERstory Month: Angela Connor
As an agency founded and led by a Black woman, ASCI values the impactful contributions made by women of color who continue to lead with conviction and strength in order to best serve children and families. In honor of National Social Work Month and Women’s History Month, ASCI spoke with five influential female leaders in child welfare to highlight their powerful stories, impacts on children and families, and visions for the future.
Director of Foster Care and Adoption for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma & VP of the Board of Directors at NICWA
Angela Connor’s years of experience with children and families is a true reflection of her tender heart and passion for serving people. As her personal story is one of hope and opportunity, Connor aims to continue to be a beacon and voice for those who are underrepresented in child welfare. Moreover, Connor is hopeful that Native family voices and stories will continue to be elevated in all spaces.
ASCI: How long have you worked in child welfare?
Angela Connor: Well, I started in 2000 in child welfare. I became the director of child welfare for the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma in the year 2000, and I stayed there actually for 16 years and then three years ago, I came to the Choctaw Nation. And now again, I am currently the director of foster care and adoption.
ASCI: What made you choose this field of work?
AC: You know, I did have an aunt that did social work and so, as a child [I] often would watch and see what she, did but I always tended to want to help people. I think that people can better themselves if the opportunity presents itself. And so I got into social work and really liked it and I really feel like, for me, it is a calling. It is a spiritual calling and you have to have a passion and a commitment and so forth. I know that it is what I am supposed to do.
ASCI: What about your very first job in social work or in child welfare? What was that experience like for you?
AC: Well, it was a bit overwhelming. I was working at a hospital in a rehabilitation unit doing medical social work, and I am a tribal member, so I had learned that there was an opening at the Chickasaw Nation, and they said there was one in child welfare. I thought, “I think I can do this,” and then I was told I was too tender-hearted, that this probably was not going to be a fit for me—that came from a family member—but I thought, “I just feel like it is something I want to do and make a career change. I have been at the hospital for eight years.”
And so, I joined the team as the director and really did not know a lot about child welfare. I immediately started going to court, reading everything I could, and found out that that was the place for me. Although I think I was tender-hearted, it really gave me compassion and empathy for the kids, and I discovered a voice that I did not know I had before. I have often been told that I am different in certain settings versus when it comes to the courtroom and when it comes to kids. I just become zealous and want to make sure those kids’ voices are heard.
ASCI: What are some of the lessons that you were able to take from your first job? And just learning that about yourself, how have you been able to apply that and find it relevant in your current role?
AC: I have actually had a lot of social work interns over the years, because I do feel that you should share and try to educate and teach, and I have had former staff, and I always told them, “I feel like you have to be true to yourself and as long as you can lay your head down at night, you know that you did the best that you could do. Sometimes you can be pushed to go along with things that you may not agree with and so it is really important to stand up, be true to yourself and do what is right.” That is, to me, the only way you can really survive in this field. It is just following your heart and knowing that you are doing what is right. Do not let other people persuade you to go down a different route, but just always do what you know is right, and then you will not have any regrets.
ASCI: What have you found to be most fulfilling about working in the field?
AC: Whenever you can keep siblings together. There was a conference once, and one of our former youth was on the panel, and another youth that was on the panel spoke about how traumatic and how hurtful it had been that they and their siblings have been split up, and our youth spoke up and said they could not attest to that, because they were always able to stay with their siblings. So, that is one of the things I really, really advocate, is that sibling connection. I think that is probably one of the things that I am most proud of.
ASCI: From your perspective, what do you think needs to be changed about the current child welfare system?
AC: I think a greater emphasis on family and kinship care, because of the trauma. If you can reduce the trauma when you place kids with family or kin, it is less trauma, there is a greater chance of permanency, and I just feel like our child welfare system…you know, I advocate for the Indian Child Welfare Act because I am Native and our belief is that children should be placed with family and kin, and that is your first preference. I often talk to state agencies and they say, “Why should Native children get that preference?” I think it should be that way for all children. And so, to me, the system needs to be reformed to reflect a greater emphasis on finding family, regardless if you are Native or non-Native.
ASCI: How can you say that your own work advances such system reform to that specific point?
AC: Well, I think voicing my experience to advocate through national platforms. That is one of the reasons I was very privileged when they asked me to join the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s board. I was very honored to be asked and I thought, “OK, this is going to help me to impact policy on a greater level in regards to Native American children,” but then recently this past year, the Child Welfare League of America reached out to me and asked me to join their board. I was really excited about that because I thought, “This is a platform for all children, and I do not see it red, yellow, black, or white. I see all children.” I was so excited. I think that being able to join those boards has given me an opportunity to be more aware of legislation and policy and reform. The Child Welfare League of America is working on reform of the child welfare system. So, that is a lot of the work that I like to do—trying to connect with any platform I can that will help me with that cause.
ASCI: How do you believe your work has impacted children and families? More specifically, what do you think your biggest accomplishments have been in the field?
