Campus News

Social Work Professor Turns Foster Care Journey Into Life of Research, Education, Advocacy


LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 29, 2016)  Justin "Jay" Miller, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, likens the years of his youth to that of a carousel ride — up and down, round and round, in and out of foster care. The memories weren't always pleasant, but his personal experience during that time led him to where he is today, passionately advocating for the lives of young people in and from foster care through his teaching, research and community involvement.

After graduating from Western Kentucky University in 2003, Miller went to work for Kentucky’s Child Protective Services. Coming full circle, he went from being in foster care, to removing kids and placing them in foster care, to now conducting research about how to best change the foster care system.  

"It has really been a holistic experience," he said.

At just 7 years old, Miller's mother died leaving him and his younger sisters in the care of their father, who battled addiction to crack cocaine. Because of his father's inability to kick his addiction, Miller and his sisters suffered from neglect and physical abuse. Eventually, Miller was placed in foster care while his sisters went to live with their grandmother.

Miller had his own battles to fight and remembers feeling fearful and alone, grief over his mother's death, and angry with his father who couldn't seem to "get it together." He felt his life was out of control and the only way to feel like he had any control at all over his situation was by rebelling. Thus, began the carousel of placements in the homes of family friends, to state foster homes, to running away and staying with friends, to brief periods of time back with his father, and back into foster care.

"I recall having a case worker that seemed preoccupied with other things," Miller said. "I had so many things that I wanted to tell her but I didn't feel that I had the space to do so. While I didn't know at the time what she did, or how to become what she was, I did know that I wanted to do it and do it better."

Life did get better for Miller when he was pulled from the system and he and his sisters were taken in by an aunt and uncle in Germany. He describes his life there as stable, loving, supportive, and most of all, committed. He was allowed to be a "teenager" and do the things that most teens get to do. He stayed in Germany until he went to college at Western Kentucky University in 1999.  

Miller has since used the experiences of his youth as the fuel that has helped shaped his adult life.

"I don't want young people to experience the system in the way that I had to experience it," he said. "I experienced things as a young person that no youth should have to experience."

"I see my research as a vehicle to shed light and give voice to experiences that can really shape foster care practices. I am not interested in doing research for the sake of simply 'knowing' about the phenomenon that is foster care —  I am interested in doing research that can positively impact the lives of young people in and from foster care. Through my research, I hope that I can give youth a voice in the system. They are the experts, not me. I am simply the means to carry their expertise to different audiences."

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, vice-chair of the Kentucky Board of Social Work, and is a member of the Federal Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, among other service endeavors.  

In retrospect, the road Miller traveled as a youth in the foster care system, has merged seamlessly into the road he travels today.

"At the end of the day, I know what is at stake. These young people are depending on us and they don't have time to wait," he said. "This work is not just about grants or publications, presentations or lectures, or promotions or awards. While those things are certainly important, the work is so much bigger than those things — it is about making the difference in the life of young people in the foster care system. As long as we can hold tight to that notion, I truly believe that we can continue to build a better system, and as such, a better future for these young people."

"If I can make even the smallest difference in the life of someone impacted by foster care — youth, foster parents, social workers, etc. — then I am satisfied. But, I know that tomorrow will come and I'll be looking to pick up the work and continue the journey."


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Media Contact: Ann Blackford at 859-323-6442 or