Campus News

Foster Care Journey Inspires UK Professor to Become Voice for Youth

Justin "Jay" Miller
Justin "Jay" Miller

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 27, 2018)  How do you define a hero? When posed that very question Justin "Jay" Miller, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, said it boils down to the three C's: character, compassion and commitment.

"A hero must have the character to be compassionate and the commitment to engage in actions that positively impact peoples’ lives, and I mean meaningful action. I think it is easy for someone to take action that benefits them, but taking action that may cost one something, be it money, safety, time, etc. — that is a hero."

Miller said that wasn't always the case. As a child, he thought heroes were the classic characters he enviously watched on Saturday morning cartoons. Now, Miller realizes his heroes were ordinary people who went out of their way to make his life extraordinary. "As I reflect on it now, I realize there were a number of people who made sacrifices so that I could come out better on the other side."

Those heroes would present themselves throughout Miller's tumultuous childhood. At just 7 years old, Miller's mother died of an epileptic seizure, due to complications from a car wreck, leaving him and his younger sisters behind. Millers father, unable to escape the relentless grip of substance misuse, couldn't care for them. They suffered from years of neglect and abuse. Eventually, Miller was placed in foster care while his sisters went to live with their grandmother. He vividly remembers feeling overcome with emotion.

"If I may borrow a quote from Charles Dickens: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' I experienced things that no child should ever have to experience. I was scared, isolated and anxious," Miller said. "I also recall times of happiness. I recall feeling a lot of love. I recall people caring about me and seeking to make sure that I had the things that I needed though they had nothing."

Miller, a troubled teenager, rebelled against the system, leading to years of instability. From state foster homes, to running away and staying with friends, even resorting to brief periods of time back with his father, only to return to out-of-home care. Despite the challenges, Miller is grateful the state intervened.

"I say that because I know the alternative. Being removed from my home is not something that was done to me. Rather, it was an opportunity that was afforded to me. That opportunity has made all the difference for me. Without question, had I not been taken from my home, I would be dead or in jail."

Instead, Miller's future got brighter over the years. He and his sisters were eventually taken in by an aunt and uncle in Germany. Miller stayed there until he went off to college at Western Kentucky University in the fall of 1999.

Determined to not let his past negatively define him, after graduating in 2003, Miller went to work for Kentucky’s Child Protective Services. He went from being in out-of-home care, to removing kids and placing them in foster care.

"There is this assumption that foster care is this horrible thing that one must overcome. Now, to be clear, foster care is not all good, and there are many aspects of the system that need work. However, there are many youths that are thankful for or have positive foster care experiences. We often forget that," Miller said. "Foster care is not something that we do to youth, it is a service that is provided to children and families. As such, we must strive to make it the best possible service."

Miller is hoping to defy the negative stereotypes that many foster children face. He also takes great pride in his research to determine how to best change the system.

"Research is not just about how many grants one can get, how many articles one can publish or how many times I am cited. While I certainly think those things can be important to the work, they are not the reasons for the work. Those things are simply byproducts of doing work that is meaningful."

In addition to his teaching and research at UK, Miller is heavily engaged in foster care advocacy and serves as president of Foster Care Alumni of America – Kentucky, where he consults and leads a myriad research projects and initiatives. He also serves as chair of the Kentucky Children's Justice Act Taskforce, chairperson of the Kentucky Board of Social Work, and is a member of the Federal Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, among other service endeavors.  

In January, Miller was appointed to oversee the Association of Social Work Board on Social Work Education Licensing and Regulation National Taskforce. The new group is being formed to develop practice competencies and social work curricular resources for licensing and regulation.

"Above all, my research is intended to integrate the VOICE of foster youth into the lexicon of child welfare services. While the importance of including youth in foster care research has been well established, the actualization of this practice is seldom achieved. Though many of our systems were created for young people and their families, it is far too often only about these individuals. I hope that, through rigorous research, I can integrate the lived experience of these individuals into the services they receive."

In recognition of the positive impact he has made on the lives of young people and his work to shape foster care practices, Miller is one of only 10 individuals across the country in the social work profession to be awarded the “Dedicated and Deserving" Recognition Award from Social Work Today magazine. Each awardee is nominated by colleagues and co-workers. Miller was profiled in the January/February issue.

Today, Miller remains as passionate about social work as ever before.

"Communities are being ravaged by violence and other societal ills. These things are real. These things are happening. And, as long as these things occur, I will remain steadfastly committed to the work that I do. There was a time in my life when I needed help. And, I was fortunate enough to be able to get that help. That is a debt that I can never pay back. But please believe — I will spend every waking moment trying to pay that help forward."

The dictionary defines a hero as, "A person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her brave deeds and noble qualities." Though he embodies those characteristics, Miller doesn't consider himself a hero. But to a child who feels lost and alone, as he once did, Miller provides the hope they so desperately long for.

"The foster families who take these young people into their homes. Those are heroes. The state and private child welfare workers who have a near impossible job but that go to work every day with the sole purpose of helping families. Those are heroes. The kinship carers who take in their relatives. Those are heroes. The parents, fighting to hold things together so that their kids have a better life. Those are heroes. Me — I’m just trying to do my part."

UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: uky.edu/uk4ky. #uk4ky #seeblue