Op-ed: To Improve Foster Care Systems, Listen to Those Who’ve Been Through it

Photo of Jay Miller
Jay Miller, dean of the UK College of Social Work, issued an op-ed during National Foster Care Month.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 19, 2020) — The following op-ed was published in the Lexington Herald-Leader May 14, 2020. Jay Miller is the dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan issued the first presidential proclamation that established May as National Foster Care Month. Since that time, May has been an opportunity to critically reflect on successes in shortcomings in meeting the needs of foster youth and their families. 

The foster care system is one of unique complexity. Having been in foster care myself, I can personally attest to this notion. As a youth, I was placed in out-of-home care as a result of neglect stemming from substance misuse. Neglect was soon compounded by physical abuse. Thus, began my journey into “the system.”  

Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of working with foster youth at child welfare agencies at the local, state and federal levels. My personal experiences — particularly the time I spent in out-of-home care — have immensely impacted my professional practice and research with these young people. I choose to look at my personal experiences not as a hindrance but as an asset. These experiences have given me a unique ability to connect with those who are in, or who have experienced foster care. Throughout all of these interactions, I have come to two simple yet profound conclusions: Foster youth have a unique perspective on foster care, AND we, as a society, must work to integrate this perspective into the foster care system.  

Historically, the collective voice of foster youth and alumni (those who spent time in foster care) has been excluded from the lexicon of child welfare. Foster youth and alumni are seldom actively involved in research studies or in conceptualizing and implementing foster care programs and interventions. Sure, foster youth are often invited to share stories of their experiences, usually at annual events or fundraisers. Unfortunately, these stories are often relegated to a moment in time that is more about tugging at hearts of potential donors and far less about learning from these experiences as a mechanism for system improvement.      

If the foster care system is to meet its goal to protect children while simultaneously providing services aimed at reunifying families, foster care agencies and programs must integrate the lived experiences and expertise of foster youth and alumni. However, incorporating these experiences will not be easy. Meaningfully integrating the perspectives of those who have experienced foster care will require a paradigm shift.

In his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn explained that paradigm shifts are necessary when existing frameworks and worldviews are no longer able to meet needs. The traditional foster care paradigm of seeing youth and alumni as passive, incompetent beings participating in a system that needs to be directed by others, is no longer able to meet the needs of the foster care system. As such, those working with and in, the foster care system must adopt a paradigm shift that is grounded on a singular principle: Foster youth have valuable knowledge, insight and expertise that needs to be integrated into child welfare education, practice and research.

In order to fully realize the potential of incorporating the lived experiences of foster youth into the foster care system, we must change the lens through which we view foster care. Foster care is not something we do to children and families. Rather, foster care is a service that we provide to children and families. In as much, we, as a society, must take steps to explicitly improve these services. This includes ensuring that foster youth and alumni have a voice in foster care program development and evaluation. We can attain this goal by supporting foster care alumni groups and associations, working to develop youth advisory boards and councils and advocating that child welfare agencies hire foster care alumni as employees. No matter the method, we must be intentional about tapping into the unique perspective held by those who have personally experienced foster care. After all, adroit foster care practices depend on it. 

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.