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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 26, No. 1
December 2020

Stakeholder Involvement Matters in North Carolina

In 2019, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families issued an information memorandum (IM-19-03) in which it urged states to find new ways to capture and integrate the expert voices of those served by the child welfare system. It advised that if we truly want to create the conditions for strong, thriving families and communities where children are free from harm, we need to seek out and act on the insights of child welfare system stakeholders--especially those with lived experience of the system.

North Carolina strongly agrees. As it embarks on the journey of child welfare transformation, our state has taken steps to ensure stakeholders with lived experience of the system play an essential role. For example, those with lived experience serve on the Family First Leadership Advisory Team (LAT) and on all five of the 2020-2024 CFSP Design Teams.

This article provides an opportunity for us to hear directly from some of our key stakeholders.

For Kelly Kirk, a member of the NC Child Welfare Family Advocacy Council, it all comes down to advocacy. Like other family partners serving on NC's Child Welfare Family Advisory Council, her goal isn't to vent or "share bitterness."

"Family partners," Kirk says, "sign on to make things better for the families that come after them."

Like child welfare professionals and other stakeholders, Kirk says family partners want a seat at the table and an opportunity to be heard so their expert input can be used to advance policy and practice.

To Kirk, creating policies and procedures without input from family voices is like a doctor writing a prescription without knowing the patient's symptoms. Family partners, she says, offer professionals perspectives that they lack. Hearing this different, non-professional perspective is a way for us to discover what works, what doesn't, and what we can do better.

Carloe Moser, an alumni of foster care and member of SaySo, says to truly hear the youth and young adult voice, agencies need to avoid surveys, focus groups, and other impersonal methods.

"Youth sense checklists and fakeness a mile away," he says. If you really want honest input, Moser suggests sitting down with youth one-on-one. When they are genuinely engaged, stakeholders are willing to share stories and insights that draw on the pain and passion of their experiences.

Moser uses a business metaphor to talk about the importance of stakeholder involvement. If North Carolina is the company, he says, child welfare policy and services are the product and families and youth with experience of the system are the customers most qualified to give feedback.

"To succeed," Moser says, "every business needs to make changes based on feedback from those using the product."

Stakeholders are diverse, Moser also points out. "We need villages at the table!"

Jennie Kristiansen, Director of Chatham County DSS and a member of the ULT, concurs. She says it is important for diverse groups of stakeholders to be part of the conversation and to talk candidly about their differences, as well as what they have in common.

"We all want the same things," Kristiansen says. "We all want families to be safe, healthy, and well."

As Kristiansen explains, "when they have honest conversations, people working in the court, child welfare, and mental health systems often realize they struggle with the same lack of resources and services (e.g., transportation). Discovering shared experiences and frustrations can fuel everyone's passion for transformation."

According to Jeanne Preisler, Program Coordinator with the Center for Family and Community Engagement at NC State University, true engagement--of family partners or anyone else--occurs on different levels. "Our heads understand the goal," she explains. "Our hearts believe it is the right thing to do. And, our feet move the work forward. All three have to be aligned for us to see where we fit and what we have to contribute to move the work forward."

Everyone interviewed for this article sees this is a time of great opportunity. Some have waited a long time for this moment to arrive. Stakeholder involvement will help North Carolina ensure decision makers have the information they need to identify both the problems and the solutions needed for child welfare transformation.