April Ludwig is the chief quality improvement officer with Stanford Sierra Youth & Families in Sacramento, California; an adjunct instructor at the University of San Francisco, in the College of Education; a licensed marriage and family therapist; and a 2019 graduate of the AdoptUSKids Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program.
We talked with April about the action research project she completed as part of the MPLD program and how participating in the fellowship developed her leadership skills and career in ways she hadn’t anticipated.
Why did you decide to apply for the MPLD fellowship?
From the first time I heard about the program, I felt a sense of excitement. Here was an opportunity for growth, a chance to further my career and to work with other minority professionals on a national level! In child welfare, it’s easy to get stuck in your silo. MPLD sounded like an opportunity to be part of something bigger.
The more I learned about MPLD, the more excited I became. I was especially intrigued to hear program leaders say that this is a growing program that is responsive to input from participants. The idea that I could help shape program practices was very appealing to me. In my career, I’ve always thought of myself as a pioneer, helping to build systems and create change.
An important component of the MPLD program is completing an action research project. How did you select a topic to focus on?
The goal of the organization I represent is for every youth to achieve permanency. One obstacle to attaining our goal is that, like many organizations, we struggle to recruit and retain resource parents who meet the needs of the youth we serve and ultimately help them achieve permanency.
With my research project, I wanted to address why we, like many other agencies, continued to struggle with identifying and recruiting sustainable resource families. I believed that if our agency had more information about the factors and characteristics that influence resource parent longevity, we could improve our recruitment and retention strategies.
How did your action research project address the need to recruit and retain qualified families?
Like every MPLD research project, it started with data. We looked at our numbers, and we interviewed our current resource families to find out how we could improve their experience.
We learned that while all of our families came to us because they wanted to help children, their levels of experience and commitment varied pretty dramatically. Some of our families needed coaching, some needed to better understand the responsibility of being resource parents. We realized that when we did not have the required supports in place for them, families would burn out pretty quickly or not feel successful in their role.
This was not our families’ problem, it was our problem. We were not doing a good job of giving our parents roles in which they felt comfortable and could be successful. I believed that one part of the solution was to do a better job of screening incoming resource parents so that we could give them fitting roles.
What did the screening process look like?
First, it is important to say the we were not planning to screen families out! We were simply going to be more intentional by better understanding their strengths, drive, and motivations. To do this, I developed a simple tool, a six-question survey that our staff would administer during in-person conversations. We asked questions such as:
- What do you consider has been your greatest challenge to date, and why? Were you able to overcome the challenge, and if so, how?
- If you were struggling as a resource parent, what would you consider as possible resources?
- What are the three things that motivate you most in life?
Based on the parents’ responses and subsequent conversations among our team, we hoped to steer parents into one of three categories:
- As a mentor. These people wanted to help and would benefit from additional experience working with youth.
- As a respite or short-term caregiver. These families were motivated but seemed to want more time before making a final commitment and more flexibility.
- As a long-term caregiver. These folks were all in! They wanted to provide a permanent home to a youth.
We piloted this tool in 2019. Thankfully, in these tests, the majority of our families fell into the long-term placement category! There was no significant difference in the racial makeup based on the groups and where families were placed. And we found that the data we collected could indeed be useful in how we worked with potential resource parents in the future. With our organization undergoing a merger last year, we needed to pause on the use of the tool. But I believe that we were moving in the right direction and look forward to using the tool to help us achieve permanency for our youth.
In retrospect, how did participating in the MPLD program impact your career?
In several ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
Shortly before I graduated from the MPLD program, I was promoted to chief quality improvement officer. I attribute some of that to my participation in the program, because through my work with MPLD, I became a stronger leader, and I brought new opportunities and an increased level of national recognition to my agency.
Most recently, I was invited to apply to be on the Research and Evaluation Committee, a team that supports the California Mental Health Services Oversight & Accountability Commission. The commission works to provide transformational changes across service systems so that everyone who needs it receives effective and culturally competent mental health care. My leadership work with MPLD enhanced my desire to apply, and I was selected to be a representative on this statewide committee.
What would you say to other child welfare professionals who are considering applying to the program?
Do it! Throw your hat in the ring and apply. MPLD gives people of color, who do not always have a seat at the table, the opportunity to grow as leaders, be involved in policy reform, and understand the ways that we can impact future systems.
One really cool thing about the program is that everyone takes away something different, depending upon what they already know and how they want to develop. In my opinion, there is not a certain child welfare leader that this program is for. You could be fairly new to the field, or you could be a 20-year veteran. It’s not about where you are in your career, it’s where you want to go.
For me, I will say with certainty that what I took away more than anything else is to do this work with intentionality and purpose. With everything I do now, I ask: What am I expecting from myself and others, and what am I hoping to leave behind?
Are you or a colleague you know ready to become a transformational leader? Applications for the fourth cohort of the Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program are being accepted through June 7.