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Family Engagement in Policy and Governance Boards

Nowadays, family involvement is a pretty big buzzword. What does it really mean, though? It is certainly true that human services agencies, community agencies, and other organizations are increasingly interested in recruiting family and youth partners into their decision-making processes. It is also true that research supports the notion that family engagement is associated with positive outcomes for youth, families and systems. That’s all well and good, but when it comes to moving past the very basic “We need more families involved!” to something more concrete, there are misconceptions. Let’s explore the subject…

 

Family Engagement in Colorado

Did you know that Colorado is lucky enough to be fairly progressive in the family involvement arena? Family engagement is written into the Colorado Prevention Leadership Council and Early Childhood State Plans. The state was recently awarded a System of Care grant and many child and family serving systems are changing practices to be more receptive to the family voice. Colorado’s organizations are in the midst of a shift in culture and practice. In short, this needed change is upon us.

A practice change to include families more thoughtfully is equally good for workforce / line staff as well as for the systems in which they work. Families and youth consumers bring a perspective that staff members do not have: their lived experiences as beneficiaries of services and systems. As consumers of services, they will know the barriers and benefits first hand. This is true for board representation, as well as for coalitions and committees. Staff is unable to know their system like a recipient or consumer can, even if they are parents themselves.

“The system building process that fails to develop meaningful partnership with the constituency that will depend upon the system is inherently suspect and limited in its capacity to build an effective system.  Meaningful partnerships with families and youth require concerted attention, dedicated resources, and capacity building across all parties.” Sheila Pires, 2002

The rest of this blog provides a few definitions related to family involvement and outlines ways that our child and family systems (mental health, public health, child welfare, schools, juvenile justice) can support family partnerships.

 

Defining Key Terms

Colorado advocates and system partners have worked alongside families to formalize a working Colorado definition for Family Advocate and Family Member. These terms are intended to cross systems and offer a baseline of expectation and role clarification.

  • Family Advocate: According to the Colorado revised statutes (27-69-102) a “Family Advocate” means a parent or primary care giver who has been trained in a system of care approach to assist families in accessing and receiving services and supports; has raised or cared for a child or adolescent with a mental health or co-occurring disorder; and has worked with multiple agencies and providers.
  • Family Member: As defined by the Colorado System of Care Collaborative, a “family member” is a person who is raising or has raised a child, youth, or adolescent with special physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, substance use, developmental, and or educational needs. They have direct experience in working with many of the agencies and providers in their community and can provide valuable insights by serving on state and local boards, committees, and coalitions. They also can also be hired as Individualized Service Plan care managers and/or facilitators, family advocators, evaluators, and trainers.

 

Readiness Self-Assessment

Are you ready to bring on family partners? Is your board or committee ready to take the steps to change practices (by-laws and voting protocols) to enable full participation and voice? If you are on a board or committee that would like to include family and/or youth members, the Board Self-Assessment on Family and Youth Involvement is for you! This is a free self-guided tool that provides a succinct way to capture your group’s readiness, areas of strengths, and opportunities for improvement in order to transform the group culture to one that welcomes consumer’s ideas and sustains their involvement.

The results of the self-assessment point the user to specific sections within the Family and Youth Involvement Workbook for Policy and Governance Boards and Planning Groups , pointing out examples, worksheets, and talking points to help you move your organization towards a more inclusive place.

 

Listening to Families

In 2008 Spark conducted focus groups with families involved with Colorado’s child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice systems in 2008. Family members who have been working with systems suggested the following ways to create involvement opportunities for families and consumers:

  • Incorporate requirements around family involvement in requests for proposals;
  • Maintain and promote family and youth advisory boards; and
  • Create and adopt a process to evaluate the success of staff efforts to engage families and youth.

Family members also suggest the following strategies to make your meetings more family and youth friendly:

  • Hold informational meetings at existing events in communities;
  • Have meaningful, action-oriented meetings and roles for families to contribute;
  • Have family & youth members help identify agenda items for the meetings;
  • Provide food and /or childcare available whenever possible;
  • Have the various organizations bring in resources, information, and linkages to their programs; and
  • Use rules that are less formal and complicated than Roberts Rules.

