Episode 8: Escaping Liberian Civil War Prepared Lucina Kayee for American Foster Care

We address the travesty of child poverty.

Our hosts, Jeff and Carol, introduce each other to our listeners.

This podcast is based on Jeff’s book, “Invisible Americans.” He is a prolific American economics writer.

Carol is an Emmy-winning journalist, activist, and author. She most recently was the president of the ERA Coalition, a group devoted to amending the Constitution to protect women.

Lucina Kayee Survived Liberian Civil War and American Foster Care

Currently, Lucina is the founder and executive director of Atlas of Blackness, an organization founded to support Black, LGBTQ, and disabled children in foster care. 

She aged out of foster care at age 21 less than 10 years ago. At age eight, she was put in the back of a police car and taken somewhere, quote-unquote, safe. 

That safe place was a children’s home where she was placed in solitary confinement. 

Over the following years, she would go through 20 foster care placements, and she’s now dedicated her life to helping children in foster care in America. 

And let’s not forget – she is a political refugee who fled her home country of Liberia during their second civil war. She landed in America with just her stepfather, who suffered from the trauma of war and his experience as a child soldier, had a sick child, and found himself without resources in Minnesota. 

His arrest landed her in foster care, but Lucina expands on another common reason children are taken from their families: neglect.

Weaponizing Neglect as a Means of Separating Families

In Minnesota, Lucina has seen many children taken from their homes due to neglect. However, so-called neglect could be things like: 

  • Leaving a child home alone
  • Minimal or no food for a child
  • Not appropriately clothing a child with a coat

However, Lucina urges listeners to understand that these are simple things that could be fixed by providing financial resources to communities in need, rather than taking children out of their homes. 

We could reduce “neglect” by providing adequate childcare options for children living at all income levels, codifying cash payments to all parents under policies like the Expanded Child Tax Credit, and creating more access to nutritious food.

Generational Entry Points

What Lucina is seeing now, especially in Minnesota, is a cycle of children being placed in foster care whose parents were also placed in foster care at a higher rate than others.

While this is disheartening, Lucina tells listeners that, unfortunately, the foster care system in America is working exactly as it was designed to–and she shares with us the history of the foster care system. 

It has its roots in Central Park. Friends Charles Loring Brace and Frederick Law Olmsted attended an Ivy League college together. When Olmsted designed Central Park, he created a problem: abandoned children whose parents had been forced out of what would become Central Park. 

Brace decided to, quite literally, ship them off to the Midwest. He placed newspaper ads featuring these children and put them on so-called Orphan Trains to “better” families. 

“Foster care has always been about making sure that the rich…don’t have to see the system that they have actually created.”

The Demographics of Foster Children

Currently in America, about 30% of foster children are LGBTQ. One in six is Black. One in seven is Native American. 

These children are more likely to be fostered or adopted by families that are also LGBTQ, Jewish, or Muslim – but these potential foster parents aren’t protected under the law. They’re often denied the right to foster. 

Before his passing, John Lewis was working on a bill called the Every Child Deserves a Family Act which would protect these families and increase placement.

Lucina’s Goals 

In her advocacy work, Lucina hopes to: 

  • Provide culturally appropriate resources to communities in need
  • Create statutes to continue those resources regardless of political turnover

These two goals will keep families together, but for those children who are in foster care, she hopes to ban solitary confinement and strip searches for juveniles. 

Find out more about her work as a Black, queer, disabled immigrant and foster care advocate at her LinkedIn page.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Carol Jenkins

Hello, and thanks so much for joining The Invisible Americans Podcast with Jeff Madrick and Carol Jenkins. We address the travesty of child poverty here.

Jeff Madrick

There are nearly 13 million children living in serious material deprivation in America, and we don't see them. They are our invisible Americans, and we plan to change that.

Carol Jenkins

A couple of words about us. The podcast is based on Jeff's book, Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty. He's an economics writer, author of seven and co-author of another four books on the American economy.

Jeff Madrick

Carol is an Emmy-winning journalist, activist, and author. Most recently, president of the ERA Coalition working to amend the constitution to include women.

Carol Jenkins

We are longtime colleagues and friends.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John


Jeff Madrick 

May of 2023. As we record this podcast is Foster Care Month. When we talk about children and poverty, we have to remember that many children have been separated from their original families, in some instances for neglect. And that could mean simply not enough resources to buy food or provide safe shelter. There are nearly 400,000 children in foster care in America. A third are LGBTQ children. They are mostly children of color.


Carol Jenkins 

In honor of Foster Care Month, we talked with Lucina Kayee. She is based in Minneapolis and is the founder and executive director of Atlas of Blackness, an organization created to support children of color, LGBTQ, and also disabled children in foster care. She served as a Robert Kennedy Foundation campus leader, chosen for her work, and is about to graduate from college. She entered the foster care system at age eight. She is Black, queer, a Muslim, disabled and an immigrant. She says that her early life in war-torn Liberia provided her with the skills needed to survive 20 placements in foster care, and she's committed her life to helping others do the same.

