How Kentucky Brought the Community in on Family First Act

Chris Hagans, who spent time in Kentucky’s foster care system, speaks at one of the community discussions on the Family First Act. Photo courtesy of Hagans

Social workers, educators, judges and prosecutors, nonprofit leaders, state legislators, and many other advocates for Kentucky kids and families traveled near and far during the summer to learn more about what implementation of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act will mean for families in the Commonwealth. The Family First Regional Convenings sought to share information about the federal legislation, anticipated changes in Kentucky over the coming months and years, and reflections on both from stakeholders directly affected by those changes.

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

The regional convenings were an organized and strategic way to engage child welfare and other related stakeholders around what to expect with Family First as well as to take the temperature of communities’ readiness to implement. They were a group effort that relied on several key players:

  • A lead organization, Kentucky Youth Advocates, to coordinate the effort
  • Committed leadership and staff from the state’s Department for Community Based Services
  • Supports, both technical and financial, from Casey Family Programs
  • Key community partners across the state willing to collaborate

Another 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 thing sooner.

I’m part of the Voices of the Commonwealth, which is 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 for families that’ll 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 20-plus 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.

Having Chris share his experience in the child welfare system set the tone for each convening about why we were all there – to improve the experience for the families just like Chris’ that come into 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.

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  Jessica Brown is an executive adviser on Family First for the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services.

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