Academic journal article Child Welfare

Leveraging the Experiences of Foster Care Alumni: A Mixed-Method Model for Organizing

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Leveraging the Experiences of Foster Care Alumni: A Mixed-Method Model for Organizing

Article excerpt

Foster Care Alumni of America (2012) estimates there are approximately 12 million foster care alumni in the United States, and each year approximately 28,000 youths transition from foster care to adulthood (McCoy-Roth, Freundlich, & Ross, 2010). Foster care alumni have a unique understanding of the complexities of the foster care system (Festinger, 1983). Incorporating the insights and experiences of foster care alumni is imperative to ensuring adept foster care practices and research, and must be integrated into foster care program development and implementation (Daly, 2009; Johnson, Yoken, & Voss, 1995; Day, Riebschleger, Dworsky, Damashek, & Fogarty, 2012). Failure to incorporate or leverage these experiences greatly limits the ability of child welfare practitioners and researchers to effectively form and evaluate foster care programs (Williams, McWilliams, Mainieri, Pecora, & La Belle, 2006).

Yet despite the importance of integrating the perspectives of alumni into child welfare services in general, and foster care services specifically, the practice of utilizing these experiences has not come to fruition (Fox & Berrick, 2007). Much of this unrealized potential is explicitly related to the absence of mechanisms for foster care alumni to be actively engaged in the child welfare system once they leave care (Unrau, Chambers, Seita, & Putney, 2010). Hence, it is vital that foster care researchers and practitioners explore innovative models to organize foster care alumni in an efficient manner that promotes active involvement in the foster care system (Brown & Seita, 2009).

This paper documents the use of Concept Mapping (CM) as an organizing tool used to delineate a conceptual framework germane to the initial formation of a statewide chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA). CM is a participatory, mixed-method approach that couples multidimensional scaling and hierarchical cluster analyses to identify clusters relevant to a particular area of study (Kane & Trochim, 2007). Through these analyses, several pictorial representations of the data are constructed. After a review of pertinent literature related to the importance of organizing foster care alumni, this paper will explicate CM processes utilized in this study, and discuss implications for utilizing CM in future practices pertaining to organizing foster care alumni.

Background

Incorporating the experiences and perspectives of foster care alumni (hereafter referred to as alumni) into the framework of foster care practice, policy, and research has the potential for significant positive impact on the child welfare system. Several authors have recognized this potential. For example, Seita (2004) explained that young people who age out of the foster care system have a unique insight that could positively contribute to the formation and oversight of the child welfare system. This author's research into the child welfare system in Michigan concluded that as many as 90% of the child welfare organizations in that state had no input or direct involvement from foster care alumni. Seita surmised that incorporating the perspective of alumni "could provide fresh perspectives to improve outcomes" (p. 24).

Similarly, Wedeven, Pecora, Hurwitz, Howell, and Newell (1997) asserted that alumni can be used as "valuable agency resources" (p. 100), and went on to offer several suggestions for the involvement of youth in service implementation and evaluation. These authors suggested inviting alumni to participate in advisory capacities for foster care program initiatives, involving alumni in joint research and publication ventures, and utilizing youth as speakers at various foster care events. Langford (2011) explained that "the powerful voice of youth and young adults who have experienced foster care has resulted in significant improvements in policies and practices in child welfare systems across the country" (p. 3). A host of other authors have shared similar sentiments (e. …

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