Some of the field’s most effective support services for resource families were created by foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers. And it’s not surprising. They know what other caregivers need when caring for children from hard places, like those who have experienced foster care.
It’s important to make sure that those with lived experience get the development and support they need as they advise, provide, develop, or lead support services for other resource families.
What development do professionals with lived experience need?
While experienced resource caregivers come with a wealth of knowledge and many skills, agency leaders should still provide them with the training that they need to thrive in their role.
Core issues in foster care, kinship care, and adoption
They know a great deal about caring for children in the child welfare system. Yet, agencies should not assume that caregivers know everything there is to know about issues that affect children in foster care. Are they knowledgeable about trauma’s effect on the developing brain? Do they understand that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately represented in foster care and that a child’s access to their culture of origin affects their well-being? Do they understand the challenges that arise as family dynamics shift in a kinship placement?
It’s common for caregivers to end up in roles where others assume that they have skills they do not have. Trainers need to understand how adults learn. Support group leaders need to be trained in facilitation skills. And everyone—especially those who may have been out of the workforce as they raised children—may need help in learning and adjusting to technology.
Strategic sharing and consent from their children
Professionals with lived experience will certainly draw from their personal experiences when supporting others, which is great! But they may need strategic sharing training. This will prepare caregivers to know when and what to share as they provide support. After all, it can be difficult to know when to share a personal story and when to refrain, as best practices vary depending on the situation.
Further, without preparation, caregivers may share information that their child does not want shared, which can later cause their child harm. Help them find where the lines are when it comes to disclosure. For example, sharing a story in a private support group may be appropriate, while sharing it during a public orientation session may not be. Encourage them to seek the consent of their children whenever possible. It’s important that we all recognize that these stories belong to the youth.
Understanding their biases
All people have biases. Most people need help to identify their biases and prevent themselves from making decisions based on bias. Because of their complex and often challenging personal experiences caring for youth with trauma histories, it’s common for resource caregivers to have biases about youth in foster care, child welfare social workers, or children’s first families. Good leaders will validate their experiences while helping them see that their experiences are not universal and confront any unconscious biases they may have developed.
What concrete supports can agencies offer?
Individualized support is important for all staff, but may be even more important for those with lived experiences. Here are some ways agency leaders can make sure that those with lived experience are supported in their role as they support other families.
Caregivers often first work at support agencies as volunteers. But if your program could not function without these parents and caregivers, you must pay them for their time and expertise. Your services are made better by their presence and it’s only fair to compensate them.
While important for all staff, flexibility is especially important for those with lived experience as caregivers. If you have professionals on your staff who are actively caring for young people with significant challenges, a flexible work environment is going to be key to their success. They need to be able to take time off to navigate a crisis or drop everything to attend a last-minute meeting at their child’s school. Flexibility for our staff is one way that we can demonstrate that we understand their experiences and they will be supported at work.
Having high levels of flexibility may mean that their peers need to cover their tasks for them when their work can’t wait. It’s up to leaders to enable an agency culture where all staff understand the need to cover for each other, and especially for those with lived experience.
Help in setting and maintaining boundaries
Resource caregivers are at increased risk of taking on too much, experiencing secondary traumatic stress, and burning out. They are intimately familiar with the challenges families are experiencing, and also with the often inadequate support available to those families. It’s critical that their peers, supervisors, and agency leaders help them to set and maintain boundaries between their work and personal lives.
This is not just an individual skill you are building in them, but an agency culture that prioritizes its workforce’s health and well-being. Do leaders model how to set and maintain boundaries? Do they advocate for staff when others aren’t respecting established boundaries?
Supervision to help them process their work
While all staff need supportive and structured supervision, those with lived experience will need supervisors who can help them process their work in the context of their lived experience. Is their experience with their own child impacting how they are supporting their clients? Are they taking on their client’s emotions, making themselves overly responsible for their client’s well-being? A supportive supervisor who knows them well can help them parse out if their own lived experiences are negatively affecting their work with other families.
