Helping Communities and Child Welfare Systems Become Partners for Change
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.