Megan Rose: Keeping Families Out of Foster Care

Recently, Philanthropy Roundtable sat down with Megan Rose, CEO of Better Together, an organization that supports struggling parents by helping them work to build a better life, keeps children out of foster care and ultimately reunites families. Since its founding in 2015, Better Together has helped more than 38,000 parents seeking jobs in 14 states, supported thousands of families, including over 3,800 children, and kept 98% of those children out of the foster care system. In the first of a two-part series, Rose explains why she founded Better Together – and how its team has been successful in “helping people help themselves.”

Q: Tell us about Better Together. What’s your mission and focus?

Better Together’s mission is to strengthen families in crisis through the power of community and volunteerism. We help struggling parents keep their children out of foster care, find work and address the root causes of challenges they’re dealing with so they can reunite as a family. We also make sure that they have the tools and support to thrive. Essentially, we’re taking isolated families and connecting them to community and employment.

We’re privately funded and don’t receive any government support. Instead, the government refers over 60% of the families we work with. They introduce us to them so we can step in and avoid intervention like foster care.

Q: When did Better Together form? What’s the history behind it?

Our history goes back to 2015. At the time, I was asked to head up a southwest Florida chapter of a Chicago-based nonprofit that was enlisting volunteers to care for children whose parents were working through struggles. But I saw it as an opportunity to do more.

I envisioned a program that was volunteer-driven and professionally supported but really got to the root cause of the problems families were facing. We began to help families with employment and focus on that volunteer-driven, professionally supported model. Then, we decided to be completely free of government funding, and that’s how Better Together was born.

Q: Your goal is to reduce the number of kids in the foster care system by connecting parents with employment. Why is that link so essential?

When we started our foster care prevention program, Better Families, we quickly learned that 76% of the families we were working with were in crisis due to underlying financial hardships. They were either underemployed or unemployed and dependent on the government. These financial issues led to bigger crises, like drinking, substance abuse or domestic violence — sometimes a family ended up homeless.

We started our Better Jobs Job Coaching program to help families before they wind up needing their children hosted short-term or need other preventive services Better Families provides. We have vetted volunteers who support these families by mentoring them and helping them with problem-solving related to financial planning and workforce development. The program lasts from three to six months, and it helps families to help themselves.

Q: Better Together emphasizes bringing together different community partners. How does that work?

We believe the best way to help a community is through strong collaboration. For that reason, we focus on doing a few things really well, then we lean on other organizations with differing areas of specialty.

Often in this space, nonprofits don’t want to collaborate because there’s a scarcity mindset. Everyone works in silos, and nonprofit leaders might see generosity as a “fixed pie.” We try to break down that assumption and instead say, “We’re going to be better if we can help families together and share information.”

For example, if there’s a resource with a great substance abuse program, we’ll care for the children involved short-term while their parents get into that program. Or if a family needs mental health support, we’ll work with community partners that offer counseling. They can counsel parents on their mental health while we care for the kids and provide relational support.

We apply the same philosophy to the jobs piece. Our job fairs aren’t just about getting connected to a job. In other words, if you’re homeless, you may need many different things beyond employment, including child care, transportation, clothing and steady housing. We bring all these community partners to one place where families can access everything they need. It’s not just about getting a job, but setting someone up for success so they can keep a job.

Q: Describe the typical person you serve.

We largely help families with a household income under $25,000. The majority of them are on government assistance like welfare or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Seventy-six percent of these parents are on unemployment, and 82% of them don’t have an education beyond high school.

We believe the underserved have a lot of potential. They want to contribute to society and break generational cycles but don’t know where to start. Giving these relational support pieces — like mentors and families that can care for their children — plus access to good jobs can move people out of poverty.

Q: Can you share one or two compelling success stories?

We had a mom, Jennifer, who was a victim of sex trafficking and domestic violence, and was referred by a community partner. While the Florida Department of Children and Families recognized that Jennifer was a good mom who loved her son, their home life was dangerous. We hosted her son for about 90 days and worked to get her safe. We helped her obtain an ID, put together a resume, and find a job and housing for the two of them. Three years later, she just graduated from emergency medical services training and she’s going to be a paramedic. In the meantime, her son has started kindergarten.

Then there’s Sebastian. He was a young guy who had made poor choices and ended up in jail. After he got out, he had difficulty finding a job because of his criminal record. He was ready to give up when he got an invitation to one of our job fairs. One of our volunteer job coaches worked with Sebastian to strengthen his resume and build his confidence, then introduced him to a hiring manager. He got the job and went through an apprenticeship program to become an electrician. Now, he’s a manager and just welcomed a baby. He volunteers at our job fairs and helps others.

Q: What motivates you personally in your work?

My parents really struggled as I was growing up. My dad lost his job, and he grappled to meet our family’s needs. He turned to drinking and drugs, and our home became an unhealthy environment for my mother and our family.

My mom was connected to a local church, which helped support my family. Dad ended up going to prison, where people from a local church mentored him. When he got out of jail, they helped him put his life back together. They helped him get a job and reconnect with my mother. As a result, my parents got remarried, and our family was whole.

As a young kid, I saw the power of a job and what that did for my dad. It gave him stability and helped him stay sober. It helped us heal as a family. How different my life might have been if we didn’t have the support of a village.

Later, I worked in foster care as a child welfare caseworker and quickly saw the system was broken. A lot of families caught in the system loved their children, but they had made poor choices. My thought was, parents need better options because a lot of families don’t have a support system. They just repeat generational cycles that lead to hardship.

Better Together is a life calling for me, something I really believe in. Our efforts are incredible because they work.

Q: If money wasn’t an object, what would you imagine for the future of your organization?

We’re already growing, but we could scale more rapidly. Foster care is a $45 billion failed system that hasn’t been disrupted. If money was no object, we could disrupt that system a lot faster by reducing the need for it.

As it stands now, we hope to decrease the need for foster care in Florida by 20% over the next five years. We’re also hoping to be in over 200 major cities across the United States within that same period, bringing opportunities to “work deserts.” At the end of the day, we want to create a world where everyone has somebody to call in their time of need.

In the second part of our interview with Megan Rose, we will discuss Better Together’s response to Hurricane Ian in September, how local families have been impacted and the role philanthropy is playing in recovery efforts. Better Together is included in Philanthropy Roundtable’s Opportunity Playbook, where you can find more information about their impact and programming. If you are interested in helping to accelerate this organization’s impact, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson.

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