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“All’s well that begins well”

MPLD fellow Jennifer Lee
MPLD fellow Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee started her child welfare career as a family case manager 25 years ago. She is currently a program manager with the Indiana Department of Child Services and a 2021 graduate of the Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program at AdoptUSKids.

We talked with Jennifer about her experience as an MPLD fellow and the action research project that she completed during the 12-month program.

What was your action research project, and how did you choose it?

The goal of my action research project was to encourage workers to meaningfully engage youth in permanency planning and ensure that youth’s voices are heard throughout the process.

This topic has personal and professional importance to me. I know what it’s like to not have your voice heard—or, more importantly, to not have your voice considered. When I was 16 years old, there was a disruption in my family. I was placed in kinship care with relatives who thought that I should be seen but not heard. Speaking up in their home was seen as a sign of disrespect. Using my voice agitated this family to the point that my placement disrupted.

I moved into the home of another relative, where I stayed until going to college, but I never felt like part of the family. There were no pictures of me on the wall. They didn’t have my favorite foods in the refrigerator or on the shelves. I kept my feelings to myself because I did not want to move again.

As a child welfare professional, I believe that it is my role and responsibility to lift youth’s voices in their permanency planning so that other children do not silently move through life the way that I did as a teenager.

Engaging youth in permanency planning is getting a lot of attention these days. What distinguishes your approach?

The crux of my project is a belief that permanency is not a point in time—it’s an ongoing process. If we are intentional about wanting kids to have permanency, then we need to have conversations with them from day one about what that permanency can look like and continue those conversations throughout their time in the system.

These conversations need to be intentional and, as professionals, we need to value and validate young people’s thoughts and ideas. Does that mean that we need to agree with every suggestion that they offer? Of course not! But we do need to listen.

Sounds like building youth engagement into systems may be easier said than done. What are some of the challenges?

First, there is the logistical challenge of identifying at what points we should be having these permanency-focused conversations and then tracking that the conversations are happening. In my organization, there is a saying: If it’s not documented, then it didn’t happen. The interesting thing was that, early in my research, I found that the conversations actually were happening more often than we realized! We just didn’t have tools in place to document the conversations and the results.

Like many aspects of our work, engaging young people is also challenged by turnover. Who wants to tell their probably painful story over and over again? It’s not fair to the young person and it makes it even more difficult for professionals to build a trust-based relationship.

And there’s the obvious challenge of talking to teenagers!

How did you go about identifying solutions and tools that could help organizations create a permanency-competent culture?

All MPLD action research projects start with data, so I started by examining best practices in permanency, barriers to engaging youth, and the positive outcomes that result when we are successful in our engagement efforts.

And of course, because we’re talking about engaging youth, I engaged with youth throughout the project! I talked with members of our Indiana Youth Advisory Board about what permanency-competent practices should look like and worked closely with one foster care alum, Nasha, over the course of the year. I invited her into my project and gave her the freedom to voice her opinion, thoughts, and ideas. We met about two times each month. Her help was invaluable.

What were some of the actions you took as a result of your research?

I developed and delivered four training sessions for child welfare staff in one region of Indiana DCS. In those sessions, we discussed why engaging youth is critical to successful and sustainable outcomes,  what we were doing well, and identified opportunities for growth.

I also created and distributed tools to increase and track engagement:

  • For professionals, I developed a permanency checklist that helped them identify opportunities to engage with youth and focus on four components of permanency planning: the youth’s capacity to engage in planning, their involvement with their case, legal permanency efforts, and relational permanency efforts. 
  • For young people, I worked with youth to develop a permanency checkup tool that they can use to guide conversations with their worker. It gives them three questions to ask their worker: What is my permanency plan goal? How will you help me put this plan into action? Who do you have listed as my important connections?

Evaluation is another important element of every MPLD project. I was pleased to see that training participants and people who used the tools found them to be effective.

Did anything that you learned surprise you?

It’s easy to think that young people in care are tired of talking to adults. Sometimes it feels like they shut down or are not interested in engaging with us. But my research and conversations with young people confirmed that when we are intentional in asking essential questions, and we meet them where they are and show them we value what they have to say, youth will give us the benefit of the doubt! Because young people are hungry for appropriate and healthy relationships.

It sounds like your action research project was only the beginning of the work. What are your next steps?

The action research project ended when I graduated in September, but developing the tools and training was just the beginning. Participating in MPLD has opened many doors for me and given me opportunities to do more of what I really love, which is championing for the voices of those who may feel silenced.

Right now, I’m working to build permanency-competent practices into our agency, region, and state. And hopefully beyond! I believe the framework would be a good fit for the juvenile justice system as well. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback and interest from colleagues and child welfare leaders. It’s been a long road, but I think the stars are finally aligning.

Watch a video of Jennifer and Nasha, the young woman who mentored and guided her for a year, that was shown at the 2021 National Adoption Month event.