SFC Staff Profile: Pastor Donearl Johnson

Pastor Donearl Johnson with his family.

Pastor Donearl Johnson

Pastor Donearl Johnson learned a lot about trauma and how it affects kids in their development when he worked at Spaulding for Children for 11 years.

Pastor Johnson held many positions at Spaulding, including providing all IT support for federal grant projects. He also learned throughout his work about childhood trauma from Dr. Bruce Perry, the internationally recognized authority on children in crisis, and other experts about trauma.

Donearl Johnson today is Lead Pastor at Life Church Auburn Hills. There Pastor Johnson serves in the local school community with children and families who have been exposed to trauma. There are many challenges that these children face due to their exposure. Also, there are several families in his community that have been made through adoption and he desires to equip families and the church community on how to best serve them.

Pastor Johnson is committed to teaching those who interact with these children to become as informed as he became at SFC. Johnson feels that these families can benefit from guidance about trauma and its effects on a child’s development.

One statement Pastor Johnson heard while working at Spaulding is a saying he will never forget. And he puts it into practice.

“We spend too much time reacting to the behavior, instead of responding to their needs,” Pastor Johnson said. “It is better to respond than to react.”

Pastor Johnson is committed to teaching those who interact with these children to become as informed as he became at Spaulding. Johnson said he feels that these families can benefit from guidance about trauma and its effects on a child’s development.

Examples of what he’s learned that he’d like to share include:

  • Take the time as needed: It may take longer to feel an emotional connection with children who’ve experienced trauma in their lives, likewise, it may take longer to see positive changes in their behavior.
  • Don’t expect the child to behave like kids who have not been through what they have.
  • Don’t judge. Just give them support.

Recognizing different types of trauma – including physical – can help us understand their behavior, Pastor Johnson said. For example, when a child turns away from us when we reach out to embrace them. Don’t blame them or yourself. Touch can take on a completely different meaning than intended. Learning this can help us manage our expectations and understand their behavior.

“If you see a child in a wheelchair, you don’t say, ‘Get up and walk,’” Pastor Johnson said. “For children who have been exposed to trauma, they too have scars and inabilities that are not that visible, but they are very real. Therefore, you need to manage your expectations and support accordingly.”

Pastor Johnson hopes to train his staff at the church on some techniques that he learned from the child welfare community.  Also, he plans to partner with child welfare professionals to help his staff and entire church community learn more about childhood trauma, its effects on children and their families, and best practices to serve those in need.

He believes that by sharing with each other trauma awareness – everyone can make more informed decisions about how we help advance the healing journey for a child.

SFC Staff Profile: Melinda Lis

Melinda Lis, MSW

Many who have worked with Melinda Lis, MSW, report she brings together the inquisitive nature and analytical mind of the scientist with the heartfelt compassion and selfless dedication to others of the social worker. Devoted professionally to the welfare of children, Ms. Lis and her husband also have put the approach into practice in their own home as adoptive parents.

Ms. Lis began her work with Spaulding for Children in 2013 as the Director of the National Resource Center for Adoption. Through her office, she led the work to integrate policy and practice in order to help States, Tribes and Territories develop, expand, strengthen and improve the quality and effectiveness of adoption services provided to children in the child welfare system. The focus was to develop and provide new informational and professional resources to drive systemic change that would result in the successful adoption of waiting, abused, and neglected children.

Today the Vice President of The Academy for Family Support and Preservation at Spaulding, Ms. Lis recently served as Project Director of the National Quality Improvement Center for Adoption/Guardianship Support and Preservation (QIC-AG) housed at Spaulding. In that role, she helped develop, test and implement evidence-based interventions and promising practices that serve to achieve long-term, stable permanence in adoptive and guardianship homes, as well as for children and families after adoption or guardianship has been finalized. What’s more, the work has helped educators, physicians, and others better understand children who have suffered separation, loss and trauma.

“One thing we have done is to help move the needle for child welfare systems across the nation,” Ms. Lis said. “They have begun to reconsider how they serve their families, providing more of a continuum of services that span from high intensity to lower intensity support. Perhaps one family needs more frequency in their contacts. Others, perhaps, need a lighter touch. So, we have worked to build a system to help children and their families as they go through developmental milestones.”

