May is National Foster Care Month

Did you know that Kentucky has over 8,500 children in out-of-home care?

As of April 2, 2023, nearly 30 percent of those children have a permanent goal of adoption, 53 percent have a goal of reunification, and the remaining 17 percent may have other permanency goals, such as emancipation or locating a fictive kin/relative.  

Nearly 70 percent of Kentucky’s kids in out-of-home care are placed in foster homes, while 8 percent are residing in congregate care facilities.

These numbers show many different situations that individuals who are or who have been in foster care can experience in Kentucky. Some individuals share multiple types of experiences, including length of time in care, number of placements, types of placements, race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, and more. These are all factors that shape one’s experience in care.

Along with these children and teens, there are several other parties who have lived experience as well, including biological parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, fictive kin, and relative caregivers. Lived experience is the representation or understanding of an individual’s experience within the child welfare system and recognizing that they have insights that others may not have.

The experiences of those involved in foster care are vital to the transformation and well-being of the child welfare system. For many years, there has been an effort to intentionally involve individuals with lived experience into systems change nationwide and the effort is growing in Kentucky. 

Let’s take a closer look at what it really means to authentically engage and involve individuals with lived experience in systems change efforts. 

When engaging in this practice, it is important to acknowledge that this is a partnership between agencies and professionals and the individuals with lived experience. There has to be a conscious effort to share power for the partnership to thrive. 

Effective power sharing occurs when all parties involved show and feel mutual respect, move together towards goals collaboratively, all parties have power in decision making and all parties leave the conversations feeling as though their ideas are heard, contemplated and implemented.

Power sharing involves several practices and skills. 

Power sharing is recognizing that every person in the partnership has power. They have power in knowledge and in experience.

Authentic and effective power sharing is understanding that individuals with lived experience have typically felt or been made to believe that they do not have power, so they may not have the necessary skills to turn their lived experience into expertise.

Lived expertise occurs when an individual has learned how to give voice to their experiences and provide feedback through training and other professional development. 

Power sharing includes providing individuals with the training and professional development they need to understand how their expertise is most valuable and how it is being implemented in the work they are doing. 

In order to achieve authentic power sharing, systems and those who work for them must learn not to sit across tables as an opponent but rather as an ally, and to recognize the dignity and worth of each individual present. We must learn to say goodbye to systems that feel comfortable to us and embrace the vulnerability of change. 

The following are tips from individuals with lived experience on how to authentically share power:

  • Adequate paying for their time
  • Being mindful of schedules
  • Empowering them to decide when/where/how they share their expertise
  • Empowering them to create their own agendas/initiatives 
  • Empowering them to have opportunities for education
  • Empowering them to have opportunities to lead conversations/events
  • Involving their recommendations within plans and budgets
  • Not vetoing their ideas/countering ideas
  • Having open conversations involving feedback from all individuals about the process
  • Being okay with learning how to be better, not being right
  • Empowering them to transition to roles that reflect their newfound skills
  • Building trust and honoring expertise

To learn more about the pillars of authentic engagement with communities and individuals with lived experience, check out this Lessons From Other Fields resource focused on authentic engagement from Casey Family Programs. 

Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash