Shirley Williams is a program consultant with North Carolina Kids.
In her 13-year child welfare career, Shirley has worked in a variety of roles—including in CPS and foster care services. She is currently supporting adoption workers in 50 North Carolina counties.
Last year, Shirley learned that AdoptUSKids was launching a new Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program from a colleague. When she read about what the program offered—leadership training, one-on-one support, the opportunity to do an in-depth research project—she knew it was exactly what she needed to help her develop as a leader and open opportunities in her career.
Shirley was one of 16 fellows who were accepted into the first cohort of the MPLD program and graduated last June. She talked with us about the experience and her research project.
A key component of the MPLD leadership program is completing an action research project. What was your project, and how did you choose it?
My project focused on increasing the number of kinship caregivers—and decreasing the number of kids aging out of care without support—in North Carolina.
I chose this project for the simple reason that it hurts my heart to see youth age out of care. And in North Carolina, the vast majority of our teens were doing just that. In 2018-19, during my action research project, fewer than 80 teens between 14 and 17 were adopted, and more than 400 aged out. Digging more deeply into the statistics—including how long teens stay in care—made me wonder if encouraging and supporting kinship caregivers could be part of the solution.
Increasing the number of kinship caregivers sounds like a very ambitious goal! Where did you start?
After looking at the data, I explored what was already being done in our state. There is an innovative program out of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill called the Harvey Project that is working to eliminate existing barriers for relatives by addressing their needs for child care, transportation, case management and financial assistance. With my supervisor’s endorsement, I was able to participate in their work group and collaborate with them throughout my project.
I also had to determine the scope of the project. North Carolina has 100 counties, and I wish I could have worked with them all! But I wasn’t going to let the fact that I couldn’t do everything prevent me from doing anything. I selected seven counties that I would work most closely with. I surveyed them to identify what their information and support needs were and how they would like to be communicated with. The results of these surveys formed the basis of my efforts.
What challenges did you identify to increasing the number of children finding permanency with kinship caregivers?
The primary challenge I identified was the need for increased communication and education about the support services available to kinship caregivers.
In North Carolina, we have a Kinship and Guardianship Assistance Program (KinGAP) that provides monthly cash payments for people who are defined as relatives and meet eligibility requirements. In our state, relatives can include people that a youth has formed a positive relationship with.
In surveys and conversations, I quickly found that though KinGAP and other resources exist to support families, many professionals and families may not be aware of them.
Once you identified information-sharing and awareness of benefits as barriers, how did you go about addressing the problems?
First, more research! I learned about programs and resources that exist in some—but not all—counties. For example, some counties provide funding that helps kinship families meet licensing requirements. My county might not provide that financial assistance, but we can help families identify local resources that can help them meet that requirement. For example, there may be community resources and volunteers to help a family create a fenced area.
As I mentioned, I really wanted to get the word out more broadly. I did that in a few different ways:
- I published an article in a statewide newsletter that is read by professionals and foster families about our KinGAP program and the benefits that are available to kinship caregivers.
- I was a part of a workgroup that created and distributed educational materials to every county that explained KinGAP benefits and eligibility. This included information that workers could share with families and youth—information that is not in social worker language! I also provided guidance about how and when to talk with families and youth about kinship care. Because workers need to be comfortable doing that.
- We held our first Child Welfare Summit on Diligent Recruitment and Retention and Post Permanency Services. My team and I collaborated with guest speakers, which included the UNC School of Social Work and the Harvey Project, to hold this statewide gathering that was attended by representatives from every county! They learned about the KinGAP benefits and the innovative work being done throughout the state and left with information to share with colleagues.
Were you able to gauge the results of your action research?
Yes! In surveys and conversations, we’ve found that more social workers understand KinGAP and the availability of kinship care benefits and are offering information about them to families on their caseload. We’ve also seen greater awareness among judges, guardians ad litem, and private child-placing agencies.
There is one data point that I am particularly proud of. In 2017, we only had 22 youth who were accessing KinGap benefits. From April–July 2019 alone, 49 additional youth began receiving KinGAP benefits—more than twice as many as before!
Looking ahead, I hope to continue to create tools for spreading the word about KinGap benefits—like webinars, videos, and maybe even a statewide information line.
How did you work with your mentors and supervisor to support your participation in the MPLD program?
My mentor was my supervisor. And can I say that she was awesome! She brought me into leadership circles that would not have been available to me otherwise. She made sure that I had the information and resources—and encouragement—that I needed to succeed. She was always approachable and always pushing me. The example she set showed me how to be a mentor to someone in the future.
How have you changed as a result of your participation in the leadership program?
In so many ways! I’ve gained confidence. I’ve developed a strong voice. I’ve gained the ability to express my ideas and make suggestions that can create change.
Now I want to take what I’ve learned and pay it forward, to continue to grow and to become that transformational leader who inspires others.
Applications for the 2021 MPLD cohort are being accepted through June 22. Learn about the MPLD program criteria and how to apply.