The idea is to make available information and resources when needed by adoptive and guardianship families. For successful implementation, the work often requires a direct-service level of interaction to form optimal placements that lead to permanence, as well as measures for the child’s well-being and the family’s well-being.

“When you don’t have systems to help individual families change the momentum of the circumstances they are in, the process for permanence can be difficult,” Ms. Lis said. “Better placements are possible, measured by a child’s well-being and a family’s well-being. To do so, families need ready access to information, guidance, and support. So, when suddenly confronted with unexpected problems or even the problems that almost all families go through, such as when a child enters the teen-age years, everything doesn’t have to change. The ability to draw on reliable data and expertise in the field can make a complete difference and help restore what had been a stable family dynamic.”

Cristina Peixoto, President and CEO of Spaulding, stated Ms. Lis is nationally recognized as an effective leader and as a passionate advocate for strengthening foster, adoptive and guardianship families.

“Melinda’s leadership has helped change the perception of how child welfare systems should serve children and families post permanency through the development of a continuum of services focused on prevention,” Ms. Peixoto said. “The products she has developed and shared, the alliances she has formed, and the excitement she has brought to participants in the process have generated thankful responses, as measured by the testimonials that have poured in to Spaulding about Melinda’s innovative leadership.”

Through her work with QIC-AG, Ms. Lis brought together academic researchers, medical professionals, educators, and child welfare specialists to think critically together – with the goal of creating better child welfare systems.

“Melinda is a big thinker and can translate big thinking into tangible projects with real impact for children and families,” wrote April Dinwoodie, a member of the Family Builders Network, herself an adoptee, and a consultant. “Melinda believes a difference can be made for children and families and she is willing to put in the work!”

The people served by Ms. Lis also are willing to go on record with support. Elizabeth Richmond, an adoptive parent and Co-Chair of the Illinois Adoption Advisory Council, wrote about the time the State of Illinois was preparing to reshape its child welfare system in the 1990s:

“I remember being so impressed with Melinda’s level of respect for the parent representatives and how I felt she truly valued our input and opinions,” Ms. Richmond wrote. “Melinda worked extremely hard on a part of the overhaul that would make getting specialized services more standard. Her suggestions allowed both foster and adoptive families a much fairer and quantitative way of seeing services for their children. Melinda’s work also helped hold staff accountable and responsible for the necessary services and support foster and adoptive families need to succeed – not just a payment.”

Ms. Lis received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama. She received her master’s in social work from the University of Chicago.

“To me, it’s not just a job – the work is part of a mission,” Ms. Lis said. “I felt it was something I wanted to do long before I entered college. I never doubted it or thought about as doing what I want to do for a career. I always knew it is what I am meant to do. If a person wants to be part of a change that serves to improve systems or policies or peoples’ lives in new ways, this work offers many opportunities.

“With a social work degree, you can make an impact that also brings fulfillment. You are almost certain to make more money as an accountant or as an attorney, but you can’t get the same satisfaction for trying to make a difference.”

SFC Staff Profile: Kate Pogany

Kate Pogany, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Recruitment Specialist


One caring adult can make all the difference in the world to a child in search of a “Forever Home.” Kate Pogany believes that and loves working on behalf of each child. Working in the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK) program at Spaulding for Children, she helps find the caring people and families who can give a waiting child permanence.

Ms. Pogany is a Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Recruitment Specialist at Spaulding. One of two such positions sponsored and supported financially by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the WWK program helps find permanent homes for children with special needs and older children awaiting adoption.

“The missions of Spaulding and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids are very much aligned,” Ms. Pogany said. “Both were founded with the belief that there are no ‘unadoptable’ children. And both do all they can to make that a reality.”

What makes the work difficult is the sheer number of children awaiting families – about 300 in Michigan who currently are without an identified family, she said.

The WWK program follows a “child-focused recruitment” model. In the practice, the individual needs, specific circumstances and unique history of each child awaiting adoption provide the foundation for searching for the appropriate families – particularly for children most at risk of aging out of care.

The WWK program also helps Ms. Pogany and her colleague to focus less on the administrative tasks and to do what she does best: serve in the interests of a child by interacting on their behalf directly with individuals, families and children.