AC: Well, I look back over the years. My former position, when I was director of child welfare, evolved into an executive position where I was also over domestic violence and other programs, and so I found myself writing grants, and one of the grants resulted in opening a domestic violence shelter for women and children. I was so excited about that, and then I have written grants for foster care. And then we developed a program for children aging out, because we found that, if their current rights were terminated, they were never adopted, and we were their parents or the state agencies were their parents until they turn 18, and then what happens to them? So, we developed a program that would help the youth that wanted to reach back out to us after graduation or after they aged out of the system. We found some of the kids who are getting into drugs or where they just did not have any family at maybe 21, 22, and they would be reaching back out to the social workers who really were not their workers anymore. So, we developed a program they could still reach out to. Those are some of the things that I am really proud of. I consider myself a tree planter, and then hope that it will come to fruition after time.
ASCI: Can you speak about some current initiatives that you are working on—whether with NICWA or other projects you may be pursuing?
AC: One of the things that I am really working on right now is—having joined the Child Welfare League of America—there really was not a significant Native voice on the board. And I know that they reached out to some African-American individuals, some Hispanic, Native American individuals, and asked us to join the board. So, I appreciate that, and my initiative right now is to get them to expand to Native Americans to ask them to join as members. And to hear what that community has to say. There was kind of a belief or philosophy that well, NICWA addresses that and Child Welfare League addresses this. I said, “Well, there is so much commonality about what we are addressing, and we should be sharing between each other.” And I cannot represent all Native Americans, so they needed to open that door. They are looking at expanding the membership to Native Americans and reaching out to tribal communities. That discussion is going on between Sarah Kastelic, myself and Christine with the Child Welfare League of America.
That is one of the areas I am working on right now and also looking at the child welfare reform. And also policy. I am on the policy committee with NICWA and then also in Oklahoma; we have an Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Association and they have a subcommittee of a legislative committee, and I am on that, so I try to get on those different committees and boards to make sure that I can advocate for the cause.
ASCI: How have you seen kinship care evolve within child welfare?
AC: Well, I was thinking back about that. When I first started, you would certify resource files to be eligible to get reimbursement. And when I first started out years ago, family members and kinship providers were not certified. They had placement, but there was no financial reimbursement available. So, I am very thankful to see that they [now] get the training just like traditional foster parents and get the financial support for the reimbursement of expenses. I have seen that positive evolution. I think just like your program, I was reading about it and the services that you are providing, we did see that years ago. So, I do think that it is evolving in a more beneficial way, that there are services and training and finances available that there were not initially.
ASCI: Can you explain a little bit about your own experience with kinship care?
AC: A few years ago, I started training with the child welfare staff and said, “Locating family and kinship does not start at six months into the program.” I think that you have to reach out to the children; parents may not be able to identify kinship providers. But if you talk to the child and say, “Who did you play with? Who is your favorite friend?” There is so much more that we can learn by talking to the kids. And I have also talked to the investigators and say, “When you do an investigation, start there and then the permanency worker can continue on,” so I think it is just keeping that process going and continually searching, because someone may not come forward when the system is so prone to place and then move on. And if it is not with family or relatives, they are placed and then they move on to the next case, and I think they have to go back and review that family and have to keep looking [for kin], so I really push for a diligent search. My push for evidence of what a diligent search is…we really make more of an effort in the courts and in our training and our collaborations with the state agencies to explain what a diligent search is and to hold them accountable, by having them provide evidence of who they talk to.
ASCI: What advice would you give young women working in child welfare or considering it?
AC: Educate yourself and learn and speak up, because you are the only voice that the child may have. I think that you have to appear confident and be as prepared as you can—and when I say appear confident, you might not always feel confident, but to be heard, you have to appear confident and speak up. More women in social work should consider leadership roles, and they should think more about joining associations and learning about policy, because change starts on the macro level, and we can do a lot on the individual level, but you have to think for overall reform. You have to start at the macro level.
ASCI: What are you looking forward to in your career moving forward? We spoke a lot about how you got into this point and some initiatives you are working on, but have you really thought about what you are looking forward to in the future?
AC: Going back to a little bit about me personally…I became a mother at 16, and I was a straight-A student in high school, but I got married at 16, as well, and then dropped out of high school. I was in my early 20s when my parents really pushed me to go back to school. There were so many hurdles—teenage mom, high school dropout—so I had to get my GED and that is probably one of the things I am most proud of, because that opened the doors, and I always said I did things backward in the beginning, but it really helped to shape who I was. If I could overcome some of these barriers, then I can help others. And that really has impacted me, where I know that people can rise above their situation if they have the determination, and thank the Lord, I did have the support of my parents who really encouraged me. Financially, it was really hard on me, but I have heard others say, “Well, you do not know where I am coming from.”
In a lot of ways, I do know where you are coming from, and [people] are kind of surprised to hear that. That kind of shaped who I was, and I think looking forward in my career, I never forget where I started. And I just want to encourage people that they have the ability to change, that doors can be opened if we persevere, and so whenever I have an opportunity, whatever it might be—if it is in a journal or speaking at a conference or joining a board—I just want to share my story and my philosophy, and really my belief that God has got something for all of us, and that is my work in the future. I am not really sure what it holds; on a personal level, I am in the process of writing a book. It is probably going to be a few more years, but it is going to be called Reflections, and God has inspired me with the title, but it is still a work in progress. It is just to see His hand at work in my life, and our struggles sometimes help us to persevere, become stronger and impact lives, and so I am not really sure what He has got for me. I just say, “You open the door and I will step through it.”