Lucina, thank you so much for being with us today. And as we record this, we are in the middle of Foster Care Month, so we really appreciate your being here to highlight this issue for us as it relates to poverty and what happens to children in poverty.

If you could tell us your story: When you first went into foster care, you were eight years old and went through the system many times. Was it more than 20 times?


Lucina Kayee 

Yeah, so like I said, I’m [INAUDIBLE]. I am from West Africa, from Liberia. I’m from an indigenous tribe called the Sapo people. My family escaped war in early -- during the second Civil War, my mother had to stay back to, like, immigration, which forced me and my stepfather to come here.


When my stepfather came here, he was somebody who experienced two civil wars and multiple tribal wars, and he was also a child soldier. He has so much trauma. And the difference was, he still had that trauma in Liberia. But he had a support system, right? He had people who understood his culture, understood his addiction. And when he came here, there was no balance. He didn't have any type of support.


All he had was -- at that time I was sick. That was due to the ethnic cleansing of our tribe, trying to kill me, [INAUDIBLE] my mother, but I ate her food instead. So now he's in America with a sick child, and not knowing what to do as an addict, instead of the system figuring out some way of giving him some type of support, right? In our community in Minnesota, the Liberian community is actually very tight-knit, and all they need -- just like any other poor community -- is resources. So instead of providing some type of resources for my stepfather, they removed me from his home.


And the way they remove foster children is very disgusting. The first time I was removed, I was eight. And the way I was removed is they -- I was playing outside with my friends, and two police officers pull up and they tell me my stepfather’s been arrested. They have to take me, quote-unquote, somewhere safe.


And instead, they take me to – they put me in the back of the police car. And all my friends – mind you, I’m eight years old -- they think I'm going to get arrested. I'm thinking of getting arrested. I don't know what's happening. And they take you to this emergency shelter home. And so that's my first placement.


And at this emergency shelter home, you have – it’s in a house, so it’s not actually in, like, this large building, right? I think a lot of times we think of foster care -- It's such a complex situation, especially how Black and native children are positioned in it, right?


So I go into the shelter home. I'm the youngest. Most of the kids, they're about 13,14, 16. I'm eight years old, and I am very quiet. At the time, no one knew I was autistic. So I'm very, very quiet, not speaking because I don't know what is going on. The police didn’t tell me exactly how long I was going to be here. No social worker had reached out to me. So all I knew is, the only family I had here is in prison. And the way I envisioned prison is how we envisioned it back home, right?


And I'm fearful. Instead of the workers in that building, in that shelter home speaking to me, they placed me in a solitary confinement room because I refuse to talk.


Carol Jenkins 

So, Lucina, your early experience has led you to be such an advocate for children in foster care. Do they still know operate the same way? A police car rolls up, pulls the child out and takes them off, you know, to some facility?


Lucina Kayee 

Yes, is the foster system. I aged out in 2016, maybe 2017, when I was 21. But it hasn't changed, right? It just adapts to the situation. You have foster children that are still being placed in solitary confinement.


In Minnesota, over 70% of juveniles are placed in solitary confinement, and majority of us are Black. The system has not changed as I aged out. The only difference is because of foster kids who then start organizing and started doing a lot of advocacy work within the legislature. We were able to shut down a one of the biggest shelter homes for children in Minnesota. It’s called St. Joseph School for Children. And that's where a lot of foster kids experienced solitary confinement.


Carol Jenkins 

Right. That was where you went. I mean, you were out of St. Joseph, what 20 times, right?


Lucina Kayee 

Yep. And St. Joe's be solitary room. They were placing these children in these small metal rooms where the workers and the staff knew there was mice, was infested with mice. And it was a way to, like, force these kids to learn, quote-unquote, how to behave. These are literal children that did not know what was happening because they're removed from their home. But now St. Joseph has been turned into a school. It no longer exists.


Carol Jenkins 

Well, congratulations on that success. Jeff and I are looking at President Biden’s statement -- proclamation on May being Foster Care Month, and in it, they talk about LGBTQ children, and that perhaps 30% of the children now in foster care are LGBTQ, and one in six Black, one in seven Native American, you know, talking about children who are mostly Black, native, LGBTQ -- outside of the, you know, the usual child that we perceive of as going into foster care. Jeff?


Jeff Madrick 

All the reporting I've ever done talks about the failure of foster care in America. I'm curious how it differed in Liberia. Was it very different, your experience in America? And then how did you ultimately escape it?