“Often, caseworkers are overloaded and overworked,” Ms. Pogany said. “Each person in the field has many obligations they have to meet. While we still complete reports and fill out paperwork, we can focus is on the child and the recruitment of an adoptive family. Even with so many children awaiting adoption, it’s just a matter of finding the right person and family.”

Ms. Pogany knows what to look for: loving, kind, thoughtful and determined people with a sense of humor. Adoptive parents also need flexibility to adapt to new circumstances and a desire to learn new ways of approaching parenting.

“We are searching to interview the right family,” Ms. Pogany said. “We want to help them see that they would not be alone in raising an adopted child. We are there to help them with resources, information, and the other tools they need, but also in that we are their partner in helping them when there’s a problem, as kids often experience as they go through their teen years.”

Finding the right person can be a most difficult assignment. Many prospective adoptive parents are stretched to the limit economically, taking care of aging parents and other family members, and may not see how they can introduce a new child to their home.

“Even if making the ultimate commitment – becoming a foster or adoptive parent – is outside your skill-set, you can still be in a position to make an enormous impact in the development and future life of a child by being a mentor or adult role model,” Ms. Pogany said.

Ms. Pogany recently celebrated her sixth anniversary at Spaulding for Children. She began her professional career in social work, then took a position in an unrelated field. After completing training as a volunteer in the Michigan CASA program – Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children – she was appointed to serve as the advocate charged with representing the interests of a 7-year-old child who was a permanent ward of the state of Michigan.

Within a year of beginning her work as a CASA volunteer, Ms. Pogany decided to return to the field of social work. Today, through her work and example, she is making all the difference for children and the world.

SFC Staff Profile: Kelly Burdell

Kelly Burdell, Foster Care and Adoption Supervisor

“When I first started, I saw that everyone here holds compassion for everyone else,” Ms. Kelly Burdell said. “They are always willing to help out, doing different things – for each other and for those we serve. And that includes the most important thing we do: Finding permanent home for children.”

Kelly Burdell had long known that children in Michigan and across the United States are in desperate need. And, so, she decided to dedicate her professional career to help them find safe, healthy and supporting homes as a practitioner of social work.

Ms. Burdell began her service with Spaulding for Children as an intern in 2012. The assignment was part of her Master of Social Work studies at Wayne State University. Upon graduation in 2013, Spaulding hired Ms. Burdell as a Foster Care Specialist, helping children and families find each other. In 2016, she became Spaulding’s Foster Care and Adoption Supervisor. Recently, she spoke with us about her work.

“It was surprising to discover that some children, youngsters ages 9 or 10, had realized that not being with their biological parents, sometimes, was the best option for them,” Ms. Burdell said. “That is a very young age for someone to realize that, ‘The foster home is better for me than going back home and being with my mother.’”

In addition to helping children find safe, healthy and supporting homes, foster care and adoption social workers help children and foster families deal with complex physical and psychological issues. Social work professionals also are called to represent and act in the best interest of children with teachers and schools, other health care providers, and with government and social agencies.

“It is not the child’s fault that he or she was brought into that situation,” Ms. Burdell said. “The child, however, is the one who is suffering. For whatever reason, it may be the parents who are at fault. We have to think about the child and help him or her get out of that situation in order for them to lead a productive, successful and happy life. If they remain in that situation, they will face multiple challenges. If that’s all they see in their life as children, that’s also probably what they also will end up becoming as adults.”

What does it take to become a foster care provider or an adoptive parent? Many people have misperceptions about the requirements.

“You don’t have to be rich,” Ms. Burdell said. “You don’t have to own a home. You don’t have to be married. The majority of people adopting today are single parents. And they are good hearted people who want to help others.”

Ms. Burdell invites people to learn more about adoptive and foster parenting. Spaulding for Children hosts information sessions and orientation programs where prospective parents can learn specifics. If they decide to continue in the process, prospective foster and adoptive parents are assigned a licensing worker who helps them complete their training, home assessment, and background checks.

“It’s all part of what we do here at Spaulding,” Ms. Burdell said.

