Helping Communities and Child Welfare Systems Become Partners for Change

Posted December 18, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A Q&A with Community First's Kevin Myles, founder, and Kiddada Asmara Grey, executive director

When com­mu­ni­ties and child wel­fare sys­tems come togeth­er to design bet­ter ways to sup­port fam­i­lies, they must first estab­lish trust. Kevin Myles, founder of the non­prof­it Com­mu­ni­ty First, and Kid­da­da Asmara Grey, its exec­u­tive direc­tor, are the devel­op­ers of a new train­ing series fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. It aims to strength­en com­mu­ni­ty-engage­ment part­ner­ships and improve under­stand­ing of the bar­ri­ers to col­lab­o­ra­tion, includ­ing the pain fam­i­lies feel when they are sep­a­rat­ed by the system.

Child wel­fare sys­tems have tra­di­tion­al­ly sought to devel­op solu­tions on behalf of the fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties they serve, rather than in part­ner­ship with those fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties who know best what they need,” says Feli­cia Kel­lum, a senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foundation’s Fam­i­ly Well-Being Strat­e­gy Group. Com­mu­ni­ty First devel­oped a train­ing mod­el to address the chal­lenges of authen­tic com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment in sup­port of help­ing sys­tem lead­ers shift their approach.”

Train­ing ses­sions include:

  • Com­mu­ni­ty Engage­ment 101 — helps child wel­fare sys­tem lead­ers under­stand the impor­tance of com­mu­ni­ty part­ner­ship and sup­ports the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of diverse part­ners before launch­ing an effort.
  • The Com­mu­ni­ty Engage­ment Project — sep­a­rate­ly edu­cates sys­tem lead­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers on effec­tive part­ner­ship strate­gies and then brings them togeth­er to build bet­ter practices.

In this Q&A, Myles and Grey draw on their expe­ri­ences in com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing to dis­cuss how com­mu­ni­ties and child wel­fare sys­tems can build trust.

Both sides must respect each other’s per­spec­tives and ideas to enable gen­uine col­lab­o­ra­tion and equi­table deci­sion mak­ing, Myles says.

Q: Based on your expe­ri­ence, what do fam­i­lies affect­ed by child wel­fare sys­tems and the peo­ple who lead those sys­tems need to do to effec­tive­ly work as part­ners for change?

Myles: It’s impor­tant for fam­i­lies affect­ed by sys­tems to under­stand how those sys­tems work. That’s why a part of the train­ing will be geared toward help­ing com­mu­ni­ty part­ners bet­ter under­stand the com­plex­i­ties of the sys­tem and sys­tem reform, what changes they and sys­tem lead­ers have the pow­er to make or what levers can’t be pulled.

Q: What should change mak­ers under­stand about the hard work of build­ing trust? What are best prac­tices for address­ing neg­a­tive assump­tions that com­mu­ni­ties may have toward child wel­fare agen­cies — and that sys­tems staff may have toward communities?

Myles: I like the term rad­i­cal trans­paren­cy.” If you want peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty to be able to trust that they are gen­uine­ly involved in a part­ner­ship, they need to know what you know and see what you see. You also need to under­stand that peo­ple who have the fresh­est wounds from deal­ing with the sys­tem may be the least like­ly to want to pub­licly share their sto­ries because they don’t want to be asso­ci­at­ed with the stig­mas of being involved in the sys­tem and what they per­ceive to be a tiny group of people.

It’s eas­i­er for peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly Black fam­i­lies, to be open and engaged when they know how unfor­tu­nate­ly com­mon it is to be sub­ject to a child wel­fare inves­ti­ga­tion, and that what they share is not going to be used puni­tive­ly against them. Instead, sys­tem lead­ers should help com­mu­ni­ties view shar­ing their expe­ri­ences as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring atten­tion to sys­temic issues we must address.

Grey: We need to dis­man­tle the thought that the per­son stand­ing in front of you is the brick-and-mor­tar sys­tem. Some­one who works with­in the sys­tem may act as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of that sys­tem, but you don’t always know the role that per­son has played in your case or the pow­er they hold to effect change. It’s best to show up with the atti­tude, This is a human being like me, not the sys­tem itself.”

On the oth­er hand, it requires sys­tem lead­ers to hold the atti­tude of I know you’re hurt­ing” and give peo­ple the space to share their expe­ri­ences with­out react­ing defensively.

Q: How will you use com­mu­ni­ty and sys­tem data to ensure train­ing is rel­e­vant to spe­cif­ic com­mu­ni­ties and local child wel­fare systems?

Myles: We can’t trust that every­one who attends our train­ing will define the need for reform in the same way. So, dur­ing the train­ing, we will col­lect and present each com­mu­ni­ty’s data relat­ed to child wel­fare, being sure to include dis­ag­gre­gat­ed data.

Q: How do you see deep­er engage­ment between child wel­fare agen­cies and com­mu­ni­ty-serv­ing orga­ni­za­tions improv­ing out­comes for fam­i­lies? Can it result in more equi­table solu­tions or reduce disparities?

Grey: We believe this train­ing forces them to come to a con­sen­sus about the chal­lenges exist­ing in their child wel­fare sys­tem and who is most impact­ed by the sys­tem — if that is some­thing they have not already done. For exam­ple, get­ting them in a room and look­ing at dis­ag­gre­gat­ed data gets them ask­ing ques­tions like, Are the same groups being tar­get­ed for child wel­fare inves­ti­ga­tions?” and Where are the dis­par­i­ties show­ing up?” In many com­mu­ni­ties, that base lev­el of under­stand­ing and ques­tion­ing of the sys­tem isn’t innate.

Myles: When [the door opens] for sys­tems and com­mu­ni­ties to agree that there is an issue and what that issue is, then you can move toward mak­ing it an area of invest­ment. I hope that it could lead to elim­i­nat­ing the high num­ber of reports of neglect Black and brown fam­i­lies face that are more often than not pover­ty-relat­ed or turn out to be unsubstantiated.

Q: What does it take to sus­tain change? Will it require tools or fol­low-up assistance?

Myles: Dur­ing the train­ing, we aim to help sys­tem lead­ers and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners build a cohort in which part­ner­ship will be ongo­ing. As we go through the cur­ricu­lum, and fol­low­ing com­ple­tion, our goal will be to help them set expec­ta­tions for how to work togeth­er — whether, where and when they will hold meet­ings or how they will arrive at a con­sen­sus when con­fronting a challenge.

We also set the expec­ta­tion for all par­ties to come back to the table after some time to eval­u­ate which parts of their joint efforts are work­ing and which aren’t, because we know that effec­tive engage­ment is not one-and-done. You can’t just come up with some good ideas in a few meet­ings and then walk away and hope for the best. You have to be con­tin­u­ous­ly assess­ing, and then, make more changes.

To learn more about these train­ings, con­tact Feli­cia Kel­lum.

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