Profile: Rick Velasquez shares lessons learned from over four decades of work with Illinois’ children and families

Why do some children fall through the cracks — and what can we do to both respond to this crisis and prevent future losses?

Rick Velasquez, who recently retired from his post as the CEO of Youth Outreach Services (YOS), spent his career seeking — and finding — answers to that question. And he’s not done yet. In his “retirement,” he is serving as the Chairman of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

Velasquez spent 44 years at YOS, which is a longtime IFF client, in a wide variety of areas and roles — from direct outreach and substance abuse treatment, to program management and service as a clinical director, to research and development, to program operations. During his tenure, YOS grew from a small agency of 20 people on Chicago’s Northwest side to about 130 employees working throughout Cook County and in state prisons across Illinois. “As the agency grew, I just grew with it — as both a person and a professional,” Velasquez says.

That growth included remarkable achievements on behalf of Illinois’ children and families. For example, with Velasquez at the helm, YOS became a top provider of youth substance abuse treatment services across the state. He consistently advocated for community-based intervention strategies, helping divert countless children away from ineffective detention centers and into alternatives like cognitive behavioral therapy and reentry service programs.

Velasquez’s many awards include the 2018 William White Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois Association of Addiction Professionals and a 2010 Champions for Change in System Reform in Juvenile Justice from the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He holds an M.S. in social work from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a B.A. in psychology from Northeastern Illinois University.

IFF recently sat down with Velasquez to discuss his views on effective ways to help kids, effect change at a policy level, retain new leaders, and more.

 

IFF: What first led you to the field of youth services?

Velasquez: The importance of fairness has always motivated me in some way. That probably comes from my grandmother, who brought that with her to this country as an immigrant from Mexico. And as a high school kid, I still remember what it was like to be one of five Mexican families in our community. We kind of stood out.

The first time I tried college I didn’t know why I was there and dropped out, then worked as an electrician for a few years. That didn’t feel right either. Then, I started volunteering with a small organization of about 20 employees. At the time, it was called Northwest Youth Outreach [it later became Youth Outreach Services or YOS]. I found that working with kids was really aligned with my values and brought meaning to my life.

I started helping run a drop-in center for kids who were just a little younger than I was. I was able to relate to them and eventually did outreach to kids on the streets in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. By that time I decided I’d better go back to school. And I took it more seriously because I had a focus.

 

IFF: Over the course of your career, what kinds of interventions have you seen be particularly successful or unsuccessful in helping youth?

Velasquez: First, it’s critical to match interventions to needs. Often in our field people say, “Well, this is the program or service and we just put everybody into it.” I think that’s one of the worst things that can happen to kids and families. Because we’re really not considering whatever the child or family needs, or whether the program or service we’re offering is going to meet those needs.

There’s a good example from the juvenile justice arena. Research has shown that when you mix low-level or low-risk juvenile offenders with higher-level or higher-risk offenders, what happens is the kids who are high-risk rarely get any better — and the low-risk kids get worse.

That leads me to the importance of using data. At this point in the history of the field, we have so much information and evidence about what works with different populations that for us to ignore that research is unethical and harmful. Take what we’ve learned about trauma in the past 10 to 12 years and the impact it has on all human beings, and especially kids, whose brains are still developing through adolescence and up to age 24.  Now that we know this, we need to ask ourselves: How can we use this information to best serve kids?

The days of using just anecdotal information or relying on a charity mindset are over. Results matter. Something I always tried to do in my career was go back and say, “You know what? I don’t think that worked.” We have to be able to critique our work, and data — whether you are brand new to the field or a CEO — must be one of the tools we use.

The days of using just anecdotal information or relying on a charity mindset are over. Results matter.

The third thing I’ll mention is something we all know, but it’s worth repeating: When you’re working with young people, the engagement of the family is critical. I’ve noticed that programs tend to focus on the child and not necessarily on the ecological system around them. I don’t necessarily mean the child’s biological family, but those who are the key caregivers for that child or other influential adults in the child’s life. They must be involved, because that family system is a crucial part of what’s going on with the kid. Also, the professionals who are intervening on behalf of the child are not going to be there for the remainder of that child’s life.

All of these ideas are based on a fundamental principle: We need to have persistence in engaging kids and families. What I’ve often seen happen without that persistence is the child or family gets blamed. It’s easy to say, “Well, the kid didn’t want this,” or “We can’t take that child.” But maybe we didn’t try hard enough. Instead of saying the kid has failed, when most of them have experienced a significant amount of trauma in their lives and had other institutions that let them down, let’s look at ourselves and our ability to engage, our willingness to not give up.

 

IFF: What do you see as other key challenges nonprofits currently face?

