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Washtenaw United: Ann Arbor-based 'Hands Across the Water' providing support to foster children and families

Katie Page Sander
Katie Page Sander
Katie Page Sander


Katie Page Sander earned both her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology (1995) and a Master of Social Work degree (1997) from the University of Michigan. She has twenty-six years of experience in the field of child welfare, including direct practice, supervision, training, community organization, program management, and policy development. Her work spans across the fields of foster care, adoption, youth development, parenting education, Wrap-around programs, prevention services, and family and youth advocacy.

In addition to adopting two children through Hands Across The Water, Katie has held numerous positions at HATW since 2002 before having the honor of becoming the agency's Executive Director in 2016.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. Simply put, there are too many children in Michigan and right here in Washtenaw County that have nowhere to go. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Washtenaw United. This is our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity in our community. Nearly 11,000 children in Michigan are in the foster care system, and there's an urgent need to find them temporary and permanent care. That's where the organization Hands Across the Water comes in. The Ann Arbor-based service agency has made its mission to help. Our Washtenaw United guest this morning is its executive director, Katie Page Sander. Thank you so much for making time to talk with us today, Katie.

Katie Page Sander: Well, thank you for having me.

David Fair: I would imagine that working in the realm of child welfare is rewarding, but also frustrating and at times heartbreaking. What led you down this particular career path?

Katie Page Sander: Gosh, I think it was a little bit just happenstance. I was looking for work after graduate school, and a friend got me an interview. It was actually one of the first things I thought I wouldn't want to do. I had heard the stories about how stressful work and child welfare could be, but I was told during the interview about how I might be able to impact kids' lives. And I guess the rest, they say, is history. I started that career first as a foster care case manager, and I've continued along that same path. Somewhere in there, I also decided to become a foster and adoptive parent myself. So now, this professional journey is also a personal one.

David Fair: As you mentioned, the biggest complaint in this very specialized field is the level of stress, the pressure to help, the pressure of understaffing, the long and sometimes unpredictable hours. Clearly, you have found ways to personally manage those issues to great effect. For those working in the field that do find themselves overstressed, is that a condition that the children you're working with pick up on and then kind of ingest themselves?

Katie Page Sander: Sure. I think that can be a factor. We always talk about how there's a parallel process really for our children and what they're experiencing and the loss they experience when they enter foster care, all of the things that are familiar to them: their home and their neighborhood and their parents and sometimes their siblings who they might be separated from. And, for our staff, when they in turn decide to move on in their careers, those children lose another connection. And so, we try really, really, really hard to take care of our staff as best we can, to recruit and screen staff who understand the demands of the job, to take care of them while they're there, so that we can have the least amount of disruption for kids and families who are already experiencing that. And we also know that outcomes are better for those kids and families when they have less social worker turnover. So, we take that really, really seriously, I think, across the water.

David Fair: I think those who choose a career in child welfare services have a strong desire to really advance social justice. They seem to go hand-in-hand. So how does Hands Across the Water address those issues as an organization?

Katie Page Sander: Thanks for asking that. I think that's a really important piece. We don't just do the work. We also fight really hard on issues that we know impact our kids and families. Hands Across the Water was built nearly 25 years ago on a mission and vision of inclusion for all. And so, we have a reputation in the community for our advocacy work on a lot of issues, but, most specifically, on the inclusion of LGBTQ families and kids and the process. We know now that about one third of the youth entering foster care identify as LGBTQ. So, we feel like it is absolutely our responsibility to train our staff, to provide a welcoming space for those kids and families, and advocate for legislative change at a local, state, and the federal level. So, we've been really lucky to be able to be involved in that, not just, like I said, in the front lines of the work, but also to fight for policies that help to include those families and kids in a better way, as well as, obviously, other issues of DEI in our community. There's a overrepresentation of kids of color in the foster care system, and that's something that we fight hard to help to resolve in terms of inequities in the system.

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation with Katie Page Sander continues on 89 one WEMU. Katie is executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Hands Across the Water. How many children need homes in Washtenaw County right now, roughly?

Katie Page Sander: Gosh, that's hard to say, at any given time, though. In my over 24 years of this work, we don't seem to have really cracked the code on how to make sure that any kid who might need a home will have one when necessary. We still see kids of all ages that have to be placed out of our county, have to be placed in shelters, or in multiple temporary homes until they can find a safe place to land. So, I would say, at any given time, you know, we get calls every single day from both Washtenaw and surrounding counties for needs for homes. And, at this time, even though we have constantly new families that are inquiring at this time, all of our homes are filled. Really, once a family becomes licensed to provide temporary care, it's typically isn't long before that home is utilized for a child in need.

David Fair: When it comes to adoption, it seems like the majority of potential parents want a baby. As children age in the foster care system, how do you help them cope with diminishing hope and a sense of being unwanted?

Katie Page Sander: Gosh, that's hard. Well, the primary goal of foster care when a child enters is reunification with their families. We know that kids deserve families, deserve a chance to heal, and for kids to return home safely. And often, that process of services can take quite a while. So, kids generally are older if they do become available for adoption, because that means we've really exhausted our resources and parents' rights have been terminated. Absolutely. Like you said, we have about 300 kids across the state of Michigan whose parents' rights have been terminated, and they have no identified family. And so, for those kids, many of them do absolutely start to feel like their hope of being part of a stable family maybe isn't realistic. And I think, as a community, it's painful to think about that any kid would feel that way. It's our job, though, to continue to be creative and recruit and train and find those families who are open to parenting older kids. Because, like you said, lots of people dream of a baby, but it can be extremely rewarding to adopt an older youth--so many things. Babies don't sleep through the night, but a teenager usually does.

David Fair: Yeah. Maybe too long, right? This is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with the executive director of Hands Across the Water, Katie Page Sander. How do you go about helping potential foster or even adoptive parents come to terms with whether taking in children is in everyone's best interest in that situation?

Katie Page Sander: Sure. Well, the process is not short. We have social workers who are tasked with helping prospective families to really look hard at their motivations for fostering and adopting. They go through pretty extensive training that covers the impact of trauma on youth. We interview everybody in the family if there's other kids in the house, other adult kids of that family, so that we really can be exhaustive about making sure those families are as prepared as possible for both their sake and for the children who may be in their care sake. Because we don't want people to realize once a child's place that this isn't for them. We try to prepare them as best as we possibly can.

David Fair: And to take that offer a little further down the line, you mentioned that, through this work, you and your husband decided that you would foster and then ultimately adopt two children of your own. What about going through that decision-making process now helps inform the way you deal with those struggling with whether to take in children?

Katie Page Sander: Sure. I think, obviously, that personal experience for years I did the work before I was a parent and I had all kinds of ideas about how to teach people how to do this or how to talk to people, how to do this. But it's very different emotionally than it is intellectually. I think it absolutely helped me to understand the challenges that parents and kids face in this process and how that really deepened my ability to serve the families and the kids that we have. But it's always good to put a personal touch to recognize that the work that we do impacts real human beings and not just for the point in time that we have them, but throughout their entire lives.

David Fair: Katie, I would like to thank you for taking the time to share your experience and the work you're doing with us today. I most appreciate it.

Katie Page Sander: Well, thank you so much for having us on.

David Fair: That is Katie Page Sander. She is executive director of Hands Across the Water and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on today's topic and conversation and the work that Hands Across the Water is doing, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Hands Across the Water

Michigan Foster Care


From November 2021 - June 2022, Hands Across The Water, Inc. has been a recipient of United Way of Washtenaw County’s Opportunity Fund— a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism, and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

Hands Across The Water, Inc. has received a $10,000 award to support organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) capacity building.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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