By Tamara Vest, MSSW Intern at Kentucky Youth Advocates

For many years, Kentucky has attempted to provide a space where individuals with lived experience in the child welfare system have an opportunity to authentically engage in systems change and practices. Specifically, there has been a large focus on youth engagement among foster youth and alumni. Only recently has the Department for Community Based Services expanded that arena to include birth parents and other caregivers and community personnel.

Many councils of these groups of people now exist such as the Voices of the Commonwealth, the Birth Parent Council (supported by Kentucky Youth Advocates), and the Trusted Advisors Council. The individuals who serve on these councils have an opportunity to engage in policy and practice with the Department for Community Based Services and use their lived experience lens to provide necessary feedback in order to create systems change.

But how far is authentic engagement in child welfare reaching in our state?

The Children’s Bureau (CB) strongly recommends several initiatives for public and private child welfare agencies to implement in their daily procedures that are centered around authentic engagement with youth and families. These initiatives are suggested in order to promote authenticity and partnership. In their active vision to promote strengthening families through primary prevention of child maltreatment, they recommend that agencies meet with families and youth and listen to their lived experience to learn their needs. One strategy suggested involves creating formal processes for those with lived experience to give input at all levels of child welfare, such as hiring them into leadership positions to ensure representation.

Kentucky has taken a step towards this by providing compensation for our council member’s participation, though hiring these individuals into agency leadership positions needs to be on the agenda.

In order to empower these groups to feel heard and honored, agencies must be intentional when creating communities of individuals who have the necessary skills to support family and youth voice. Two strategies provided by the CB are coaching personnel in the workforce and utilizing peer support systems. Personnel should be trained to recognize implicit biases that may prohibit authentic engagement and be intentional about the language used in systems when working with youth and families. Recognizing implicit bias and using affirming and respectful language helps change the culture of child welfare and utilizing peer support systems creates a space where youth and families may be more receptive to understanding the expectations in child welfare and reduce their stress and anxiety.

Kentucky’s DCBS leadership has recently identified pillars in which to address matters such as race, equity, and inclusion internally (among staff: hiring processes and training) and externally (when serving communities). DCBS intentionally asks for diverse representation within its councils to receive feedback that addresses the needs of multiple populations. Their area of growth should be in their intentional use of language. For example, agencies should move away from terms such as ‘youth’ and ‘bio parent’ as they may be offensive to the populations they are working with. The aforementioned councils could also benefit from peer support, and could also be peer support for each other and other members who are new to the process.

The CB also strongly recommends that agencies sustain a formal continuous feedback loop when receiving feedback from these individuals to ensure quality improvement. For many years, Kentucky has implemented CQI (Continuous Quality Improvement) among foster youth and alumni. These meetings were held quarterly and regionally to provide a space for young people with child welfare experience to give feedback on their interactions with providers. DCBS develops a working agenda based on the feedback given in order to promote systems change. DCBS is also working with their Trusted Advisors council to receive feedback on their strategic plan and processes. Areas of growth would include more involvement with and implementation of feedback from the Birth Parent Council.

These initiatives work to engage and empower family and youth voice in child welfare which is critical to a well-functioning system. Based on these few initiatives, you could argue that Kentucky is leading in engaging our youth and families in child welfare. However, a few tips could be suggested.

According to Roger Hart’s theory of authentic engagement, the highest level of authenticity is when individuals with lived experience create and drive the initiatives and decisions are made in partnership with agencies. There are reports of young people feeling as though they are selling their stories to fit agencies’ initiatives rather than young people driving initiatives themselves, and instances where young people feel as though they have been invited to the table because they had to be, only to have their ideas/feedback shot down and never implemented (see ‘decoration’ or tokenization).

I have personally had experiences similar to this. When young people are forced to sell their image or story for an agency’s initiatives, they feel less in control of their own experiences and lose the opportunity to partner on decision making.

All public and private agencies of our state child welfare system must do better when working with all of our lived experience experts (young adults, youth, parents, caregivers, and community leaders). We must move away from simply providing space for them to have an opportunity and rather actively allow them to lead the conversations.

This post is part of the blog series, Intern Insights