Spaulding Board Member Profile: Verna S. Green

Verna S. Green,  Member of Spaulding for Children Board of Directors

A longtime and active member of the Spaulding for Children Board of Directors, Verna S. Green is the driving force behind Families in Bloom. The community focused event was held in April at St. John’s Banquet & Conference Center in Southfield. Ms. Green recently started preparing for next year’s event, tentatively scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend to honor all mothers. Among her goals for Families in Bloom II is for the event to spread awareness of Spaulding for Children and our work in the City of Detroit and throughout the metropolitan area.

While she seldom talks about her own accomplishments, we think you’ like to know more about Ms. Green:

Her eyes reflect the kindness of a grandmother. With her vision, Verna S. Green focuses on success like a CEO.

The former Senior Vice President and General Manager of Detroit radio giant WJLB FM 98 and sister station WMXD 92.3 FM, Ms. Green also is recognized by Michigan’s business community as the first President and CEO of the Detroit Black Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Green started her career in the mailroom of Parke, Davis & Company, the pioneering Detroit based pharmaceutical giant. She later joined General Motors Corporation’s Corporate Identity Department, helping administer the standardization of signage throughout the various dealerships and other operating units of the corporation. She was later promoted to GM’s Organizational Development & Research Department.

Committed growing personally and professionally, Ms. Green completed a Bachelor of Science in Management and Labor Relations from Wayne State University. She continued her education, earning a Master of Business Administration in the Advanced Management Program of Michigan State University.

Seeking to expand her experience labor relations, Ms. Green accepted a position as Personnel Director with the Visiting Nurses Association, where she negotiated the organization’s first collective bargaining agreement with the newly formed nurses’ union.

She continued her transition from the automobile industry to the health care industry with a career move to what was then known as “The Health Care Institute of Detroit” in Detroit’s Medical Center, where she had a dual management role in marketing and patient information system management.  “It was a great experience working with president of the organization, a physician who understood organizational development and management.”   The organization, however, was later absorbed into the outpatient services of what is now Detroit Receiving Hospital.  In that new entity, Mrs. Green became the Director of Recruitment and Management Training & Development.  Along the way, Ms. Green became acquainted with a coworker whose husband was president of Booth Broadcasting Company, the owner of WJLB-FM.

“She knew about my background in human resources management,” Ms. Green said. “One day, she mentioned that her husband was dealing with some interesting employee relations issues at the station, primarily how to deal with new rules regarding maternity leave. Over the months, I provided her with some suggestions that she passed on to her husband.  The questions and answers expanded to additional discussions regarding operational concerns and several in-person meetings/consults and eventually a job offer to become the general manager of WJLB-FM, call letters that are the monogram of its founder, John Lord Booth.

“It was a great experience.  Our team was able to revitalize the station and take it to a number one position in audience ratings.  Equally important, we were able to maximize those ratings with advertising revenue.”

Ms. Green would serve as Vice President and General Manager for almost 19 years. She said her approach was to utilize the radio station to actively demonstrate concern for the needs of the City of Detroit. In addition to sharing information, views and music, the station helped raise public awareness of important issues that weren’t always explored in general market news.

“In the early ‘80’s, Detroit was really suffering,” Ms. Green said.  We were surprised to learn that a surprising number of school children in Detroit did not have sufficient winter wear and would either miss school on intensely cold days or would come to school with dangerously light-weight outerwear.

“At the radio station, we decided to enlist the public’s help to provide coats for children who needed them. We launched ‘Coats for Kids.’” Ms. Green said. “What we found was that the need for warm clothing was so great that adults also were coming in for coats. So, the project became huge. We had thousands of new and like-new coats in our inventory. At one time, we were storing – and dry cleaning – more coats than any department store in the city.”

Around that time, 1999, Ms. Green met local vocalist and co-owner of a Detroit jazz club, the late Ortheia Barnes, who had been working as a volunteer with Spaulding for Children. Soon, Ms. Green joined in the work. She would formally join the board several years later with the encouragement of the late John Barfield.

“We talked about the need so many children have, to be part of a loving family,” Ms. Green said. “Spaulding is an organization that really cares about families and children. It has been very exciting to see Spaulding grow and become more widely known. Spaulding today has a national reputation for its expertise in adoption and foster care. We as a board are constantly aware that Spaulding could benefit from having greater organizational visibility in more areas in the Detroit metro.  Spaulding board members and staff are eagerly working on making that happen.”

