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Leading systems-change efforts in Florida

MPLD graduate Ligia Cushman

Ligia Cushman is the director of adoptions and related services at Eckerd Connects in Tampa, Florida, and a graduate of the AdoptUSKids Minority Professional Leadership Development program. We talked with Ligia about how her participation in the program helped her lead systems-change efforts at her organization.

What attracted you to participate in the Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program?

I’ve worked in adoption for more than 18 years now, and the field is always evolving. I wanted to learn what was coming down the pike, and find out what my colleagues were doing across the country.

The MPLD program was particularly timely, because I had recently relocated from North Carolina to Tampa to revamp our adoption work. So when I learned about MPLD, and the fact that you do an action research project related to your work as part of the program, I thought, this is perfect!

How did your work with MPLD fit in with your systems-change work?

Participating in the fellowship allowed me to put plans that were already in progress down on paper and track data. It allowed me to be more intentional and systematic in the effort.

Through my action research project, I fleshed out strategies that could make our systems more family friendly, enhance our customer service, and improve our matching processes.

Making a system more family friendly sounds like an ambitious goal. Where did you begin?

At the beginning! I attended an orientation to see how we were welcoming interested families. I saw that what we were doing was explaining the rules to people, rather than the process. The PowerPoint slides we were using literally walked people through the administrative codes! It was not welcoming, to say the least.

I knew this had to change—immediately. I shared the orientation script from my previous organization with our staff, who were onboard with rethinking our approach to these sessions. Together, we revamped our orientation and our trainings to make them more inclusive, more family friendly, and trauma informed.

We also established a protocol of following up with families who attend the sessions.

Now we are super focused on connecting with families—and we’re seeing positive results in our recruitment numbers.

Another area you focused on was the matching process. What did that look like?

In Florida, we use Family Match, a photolisting tool, and work with our local Heart Gallery to hold quarterly matching events. But the two systems were not connected. We teamed up with our Heart Gallery staff so that we could create events where children met families who had inquired about them in the last six months. And guess what? We saw a substantial increase in the number of matches being made at those events!

We also expanded our recruitment efforts to allow families to be considered for children from other counties, which had not been the case in the past.

Looking back, what were some of the biggest lessons you learned from participating in the MPLD program?

It’s kind of amazing, because even though I’d been doing this work for more than two decades, I still came away with new information and approaches.
To start, I learned facts about disparity and disproportionality that made me a much more educated, articulate champion of our work.

In Hillsborough county children of color 1.5 times more likely to enter foster care and not return home. That’s a shocking statistic—and one that even some of our executive team was not aware of. Now they are, and that information is informing our planning and decision-making. And we’ve seen an increase of 57% in the adoption of children of color in our system.

I also learned what it means to not just be a leader, but to be a transformational leader who inspires staff to innovate and create change.

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons that I learned is that you cannot do this work alone! You can’t make changes without partnerships and without engaging every stakeholder and bringing along other people who share your vision.

You can read more about Ligia at her blog: ligiacushman.com.