 

More Resources

Besides the Family and Youth Involvement Guidebook, there are plenty of other resources out there to help you bring the family voice into your decision or policy-making effort. Here are just a couple:

  1. This six page document from the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health helps to identify authentic family involvement at a systems level, beyond just the presence of family members at meetings.
  2. Center for Juvenile Justice Reform: Safety, Fairness, & Stability For Youth and Families —Recommendations to Strengthen Federal Agency Support of Family Engagement Efforts, 2011 Georgetown University.

Also, check out the family and youth involvement section of the Igniting Change resource website for information about training families and youth to participate, engaging them in systems transformation, and engaging them in evaluation.

These suggestions and tips are another way to build off the great work happening in Colorado!

 

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Why should we focus on building systems versus programs?

What is Systems Building?

Those of us who work in social service related fields, like subsidized housing, early childhood education, and child welfare hear almost constant references to “systems building” from our funders, policymakers, colleagues and evaluators. Is systems building just another “jargony” term with a limited shelf life?

The answer is no: while systems building may be called by many different names, the concept is here to stay, because it represents the simple notion that you should look at the big picture of the system to figure out how better to serve the system’s target populations (whoever they might be).

A “system” in this context is the aggregation of different programs, services, policies, and funding streams that collectively respond to a particular need.

The term “systems building” refers to building a new system or working to improve an existing system that is fragmented, informal, or missing key pieces. ((www.coloradotrust.org/attachments/0001/1403/EarlyChildhoodSystemBuilding_IssueBrief.pdf))

 

What’s so complicated about systems building, anyway?

Systems building can be a messy and labor intensive process. It always requires collaboration and often requires navigating multiple complex bureaucratic departments and, at times, an entrenched and contentious political environment. However, the end result is worth it! An effective, coordinated system can make a difference in people’s lives in a way that simply improving siloed programs cannot.

Here’s an example: Take youth homelessness. The vast majority of homeless youth need much more than mere shelter. In addition to a new place to live, a homeless youth may need support from an attorney for a past infraction with the law, a medical home to ensure access to medical support and care, vocational training or access to a good GED program and/ or subsidized higher education so he can find a job and pay the rent in his new place to live, and counseling to address the child abuse, domestic violence, or other home-related problems that drove him to leave home and live on the streets in the first place.

This requires a pretty big variety of programs and supports to come together and “wrap around” the youth. Building the youth homelessness system involves collaboration between all these programs and services, and all these programs and services have other targets besides youth, their own funding constraints, and are accountable to their own populations, funders, policymakers, and evaluators. And this is just what one youth might need – it’s nothing like the universe of what all the homeless youth in Colorado might need in order to end their homelessness.

 

What are the ingredients needed for effective systems building?

Building an effective system requires, at its foundation, consensus building and planning – in essence, a thoughtful planning process that brings together a broad and diverse group of stakeholders who are willing to transcend territorialism and politics to come together around a shared goal.

But there are other things that are necessary as well:

  • A sound infrastructure on the policy / system level of governance and decision making.
  • People in the trenches doing the work and, subsequently, a well-defined management and operations system on the program/service level is another critical component.


In order to be able to effectively serve the population you are trying to support, careful thought and assessment needs to be dedicated to developing the service array/benefit design.

In concert with the service array/ benefit design, the system needs to have strong entry and exit plans for clients who ware transitioning out of a system. Does for example, that homeless youth who is transitioning out of the homeless system – and has finished vocational training and secured a job working in the solar energy field – have ongoing support to help ensure that youth know the basics of being a professional from showing up at work on time, to dressing professionally, and addressing and handling management?

What else does a system need? Relevant screening assessment/testing and service planning. A diverse array of funding to build and grow the system – the systems budget, funding and financing strategies.

How do you know if your system is operating at its highest potential? To ensure that your system is continually working to improve its responsiveness to the population it is trying to serve, you have to incorporate quality monitoring/data and evaluation.

Also, ensuring that the individuals providing the programs receive training and professional development can only benefit the system.

Finally, an effective system requires the input of the population it is working to serve. An effective system is culturally responsive and includes consumer and family leadership. Without consumer and family leadership a system is missing, perhaps, the most important contribution to developing a culturally responsive and fully operational system.

But don’t be alarmed by the length of this list! The good news is that you can work on these things one at a time – you just need to make sure you’re thinking about the big picture of the whole system as you work on each of these pieces. Whether your organization works to prevent domestic violence or is involved in environmental preservation, engaging in collaboration to support systems building, while often a long-term and messy proposition, will ultimately be the most powerful approach in accomplishing your goals.