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  • December 22, 2021

    Incorporating Lived Experience in Wisconsin’s Child Welfare System

    Parents with personal experience in the child welfare system can play a valuable role in many ways, including providing feedback and peer support. Heather Miller discusses how a lived experience voice is being incorporated in child welfare in Wisconsin.

    Heather M. Miller

    Attorneys who practice law in the child welfare system play a variety of roles – agency representation, guardian ad litem or youth attorney, parent attorney, judicial officer – but one thing is almost certain: they will have some level of interaction with parents of the children involved in their cases. How much value is given to a parent’s perspective or input may vary greatly, but hearing that voice is a vital part to child welfare transformation. While Wisconsin works to implement The Family First Prevention Services Act, a national legislative effort to reduce the number of children in out-of-home care, it is an ideal time to ensure the parent voice is heard.

    Heather Miller Heather Miller, Marquette 2007, has been an attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families in Milwaukee for the past seven years, where she advises DCF staff on a variety of matters involving child welfare.

    In 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) issued an Information Memorandum to strongly encourage all parts of child welfare systems “to work together to ensure that family and youth voice are central in child welfare program planning and improvement efforts.”

    ACF further outlined the many benefits to integrating families and youth voice into child welfare practice, including preventing maltreatment from occurring in the first place and preventing unnecessary family separation, among many others.

    To that end, Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) is taking steps to amplify the voices of those stakeholders with lived experienced as part of its effort to transform the child welfare system in Wisconsin. Currently, lived experience is being incorporated in three, specific ways, through:

    • child welfare parent leaders;

    • parent information project; and

    • lived experience coordinators.

    Child Welfare Parent Leaders (Stakeholder Group and Parent Supporting Parents)

    DCF launched The Parent Leader Stakeholder Group in January 2021. This group is comprised of parents who have lived child welfare experience. They meet monthly and support the transformation efforts with the goal of keeping more children and families together and to incorporate lived experience voice in all aspects of child welfare and youth justice system change. Their feedback has led to identification of gaps and strategies to correct those gaps, such as the Parent Information Project. Case managers throughout Wisconsin are also learning more about this Parent Leader group and can encourage parents to fill out an interest form, if they believe they have a client who would be a good candidate to participate.

    Parents with lived experience also have value as models of hope and sources of support for parents currently within the child welfare system. Wisconsin’s Parent Supporting Parents (PSP) is an evidence-based model aimed at empowering parents with lived child welfare experience to serve as mentors to parents presently experiencing the child welfare system. PSP in Wisconsin follows Iowa’s evidence-based parent partner model and is the third state to implement and evaluate this model. PSP innovation zones are currently in Door, Jefferson, and Rock counties.

    Research shows that parent partner programs demonstrate strong, positive outcomes for participating parents. More information about the benefits, how the program connects to Wisconsin’s child welfare model, guiding principles and engagement can be found by visiting DCF’s Parents Supporting Parents website.

    Parent Information Project

    One of the first needs the Parent Leader Stakeholder Group identified is better access to key information for parents encountering the child welfare system. As a result, in January 2022 DCF is launching the Parent Information Project with these objectives:

    • identify the key types of information parents in the Child Protective Services system (CPS) need to know to understand the CPS process from the point of referral throughout investigation;

    • identify the most effective ways to share such information with the parents and develop this for parents via a handbook, website, mailings or other effective informational sharing mechanism at first CPS interaction;

    • learn what key areas of communication are challenges for local CPS agency staff when communicating and/or engaging with parents around different areas of responsibility or practice; and

    • identify key aspects of parental experience that workers need to know to be able to effectively aid families in navigating the CPS system.

    Lived Experience Coordinator

    In 2021, DCF hired its first Lived Experience Coordinator. The Lived Experience Coordinator supports the efforts of lived experience input across DCF. This individual contributes to advocacy and education efforts for a deeper understanding of system needs and service gaps, while also providing an understanding from the lived experience lens. This position ensures the family voice is heard through the strategic transformation and efforts around Family First implementation. Partnering with this coordinator is key to:

    • empowering individuals who demonstrate resiliency in their journey;

    • demonstrating that hope and recovery are possible for all families;

    • building compassion in professional stakeholders by hearing the stories of lived experience; and

    • building equity and reducing barriers to care.

    These three initiatives are just a part of DCF’s strategic plan to prioritize lived experience input. With a dynamic Parent Leader group and an on-staff Lived Experience Coordinator, we expect to continue to see ideas and innovations emerge for transformative and impactful outcomes.

    How can Attorneys Amplify Voices of Lived Experience?

    Of course, high quality legal representation can also improve an individual’s experience in the child welfare system. Since legal representation is an extension of the parent or youth voice during a court process, having an advocate that will partner with child welfare professionals to identify parent or child strengths, needs, and resources and advocate for those supports will lead to better outcomes.

    Attorneys who know parents with valuable lived experience (and closed or nearly closed cases), who might be a good fit to contribute feedback through the Parent Leader Stakeholder Group can encourage parents to fill out an interest form. The latest information on lived experience efforts can be found by visiting DCF’s website.

    Additionally, a significant part of any child or parent’s experience with the child welfare system is their interaction with stakeholders throughout the court system. How attorneys and court partners treat others can contribute to or reduce the trauma of having a child welfare case in court. ACF’s Children’s Bureau notes that even the words used by others “help signal respect and reinforce worth and personal dignity or reinforce negative perceptions and feelings.” For example, simply being cognizant and intentional about the way people are addressed, such as recognizing individuals as a “family” rather than a “case” can “humanize individuals, send affirming and respectful messages, and support a strength base and family supportive system.”1

    The ACF’s Call to Action outlines many other principles to guide transformation of the child welfare system and is informative for those wishing to contribute to improvements in this system. Improving lived experience of families encountering the child welfare system and reducing trauma to the families we serve is possible if we all take time to listen to those who have experienced it.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s ​ Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


    1 SeeACF Information Memorandum 19-03.

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    Children & the Law Blog is published by the Children & the Law Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Christie Christie and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Children & the Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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