Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Action Research with Youth in Foster Care

I have never really considered myself to be part of the foster care “system”. Of course, I am invested in the system-I am a former social worker and foster mother and an active board member of Peace4kids.  My personal and academic life, and now even my professional career in research, have allowed me to have a voice (even if just a whisper) in the foster care community. I am learning how to turn up my own volume. More important than my own individual experience, I am learning how to turn up the volume of a collective foster care voice.
Sometimes I am daunted by the task. Mostly I am inspired. The foster care system is made up of thousands of children (30,000 children in Los Angeles County, alone). That’s a lot of voices. I jumped right in and did what I do: research. I collaborated with youth in foster care and they became the researchers and the voice of the project. Together, we wanted to know what children in foster care would change if they were in charge of the system? What would they want foster care professionals to know about who they are and what strengths they have? The youth researchers were dedicated to learning about the research process. They creatively designed the methods for collecting the data, conducted the interviews, and interpreted the results. They remained committed to the project over a period of two years and were motivated by a desire to inform the world that the negative depiction of the foster care system did not tell the whole story. These youth in foster care were finding their voice, speaking clearly, and realizing they were actually being heard. They had turned up the collective volume more than a little and had found a new audience.

The research outcome was a humbling reminder of the power of science. Due to the age and inexperience of the youth researchers there were some issues with validity in the procedures. But I was the only one who cried over the science. The research team progressed from timid novices to vocal advocates for child welfare reform (use link or see video below). They took the skill and information they gained from the research and moved into action. This is where I stepped back and learned from what they did best. Before I knew it, this same group of youth had planned and executed nationwide media campaign to increase the legal age of foster care from 18 to 21. They also hosted a 4k walk to spread the word about their collective experiences in the foster care system to encourage public interest. Suddenly I was standing there as the novice watching them educate hundreds of spectators about the foster care culture and experience that shaped their lives.  I came to the awareness that I was no longer simply invested in the foster care system. I finally accepted (as odd as it sounds) that I am actually part of the foster care system… and we can all speak up in the ways we know best.
This research project was just the first step in helping the youth researchers learn to express their voices and uncover their perspectives about the very system that controls their life. By engaging in the research they discovered their common experiences and articulated their strengths. Even though the research project didn’t yield specific answers to the original questions, it directly led to advocacy. I am left wondering what powerful shifts would happen if educational interventions, systems protections, and the community as a whole started to listen to the voices of the youth in foster care for who these programs are designed.
So I ask you, can we as the research community continue to turn up the volume on the issues that impact our world? Can we provide the space for the most vulnerable around us to influence the policies that impact their daily lives? And do we have the courage to step away from the piles of data and listen differently to what is truly being said?
                                                                                                                        I look forward to continuing this conversation with you! You are invited to read my article and share your thoughts, comments, and ideas. You can access this article online and ahead of the print journal FREE for the next 30 days by following this LINK.

                                                                                                                          Leslie Ponciano

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