Jax Richards is a student at Oregon State University, completing four Bachelor’s degrees in Economics, Public Policy, Political Science, and Communications. He is a Congressional Intern with the U.S. House of Representatives, Intern with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Founder and Director of Safeguard Youth, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that elevates the voices of abuse survivors in Oregon’s child welfare system.
Supporting Survivors of Child Abuse
Born and raised in Oregon, Jax has strong ties to his local community and actively engages with Oregon’s municipal and state-level decision-makers around youth and community advocacy. He is a survivor of childhood abuse and his experiences within the child welfare and family services systems were drivers for him to advocate for reform of these systems. “I was inspired to be the kind of person I needed as a child.” Jax explains that people are often undereducated on the issue of child welfare and what household practices quantify as maltreatment or neglect. To make matters more complicated, domestic foster care systems are complex and often face financial limitations that impact the resources available to children. “The U.S. is very interesting because there are 50 different foster care systems, none of them talk to each other, and most are severely underfunded.”
Though it wasn’t always easy for him to discuss his past, Jax has recognized the power of telling his story. During his senior year of high school, he began speaking up about childhood neglect and trauma, advocating around youth mental health systems reform. “In my experience, much of the system depends on lawyers and doctors who tend to be well-educated and come from a more fluid background. They didn’t experience these things and as a result, there was some cultural disconnect and incompetency in dealing with these issues.” On his high school campus, strangers began approaching him and thanking him for sharing what he’d been through during his childhood. Jax was surprised by the unexpected response from his peers as they described realizing what abusive behavior looked like. Speaking on the disruption of the normalization of maltreatment, he explains that he continues to communicate openly about his past because he doesn’t know how many people might find it helpful and learn the difference between love and abuse. “There are ways to help children learn those things so that they can look out for themselves.”
In the fall of 2019, Jax founded his nonprofit organization, Safeguard Youth, to provide a platform for survivors to advocate for child welfare policy improvements. Individuals in Oregon under the age of 25 were invited to join as members and share their stories as survivors of diverse forms of maltreatment. The organization now has 50 members ranging from ages 13 to 24, creating a supportive community where individuals are able to discuss their experiences in a safe space. “For many of us, there were feelings of self-doubt and self-blame, so it was very reassuring to have that community and be able to advocate for those voices.” Jax has already met with several state legislature members and aims to continue bringing in more Oregon youth to contribute to these conversations and support child welfare policy reform.
Jax joined MBBI this year after taking a course with a professor at Oregon State University who is a longstanding MBBI member. He’s learned from his own experience and from other MBBI members that mediation is becoming more centralized in the child welfare system. “Some states are trying to navigate the system with more mediation and focusing on bringing everyone together, which wasn’t the case 40 or 50 years ago.” Jax believes that communication is key to the success of his work and efforts to promote child welfare. He’s enjoyed playing the role of a communicative bridge between different parties, leveraging his background as a survivor and conveying this to other decision-makers and experts. As a newer member of MBBI, he looks forward to connecting with others in the network formally or informally on these issues and learn how to make the greatest impact as a youth advocate.
The Road Ahead
Jax has accomplished much in the last several years, juggling the management of his nonprofit, serving as a Trustee on the Oregon State University Board of Trustees, and being an advocacy lead for a variety of organizations including UNICEF USA and Jackson Street Youth Services. He remains open to where his professional journey will take him and is considering an MPA and PhD in social policy in his future. “I’ve never loved defining where my life will go, no more than a year out,” he laughs. In the meantime, he is on track to complete his Bachelor’s degrees in 2023 and enjoys spending his free time with friends and his emotional support turtle, Ruth (named after the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg).
Article by Chloe Pan, MBBI Writer