SFC Staff Profile: Veronica Crawford

Veronica Crawford, Licensing Specialist

Since 2003, Veronica Crawford has devoted her professional career to the welfare of children. She started her work with Spaulding in 2008 as a foster care worker.

“After my first interview at Spaulding, I knew it was the agency for me,” Ms. Crawford said. “I felt the warmth and a genuine care of team spirit.”

As other opportunities were presented, Veronica gained experiences as an Initial Home Study Worker, Trainer and Recruiter of foster families, in addition to her service as Foster Care Supervisor. In 2015, Veronica was thrilled when an opportunity opened up for her to rejoin Spaulding to work as a Licensing Specialist.

As a Licensing Specialist, Veronica is responsible for the recruitment of foster parents, training and assessment of prospective foster parents in addition to promoting Agency programs in the community.

(For details, please see “Becoming a Licensed Foster Home” and “Matching a Child with a Foster Home” below.)

Ms. Crawford said the biggest public misperceptions about children in foster care comes from labeling — and mislabeling — children.

“Some people wrongly assume the children in foster care are ‘bad’ kids, and there’s nothing you can do with them,” Ms. Crawford said. “The truth is every child is different and you need to take the time to get to know them. Trauma affects children differently. The more you know, the more you will understand them and be able to help.”

Veronica added that until prospective foster parents are around other foster families, they will not really know all that’s involved. And that includes all the rewards of foster parenting.

“It’s vital that new foster parents network with other parents so they will not feel alone,” she said. “As an agency, we connect new foster parents with seasoned foster families — along with countless other resources, from training to social events that provide support and guidance.”

Spaulding for Children has been and remains a committed agency on behalf of its stakeholders, parents (birth, adoptive and foster), the community and most important, to the children.

SFC Staff Profile: Charles Bragg

Charles Bragg shares the best part of his work

As Spaulding for Children’s Foster Care Aid, Charles Bragg gets people where they need to be, physically. And he makes sure the children and families Spaulding serves get what they need in every way that he can.

Mr. Bragg assists everyone at Spaulding, from the president to the staff and especially to the children and families. He takes children to appointments with doctors and dentists, visits to specialists in Spaulding offices, and wherever else they need to be.

Mr. Bragg started as a temporary worker assigned to Spaulding. What started as a six month engagement would turn into an invitation to return when a full-time position opened. In his 11 years with Spaulding, he has met parents and children who have experienced a lot of pressures.

“Some of these kids have been through so much,” Mr. Bragg said. “They might not believe it, but we are all here to help. Even if they have to be removed from their home, we then do all we can to help them return home.”

He also helps transport furnishings to families starting over, and in every other way Spaulding provides a helping hand. Plus, he’s responsible for the care and maintenance of Spaulding’s vehicles, a pair of specially equipped vans.

In his work, Mr. Bragg also helps Spaulding deliver critical support to caregivers and parents which is so often needed. He transports biological, foster and adoptive parents to Spaulding classes and training programs to prevent an issue or conflict from escalating into abuse or neglect.

The aim, he said, is to help strengthen the family unit after a child is removed from parental custody, so that one day the child can be returned to a safe and nurturing home.

“The real clients at Spaulding are the kids,” Mr. Bragg said. “We want them, foster parents, biological parents – everybody – to feel special and to feel welcome when they’re here.

“In some cases, things don’t work out. Parents’ rights may terminated by the court. No judge or referee wants to take a child from their parent, but they may have to because the parents have not done what they need to do to get their kids back.”

Charles’ bright smile and, “Yes! I can do that” attitude make him indispensable to everyone he meets.

“You can pass along what’s right and teach something you’ve learned to everyone,” Mr. Bragg said. “There’s something about the road. It’s relaxing. When transporting a young person, lots of time they’ll open up and we’ll talk. They give insight into their situation. I want them to know that what we are doing is trying to help them.

“Best of all, I like seeing families coming back together – helping kids go home to their parents and seeing them happy to see their parents.”

A Salute to Addie D. Williams

As we commemorate 50 years of service to families and children, we would like to thank one remarkable individual who dedicated two decades of her professional career to Spaulding for Children, our President/CEO from 2000-2016, Addie D. Williams. Recently, Ms. Williams described Spaulding’s life-changing story.

