A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jessica Brown: New federal law gives Kentucky chance to reduce number of children in foster care

This summer, Kentucky social workers, educators, judges, prosecutors, nonprofit leaders, state legislators, and many others traveled across the state to learn about the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, its implementation in Kentucky, and what it will mean for families in the Commonwealth.

The Family First Regional Convenings sought to share information about the federal legislation, the anticipated changes in Kentucky over the coming months and years, and reflections from those directly affected by the changes.

The nine regional convenings across Kentucky resulted in big engagement. Nearly 1,200 individuals attended in person, and more than 2,000 streamed the events via Facebook live. That’s more than 3,000 Kentuckians joining the conversation around how the child welfare system can better support families, so kids can remain safely at home.

Kentucky is invested in implementing Family First earlier than most states. The regional convenings were an organized and strategic way of engaging child welfare and other related stakeholders in what to expect with Family First, as well as a way to take the temperature of communities’ readiness to implement.

So how did the events get pulled off?

A lead organization – Kentucky Youth Advocates, committed leadership and staff from the state’s Department for Community Based Services, support from Casey Family Programs, key community partners across the state willing to collaborate, and clear communications and engagement efforts in all regions of the state.

One vital component of the success of the convenings was the perspective of a young person with experience within the child welfare system.

Chris Hagans shares his reflections:

“Just speaking from the experiences I’ve been able to be a part of during these nine convenings I can truly say, as a former foster youth of the child welfare system, the Family First Act is the very thing I wish I had access to. It could have saved me from the amount of trauma and darkness I experienced in state care, which could have been prevented if this had been a priority sooner.

“I’m part of the Voices of the Commonwealth, an advocate group made up of former and current foster youth from ages 16 to 23. I find it most hopeful that through Family First, so many prevention services are going to be provided that will hopefully keep the family unit intact and prevent the things that I went through from happening to the next innocent child.

“We all as foster children, and even fictive kin providers and foster parents, deserve a system of integrity and support to make sure that everyone is doing right by these kids and young adults. I know it will take time to come into effect, but the Family First Act has the potential to change the commonwealth and completely change the way the child welfare system has worked for more than 20 years.

“I am pushing for my success, and being on both sides of this system has exposed me to so many great people to network with and opportunities to give me a voice. I know it will only get better from here. This will test the heart of our workers, our foster parents, and the child welfare system as a whole, and I’m excited to see the possibility of a new and better world because of it.”

Chris’ story set the tone for each convening about why we were all there: to improve the experience for the families that come in contact with our system. Their voices are powerful and are telling us all a story that needs to be heard. His story brought a unique perspective to prepare the hearts of those in the room to hear about the specific impacts our system has on children and the opportunities the Family First Act offers us to improve those experiences.

If we do not seek out and value the very voices of the families we are striving to serve, then all of our efforts are in vain.

We took advantage of the opportunity in each of the nine regions, to share regional specific data. We knew it was important to give a picture of what the families in their community were experiencing and what the outcomes were for children. Along with data, we heard personal stories as well as specific needs of the community.

We know that strong families equal strong communities and it was vital that each stakeholder see their role in this call to action.

The constant message throughout all of the convenings was that individuals know their communities best and that not everyone will play the same role, but we all certainly have a role to play. Child welfare belongs to all of us.

Jessica Brown is Executive Advisor and the Family First Prevention Services Act lead for the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services.

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