Velasquez: You can have all the data in the world and all the slickest equipment to collect it, but frankly, our business is about the people who do the work. And I think we’re experiencing a workforce crisis. We’re starting to see attrition in leadership as folks like me retire, and it can be highly disruptive to your organization’s progress when you lose people. Our biggest challenge — not just in this industry, but across the board — is our ability to recruit, retain, and advance a competent workforce behind us.

It’s not a brain drain necessarily, but as people retire, how do we make sure that we have avenues to retain some of their knowledge and not spend another five years or a decade trying to recapture something we already know is fundamental?

That’s something I would encourage organizations to think about: What kind of succession planning are you doing? How are you supporting and mentoring new leaders — not just in a one-off way when they step into a bigger role, but in an ongoing way? We have to ensure that up-and-coming leaders have opportunities for growth and receive input on what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t.

 

IFF: Any thoughts on how to approach that challenge and do a better job recruiting and retaining new leaders?

Velasquez: I’ve seen some movement in tuition loan forgiveness, which could help. If you’ve spent $50,000 or $60,000 to get a master’s degree in this field, you’ll likely end up working in a hospital or managed care entity in order to meet your living requirements and pay off your tuition. That means the people nonprofits need on the front lines — people who are talented and skilled — are gone.

Also, organizations have to do more to engage staff — just as we engage our clients. We need to make sure staff are partners in what we do and have a say-so in the direction of the organization. Leaders must be able to communicate why we do things, not just how we do them. We also must have new leaders’ backs. When they make a mistake, we should pause and say, “Tell me about how you came to this decision.” We want them to formulate their own thought process around the choices that affect others’ ability to succeed. Because success comes as the result of a team, not individuals.

Most importantly, I think employees must find a common area of agreement between the organization’s values and goals and their own personal needs. Intrinsic motivation is key when you’re recruiting and retaining people. If you have somebody who needs to be motivated by external rewards all the time, that gets tiresome.

Look for those who have shared values and interests — which, by the way, doesn’t mean they always agree with you. I prefer to be surrounded by people who think in a different way than I do, people who challenge me and call me out on stuff, because then I have to rethink what I’m doing and consider what I might have missed.

 

IFF: You’re someone who has — and continues to — devote a lot of time to policy change, particularly in the area of juvenile justice. What have you learned about change-making at a policy level?

Velasquez: As a clinician working with kids, after some time there was an a-ha moment when I said to myself, “Yes, this kid has a certain disposition. But so much of their behavior is framed by what’s happening around them.” I began to take a systems perspective. It became apparent to me that until we begin to change policies that affect a broader range of institutions, practices, and people, no matter how much we work individually with kids, we can’t expect things to change very much.

Until we begin to change policies that affect a broader range of institutions, practices, and people, no matter how much we work individually with kids, we can’t expect things to change very much.

What I’ve learned is policy is like making sausage. It takes a lot of ingredients and the ability to acknowledge perspectives from a lot of different constituents to develop good reforms and make change happen. So, for example, in my early years of juvenile justice reform, I focused exclusively on the harm being done to kids. But that wasn’t going to move the needle among legislators, especially tough-on-crime legislators who ran on that perspective in elections.

It wasn’t until we began reframing the impact data that we were able to win the support of a legislator in a downstate area. We shifted to saying, “Look at what it’s costing you to keep this kid in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center — and by the way, the data now show that kids get worse if you put them in there once.” We didn’t change legislators’ views of the kids. But we did help change their views on the issue by presenting data in ways that were meaningful to them.

Put another way, policy reform is about determining where we have common interests. How do our common interests interact with one another, and where can we come together? And as someone who has been working on juvenile justice reform since the 1990s, it’s exciting to see that in this country, not just in Cook County or Illinois, there’s a confluence of people coming together. We have our own self-interests and perspectives — the negative impact on kids’ lives, the cost, the fact that the system doesn’t work in terms of deterring crime — but we all understand it’s time for a new solution.

Since I retired, that’s what I’m focusing on now as the Chairman of the Juvenile Justice Commission.

 

IFF: What are your plans for retirement?

Velasquez: After I retired, I got a call from the Secretary at the Department of Human Services. They asked me to serve as the Chairman of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. I’m doing it not because I’m interested in just running a commission or a meeting. I’m doing it to help develop leadership in the Commission that has a positive impact on communities around Illinois.

I think we’re at a unique point where some of the things we value around justice, equity, and opportunity have come to the forefront of the administration and become a key piece of the Lieutenant Governor’s platform. I’m trying to advance those values at local county levels. Can we be the entity that helps percolate collaborative models between the courts, law enforcement, schools, and the community? Can we give the right services to kids and families who have traditionally gone through the juvenile justice system with very little progress at the end of that experience?

That’s my focus, along with making sure the Commission represents all perspectives in order to end up with better policies. That’s key when we’re dealing with racial and ethnic disparities. When I look at who’s in the room and they don’t represent the population that is being impacted, that tells me we have a lot more work to do.

Learn more about Velasquez’s transition and what’s next for YOS.

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