Lucina Kayee 

I was with my family throughout Liberia. So during the second civil war, that was where the ethnic cleansing of certain tribes, like the Sapo tribe, the Kwaa, the Kru people. My mother helped me and my stepfather and everyone, like, escape to the Ivory Coast because they were coming to bomb our village. And she was able to help us escape.


I always tell people, the biggest difference between Liberia and the US -- even though I was being targeted with my family, for ethnic cleansing, and they were literally trying to kill us, the biggest difference was I was being protected by my mother. I remember one day she hid us in this small hole.


And she will literally physically put her body against the wall to make sure that if the rebels shot it, it will shoot her first before it shot her children. And when you are in foster care in America, you have no one except each other. Other foster kids, right. There's no one to protect you from the from the mice that’s in your cell with you. There's no one to protect you from the guards or the security or the social worker or the cops who may harm you. In Liberia, I had that protection, even though I was under attack.


Jeff Madrick 

Wow. Let me ask you this, though. What is the flaw in the American foster care system?


Lucina Kayee 

The system has always been about, how do we protect the riches of our community? How do we make sure that people who are the most privileged do not have to see folks who are struggling? If you take it all the way back to the beginning of foster care, you have these two friends, Charles Loring Brace and -- I forgot the -- I think it's Frederick something.


They both went to Princeton, and these two friends, one who -- if you know about the Freemasons, the freemen, and what is now Central Park, he helped – Frederick helped design what is now Central Park. Then you have Charles Loring Brace, who was tired of seeing these poor Irish children and Black kids whose parents were put into institutions after Central Park was becoming, like, developed, right?


That's the beginning of foster care, happened in New York. He got tired of seeing them on the street. So instead of releasing their families, giving them their land back, he created what we call the Orphan Trains. And that's the modern day foster care, where you place children in newspapers, allow rich families and other families that you deem more valuable to then pick these children, and you put the children on physical trains to Midwest. And now these kids are all over Minnesota, Chicago, and Illinois, with their families.


So foster care has always been about making sure that the rich is able not only to stay rich, but able to stay at peace, where they don't have to see the system that they have actually created.


Carol Jenkins 

And so the system that we have, Lucina, where 30% are children -- LGBTQ. How does that happen, that a third of the children in the foster care system are queer?


Lucina Kayee 

It happens for multiple different reasons. John Lewis actually was pushing a bill called the Every Child Deserves a Family Act before he unfortunately passed. And that bill was actually to protect potential foster and adoptive parents, right, who may be queer, who may be trans, who are being denied, because in America, you can be denied the chance of fostering.


So everything under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is covered in, like, the foster care laws, right, but what is not covered is your queerness, your transness. It's not covered if you're a single male, right?


And so what's starting to happen, then you have all these queer and trans kids who are more open about coming out, right? The society that we live in now, and there's foster homes are unwilling to take them. But then we have these foster homes who are willing to take them, but those foster homes are also queer, trans, who are also Muslim and Jewish.


And a lot of these private agencies were refusing to allow Jewish and Muslim potential foster parents to foster. Those are the people who are willing to take queer trans children.


So now we have this large number of children who cannot be placed in homes because now we’re denying people the right to foster them because of their identities.


Carol Jenkins 

Now, one of the things that that you and we are interested in is keeping the children in their families, instead of taking the children away. As you say, give them the resources they need to effectively raise, you know, to feed and to house, their children.


Lucina Kayee 

It’s really interesting because if you look at the data of the reasons why, especially most of the most marginalized for our community, right, like native children are actually removed, especially for Black children, that's for neglect.


And depending on your state, neglect could be a lot of things. Neglect could be, you are leaving your child at home alone because you have to work because the society that we live in does not provide you with resources to be able to pay for a nanny to come into your home or to bring your child into any of these facilities for people to watch your children.


And so you have a large number of foster children, especially Minnesota, who are being taken away from their families because of neglect in regards to not having food in their home, not having jackets, the most simplest things that can be fixed with providing financial resources to that community, right?


And then you also have foster children being taken away from their home because their families have a history of also being in foster care. We're seeing right now in Minnesota, the generational entry point of kids coming back into foster care, right, where your mother was in foster care. Now you're in foster care.

Now if you have a child, your child most likely be in foster care. It's almost like the system is setting up to consistently harm the people that they say they want to protect.


Jeff Madrick 

Would you say, stepping back, is the largest problem lack of resources? Or is it lack of rules, useful rules?


Lucina Kayee 

I think there's lack of resources where they would -- I mean, lack of resources. I mean, there's not a system in place right now, where you have, especially with the child welfare system, where you have someone who is able to connect with certain communities and know about their cultural differences, right? Because what Black Americans do in Harlem might look different from what Black Americans do in Washington Heights. Knowing about, like, the cultural differences of those people, and then providing them specific resources that can benefit the community, but also creating legislation that can protect those resources, even if new politicians come into play.