“I worked for the State of Michigan for 11 years, and had the opportunity to know first-hand the caliber of services provided by Spaulding, first as an adoption worker and then as the Adoption Coordinator for Wayne County,” Ms. Williams said.

“In my position as an adoption worker, my caseload consisted of children who were available for adoption, had been referred to private agencies for placement but for whom no placement was found.  These children tended to have more challenges.  When I could not place the children on my caseload, they were referred to Spaulding for Children.

“Spaulding started as an adoption agency that specialized in placing children with developmental disabilities. At the time, the State didn’t think these children could be placed in adoptive families, they were considered un-adoptable.

“To convince the State of Michigan that there were families in the community willing to adopt these children, Judy McKenzie, Spaulding’s then-president entered into a unique purchase of service agreement with the State. She said, ‘If we successfully place a child, this is the amount you will pay us; if we don’t successfully place the child, you don’t have to pay us anything.’

“That first year, Spaulding placed five children who had been believed to be ‘unadoptable.’”

In the past, children with challenges and disabilities often would have grown up in foster group homes or in another type of institutional setting, Ms. Williams said. Then, they would have aged out of the system on reaching their 18th or in the case of children with developmental disabilities, 26th birthday as adults without ever knowing the security and strength that comes from being part of a family.

During her first four years as President and CEO of Spaulding, Ms. Williams helped develop a sound financial basis for the organization, developing new relationships with organizations and individuals. She also worked with Mike Lucci, John and Betty Barfield, Bob and Marjorie Daniels, and others across Michigan and the U.S., to raise awareness of Spaulding’s mission and to develop financial stability for the agency.

As President/CEO, Ms. Williams led Spaulding to find and develop new and innovative ways to serve foster and adoptive families that promote permanence and ensure the well-being of children after they move to adoption or guardianship. And, under her leadership, Spaulding continued building on its international acclaim for its pioneering work as the first agency focused on placing children with disabilities and special needs. Spaulding became the first agency in Michigan to use video equipment to help place children with foster and adoptive families.

“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how much is a video worth?” Ms. Williams asked.

In 1985, Spaulding received a federal grant to establish the National Resource Center for Adoption that has trained more than 200,000 professionals in all 50 states, each U.S. territory, and several Native American tribal nations. This program also served as the template for what is now The Academy for Family Support and Preservation. The State of Michigan also funded Spaulding for prevention programs for families with children ages 0- 3 that addressed family risk factors for abuse and neglect as well as provided parenting skills training and support for young teen-age mothers.

The Skillman Foundation was an early supporter of the work Spaulding was doing, Ms. Williams said, Skillman partnered with the agency to develop prevention programs to reduce the incidence of abuse and neglect in families served. Other foundations also saw the need to support child neglect and abuse prevention programs. In addition, faith-based and community service organizations, also stepped forward to provide critical assistance to Spaulding and the families we serve.

In looking back at her years with Spaulding, Ms. Williams said she recognizes there are additional challenges for SFC today. With increases in the number of children entering the foster care system who have more intense challenges, there is a need for a broader community support system. As the field gains a better understanding of the impact of trauma on children and families, we realize that our professionals and resource families need more training in how to address and accommodate children impacted by trauma. More and more families are being impacted by substance abuse, there is an increase of children born addicted to drugs, and a corresponding need for increases in the numbers of foster and kin families. In past years, families could find room for another child at the table. Today, typical families have both parents working jobs outside the home. Finding trustworthy child care and after-school programs can be expensive and of variable quality. These families feel foster parenting is not a role they can play.

Today an attorney in private practice and an educator at Wayne State University School of Social Work, Ms. Williams continues to support Spaulding in its mission to promote permanency for all children by educating the community of the continued need for foster parents, as well as couples who believe that as parents with two careers, fostering is not possible for them.

“The resources and services needed to support families who have children placed in the child welfare system cuts across the community and its numerous agencies and institutions. We must educate the community on the need for families, resources and services. We must also educate and train families and professionals on the impact trauma has on a child. Every child deserves a family capable of addressing their unique needs. If children are truly our future, we need to be preparing them today; providing loving, caring parents to children in need is step one.”