A Response: Listening to the People's Voice
On Aug. 1, 2019, Jerry Milner, the Acting Commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, issued an Information Memorandum (IM 19-03) to highlight the impact and relevance of family and youth input where child welfare program planning and improvement efforts are concerned. The communication described the Children’s Bureau's vision for strengthening families by preventing child maltreatment in the United States and asserted that the voice of the families and youth served is both essential and critical to all aspects of child-welfare related planning and decision making. The memorandum was very much in favor of integrating family and youth voice into the design and operation of the child-welfare system.
At Be Strong Families, where many of our staff have both professional and lived experience in the child welfare system, there has been much internal discussion in support of Information Memorandum 19-03. We asked several of our staff to share their reflections on Milner’s memorandum. Here is what surfaced:
Davina Merritt, Training Consultant for Be Strong Families, delivers workshops and cafes for birth parents, foster parents, and youth in care and is also a national, inspirational speaker on child welfare and youth-in-care-related issues. She is the fourth generation of her family to grow up in the Illinois child welfare system.
“The memorandum struck a particular chord with me. My passion is giving a voice to voiceless kids - a feeling I knew all too well. I have always felt that my caseworkers and other people in the system didn’t listen to me. It wasn’t until I found a 3rd grade teacher who listened to my stories and advocated for my educational needs that I felt heard. I received guidance, love and nurturing from this teacher who took the time to make my voice heard. Later, this teacher and a high school special education teacher took time to ask me questions that helped get me the tools I needed to get to college. None of my caseworkers took my desire for higher education seriously. I think youth voice is something to really consider because it’s their life and situation – often they know what they need, who they need it from and what services will best serve them."
Robyn Harvey, Western Region Program Manager & Senior Trainer for Be Strong Families is a veteran foster parent of 23 years.
"I can attest that systems do not make good parents – people do. It was one the first statements that rung true as I began working within the child welfare system and as time here has passed, I have repeatedly had this truth reinforced. Inserting a system into a family that is experiencing challenges seems like a reasonable solution - until that system does not listen to families. When policy becomes more important than people, it creates additional challenges for the families we serve. When families describe their feelings while interacting with the system as “overwhelmed, confused, voiceless, judged, ashamed, angry and sad”, we are doing something wrong. Policy must be the foundation. It is time that people are seen as unique; each family with their own strengths and challenges and their voices genuinely taken into account. This is true for kids, parents and caregivers. Transformation comes from relationship – not mandates."
Brenda Kinsler, Senior Consultant for Be Strong Families, had a 30-year career in Philadelphia's Department of Human Services where she oversaw innovative efforts to engage parents and strengthen families:
"It is the leadership of child welfare agencies, at all levels - federal, state and local--who create the policies and procedures that make this work more difficult than it needs to be. After all, it is everyday people who make up the system. It is people who both write and enforce implementation of the policies. Workers are people who interpret the policies and apply them to children and families. There are times when the people employed by the system are looking to improve the system by reducing foster care/group home placements, stabilizing families, obtaining permanency and all of the other good ideas we conjure up, but often, the administrators implementing policies do not see families as human beings, but more as numbers to be counted. When child welfare professionals in positions of power neglect to see the families they serve as human beings, doing the best they can with what they have, but only see the good we are doing by placing their kids with a foster family, they are being short sighted. Sometimes, people employed by the system don’t see that the bar is set so high that it is unrealistic for families, that parents are set up to fail. People bring our biases, racism, and cultural ignorance to the work. People assume that the system, riddled with problems, can do a better job of raising children than their parents can. This is because we think that we the people employed in child welfare know better than parents what children need and what makes a family strong. Actually, we, the people, know much better when we ask, when we listen, when be build the relationship."
Takeisha Starnes, Illinois Youth Advisory Board Program Manager
"I have heard from numerous youth that adults have an "adultism" or authoritarian viewpoint; that is, making decisions for young people without taking into consideration the perspectives of the young people. I work with youth in care who are very knowledgeable and vocal about what they want and have a pretty good grasp on what they envision for their futures. This allows them to speak up and advocate for themselves. When working with youth in the child welfare system, it is critical that we allow them to have a say in what’s happening in their lives, after all, who knows their story better than they do? Co-creating a plan with a young person allows the young adult to have a sense of control– whether it be about the near future or years from now. When decisions are made together with the youth, their buy-in and willingness to do the work to implement the plan is much greater. Furthermore, when youth are invited to the table to share their input and to express their thoughts about the system, they grow to be strong self-advocates and develop great leadership skills – which takes them far in life. In Illinois, the Youth Advisory Board gives youth in care a voice – a voice to make a difference in the child welfare system for themselves and others to come. The Youth Advisory Board (YAB) has the power to impact policy and has gained the attention of the state’s Directors and Legislators. This advisory board is just an example of how youth voice can have an impact. Subsequently, when youth are invited to the table to share their input, they grow to be strong self-advocates and develop great leadership skills – which can take them far in life.
In sum, our team wholeheartedly endorses Jerry Milner and IM 19-03 because Be Strong Families believes in the transformational power of conversation and relationship. Without listening to the people we serve, lasting change is far less likely. Be Strong Families assists agencies and jurisdictions in their efforts to listen to parents and youth and to build on their wisdom. We are committed to practically and authentically supporting parents and youth both in having voice in the shaping of child welfare systems' best practices and also in their doing the hard work to transform and heal and strengthen their families.
For more information on how Be Strong Families contributes to child welfare systems improvement, visit our website.