And so not only is there not consistent and specific cultural resources for each community, but there's not statutes that can stay in place to secure that for future.


Jeff Madrick 

Is one of your goals to make sure we can secure these needed statutes?


Lucina Kayee 

One of my biggest goals is to make sure that the young people who are currently in foster care right now, who are currently experiencing a form of torture we call solitary confinement, that that is able to come to a stop. Luckily for us, in Minnesota, there's an organization called Minnesota Legal Rights Center, and they were working on a bill, it would ban solitary confinement and visual strip searches for young people who are considered juveniles because right now, we don't have that.


And then my other goal is to make sure that, like you said, there are laws in place to protect these resources that communities have already developed. And that there's a way that we can funnel actual funding right back into those communities, without them having to beg for it from the federal government.


Carol Jenkins 

Wow, Lucina, those are -- you stipulated your two goals, and personally you have -- you're about to graduate from college. You have made it out, even though as a Black, queer, disabled child who really took a great deal of punishment in the foster care system. Do you consider yourself having made it now? Because we do.


Lucina Kayee 

Yes. I think I've been very privileged. And it sounds weird, right? You say you spend most of your life in solitary, in and out of the system. I feel like being in Liberia prepared with for the foster care system here, fleeing from war, right? And so I was prepared to as a refugee -- I came as a political refugee. I was prepared not to be with my family. My mom prepared me for what the system could do because she saw what the US did to Liberia.


And so unlike other foster children, I've been very privileged to know what situation I'm getting myself into. So I knew how to navigate. I knew that I would never touch drugs. I saw what drugs did to my family and the rebels – and I know that as a person who comes from addicts, that's in my veins, right? I've always been privileged enough to recognize that because I come from war.


Carol Jenkins 

Wow. That's quite a story.


Jeff Madrick 

Quite a story.


Carol Jenkins

Quite a story. Well, thank you so much. And for the really, really great work that you're doing for other children who are in the foster care system. We really appreciate your dedication. I get the sense you're not leaving anybody behind. Right? You're getting them, getting them all out?


Lucina Kayee 



Jeff Madrick 

Let me just reiterate what Carol said. It's an extraordinary story and extraordinary courage. And we hope you can keep it going. And we hope to keep publicizing the need for resources and serious statutes to make sure that the foster parents do what's necessary. So again, thanks so much for joining us.


Lucina Kayee 

Thank you all so much for inviting me. I want to say one thing. My organization has been working on the film. Our film is called Through Their Eyes: The Stories of America's Forgotten Children. We’re following five former foster youth who have experienced incarceration while in care and told us the history of the foster care system, the history of Freemason, where foster care comes from and how our system is working the way it’s supposed -- it was meant to work, right? Which does not mean it's okay.


But a lot of people do recognize that this is not something that was mistakenly made. It was something that was strategically made by people who went to Ivy League schools and wanted the structure to be this way. And so telling the story of these five Blacks foster youth and how we as a society, right, can work to make sure that we're able to dismantle this, but also making sure that we have things in place to protect the children who are currently experiencing it.


Jeff Madrick 

We look forward to it. Congratulations on an extraordinary life, and it's just begun.


Lucina Kayee 

Thank you so much.


Jeff Madrick 

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Jeff Madrick

History will judge the nation's decency in various ways, one of them will surely be the well-being of all its children. American neglect of its poor children is both inexplicable and deplorable. By basic measures, it has the highest child poverty rate among rich nations in the world. A generation of careful academic research has shown how damaging this has been to children's cognition, health, nutrition, and future wages. And 2021 Congress and the president adopted an enlightened program that expanded the Child Tax Credit and made it available to almost all children no matter their race, ethnicity, or how little their parents earned. The results were stunning, cutting the poverty rate by half. But Congress refused to renew the program. In coming months, this podcast will examine the future of the Child Tax Credit and other key policies to protect children from the destructiveness of poverty. We are dedicated to restoring a bright and optimistic future for all children in this land long celebrated for equal opportunity.


Carol Jenkins 

Our thanks to Lucina for her bravery and her work. You can find out more about her and Atlas of Blackness on our website. That's www.theinvisibleamericans.com. We have show notes there, transcripts, guest bios and research. That's www.theinvisibleamericans.com.


Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and thanks so much for listening today. Jeff and I will see you the next time.

Lucina Kayee

Founder and Executive Director of Atlas of Blackness

Lucina Kayee is a multidisciplinary artist, researcher, advocate for survivors of the foster care system, and the founder and Executive Director of Atlas of Blackness (AOB). Atlas of Blackness (AOB) is a grassroots multimedia artistic research-based organization with the mission of documenting the stories of Black people in hopes of preserving them for future generations. Atlas of Blackness mentors Black fosters under thirty in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area by providing them with resources to document the untold stories of their communities and produce authentic narratives. Lucina graduated from St. Catherine University with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work.