Remove any barriers to their authentic engagement
Too often, people with lived experience are expected to conform to existing norms and bend to the way things have always been done. In doing that, they have to sacrifice part of their authentic selves, which is a recipe for burnout and turnover.
As you try to remove barriers to authentic engagement, think about power dynamics. Who holds power in any given situation can affect how others in the room show up and participate. Think about who holds power and, if you hold some power, think about ways that you can share it. Remember, authority is gained not just from position or title, but from age, race, educational attainment and status, and so many other aspects of our identities. Look for what could be preventing people from being their authentic selves at work. If you are someone who can show up authentically in your role fairly easily, how can you create space for others to do the same?
Don’t overburden them
When someone is doing a great job—and they are deeply committed—it’s hard to avoid giving them more work. This is especially true when there is so much to be done and you are understaffed. It’s incredibly important, though, to be aware of how much you are asking professionals with lived experience to do. If you only have one or two people on your staff with lived experience as caregivers, you may be overburdening them by routinely asking them to weigh in on various things that are outside of their role.
Again, always consider power dynamics. Do they feel like they are allowed to say no to requests? Do they feel like if they don’t do something, it won’t be done well or won’t reflect the voices of parents and caregivers? As a leader, you can support them through these feelings, and protect them from the well-meaning requests of other staff.
How are others in the field doing this well?
AdoptUSKids held a peer meeting and webinar on the topic of incorporating those with lived experience into your support services. During the peer meeting, people shared how they are developing and supporting people with lived experience as caregivers. Here are some recommendations, many of which are from professionals with lived experience themselves:
- Individualized support. Supporting those with lived experience may mean having different expectations based on each person’s individual needs. In fact, all staff can benefit from workplaces where development, support, and flexibility are tailored to individual needs. One way to be flexible to each person’s needs is to focus on task completion, rather than on the time spent in a workday. Perhaps the person can’t be available in the afternoons once their child is home from school, but they can finish their tasks once their child goes to bed. If these professionals are supporting other caregivers in their role, being available for meetings outside typical work hours is a great way to provide a more user-centered service. Some organizations find success in hosting “night owl” support groups at 9:00 p.m., or caregiver mentoring sessions early on a Saturday morning before the kids are up.
- Peer support. Create a peer support environment for professionals with lived experience as caregivers where they can be honest about how their work is affecting their personal life, and vice versa. Caregivers are likely to need space with other caregivers to speak openly and debrief challenges related to their work.
- Number of staff with lived experience. Avoid only having one or two people with lived experience on staff. This can place unintentional pressure on them to speak for an entire community of people. It can also lead us to assume that all people with lived experience as caregivers will have the same opinion on a topic. Certainly, having few people with lived experience is better than none, but try to incorporate many people with lived experience if possible.
- Team approach. Working in teams is an effective way to make sure that the needs of your clients are met, while also prioritizing flexibility and support for staff with lived experience. Many organizations are moving to team approaches to many types of support work that have traditionally been done by one person. If you have two or three people leading a support group or training, and one has an emergency with their child, the others can carry on and the clients will receive the service.
- Check-ins. Consider checking in privately with those with lived experience as caregivers to see how particular situations at work have affected them. It may not be clear from their behavior that they are triggered by something at work, especially when there are expectations around maintaining professionalism and avoiding big displays of emotion.
- Learning environment. Overall, foster a work environment where everyone is valued for their knowledge and skills, while also acknowledging that we all have more to learn. Best practices in child welfare change a lot, and caregivers may be self-conscious about the fact that the way they approached a situation with their child in the past is no longer considered the best way to do things. When colleagues at the agency know that everyone is learning and growing, this can go a long way to help caregivers on staff be their authentic selves.
If your organization offers parent support groups led by peers, AdoptUSKids has many resources that can help you develop and support those group leaders. This includes a free 5-module curriculum designed to help you train new group leaders on important skills that they will need to lead support groups. Find discussion guides, webinars, tip sheets, and articles for parent support group leaders on the AdoptUSKids website for professionals.