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Holton's Big Push

First lady Anne Holton unleashes her opinions on power, politics and foster care.



Since becoming Virginia's first lady a year ago, Anne Holton has largely remained out of the spotlight, while her husband, Gov. Timothy Kaine, dukes it out with the General Assembly. But last week, Holton, daughter of former Gov. Linwood Holton, unveiled her first major initiative, "For Keeps," which aims to find permanent homes for older children in the state's foster care system.

She talked with Style about her experiences as a judge, transitioning to the Executive Mansion and her new role in helping older, often forgotten, children.

Style: Was it your decision to stop being a judge when your husband was elected governor?

Holton: Oh absolutely. There was no requirement here. Really, in ways I had been dealing with reconciling conflicts and avoiding conflicts for so long when Tim was mayor of [Richmond]. Half of everybody in my courtroom was a city employee in one way or another. So I could have stayed in that sense — it wasn't the legal conflict that pushed me. It was the conflict between wanting to have time to take advantage of the opportunity to pursue projects as first lady, wanting to have time to spend with my children, wanting occasionally to see my husband. I loved my previous job, but I knew partly from my mom's experience how much I was going to love things here.

Does it ever feel like a demotion?

It just feels like something completely different. I feel kind of blessed that way in my career. I've done a number of different things along the way, and I just really think it's valuable for me — and I hope for other women — to see that women can do interesting and challenging things as mothers and family members, but you don't have to do everything all the time, simultaneously, in order to have a rewarding career.

Tim and I have kind of traded off. He supported me for all those many years when I was a legal aid lawyer and making next to nothing, and really couldn't have done family life and a legal aid career without Tim bringing in a law-firm salary. So we've traded back and forth in different ways.

A lot was made of the fact that you were returning to the Mansion. You come from a very powerful family and have held a lot of very powerful positions. What do you want your kids to know about power?

Gosh, I've never thought of it that way. I've encouraged them to steer clear of politics, though I don't know if they're listening to me or not. I really feel like the part I worry about for them is feeling the pressure of this weight of two generations. That's a heavy atmosphere to raise up in, and I really hope for them to have great and successful and rewarding lives in whatever they choose to pursue. And I really do sort of affirmatively push them away from this stuff, so that they'll feel free to do other things. … I chuckle when you say people of power because we certainly don't feel that way.

You just announced your new foster care initiative. It seemed like it came from a lot of things that you saw in your work as a judge in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

I knew leaving the court that I wanted to do something while I was [first lady] and really knew pretty much immediately that something in the foster care arena was what I wanted to do. I spent six months or so [getting] ideas for what would be the most productive approach.

Why did you pick older kids?

They're the harder ones to serve. There's been some significant strides across the state [for finding homes for younger children], but things don't work as well when we get to the older kids. They sometimes have very challenging behaviors. … And they can be harder to place for all kinds of reasons. Part of what teenagers are supposed to be doing is readying themselves and their parents for independence, and there's that natural push away. Add on top of that the whole foster care apparatus — it's a potentially very challenging situation. Many a teenager I know in my family and in my family circle — if they had a chance to switch out their parents, they might well.

Sounds like the first step, then, is to understand the scope of the problem.

Yes, and to understand what these young people's needs are and how we can help them, and to learn a little bit about what works, what's likely to be most productive. It differs a lot from different parts of the state. The rural areas have very different problems with service availability than urban areas. In Northern Virginia, a lot more non-English-speaking families are involved.

What would success look like?

Success would look like more young people leaving foster care to permanent families rather than "aging out" [or turning 18 and no longer being eligible for the foster-care program]. That's one of the things we're trying to do in our data analysis, is actually pinning down what are the numbers that leave foster care without family now and getting it down to zero. Nobody should leave foster care without some kind of permanent family.

Are you hoping to leave behind some kind of official entity like an office or commission?

I swore to my friends in the nonprofit world before I left the court that I would not create any new nonprofit organizations. … We got plenty of good folks doing good works and there are lots of partners out there already … and yet I would love to see this be a real permanent change. The best way to do that is to have such success in placing these hard-to-place children that nobody would want to go back; to figure out how to institutionalize the changes.

Looking forward, what do think you might be doing after all this?

I don't even think about it. My dad [former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton] left here when I was a kid basically unemployed. He basically refused to think about it before he left and then landed in all kinds of interesting spots. He was an assistant secretary to Henry Kissinger in the State Department and one interesting thing after another opened up. So I'm having too much fun to think about it, really. S

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