A new approach to researching foster care and youth homelessness

A new approach to researching foster care and youth homelessness

In depth with The Mockingbird Society

The Mockingbird Society, one of Dropbox Foundation’s newest nonprofit partners, aims to transform foster care and end youth homelessness by working in partnership with young people who’ve lived through the systems they seek to transform. May was National Foster Care month so we sat down with members of their team to talk about what they’re working on including an upcoming project, The Mockingbird Society Report Card, as well as its unique foster care delivery model, MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY (TM).

Q: What is The Mockingbird Society Report Card?

A: It’s a first of its kind participatory research study in partnership with the Stuart Foundation designed to share the firsthand perspectives of young people impacted by foster care or homelessness alongside the Washington state data reported by child welfare systems. Using a combination of surveys and 1:1 interviews, youth were asked to “grade” the services they’re currently or have previously received while in foster care. The goal of the report card is to create a feedback mechanism for state systems of care. As it stands, these systems report out on their own efficacy without including the voices or opinions of those they serve—in this case, the young people in their care.

Q: What makes this different than other research studies?

A: Participatory research means that individuals who are most impacted actively participate in the design and implementation of the study. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions of COVID-19, we weren’t able to conduct the report card research in a fully participatory manner, but youth advocates, those impacted by foster care and homelessness, were involved in the question design of the survey and continue to be involved as we evaluate and disseminate the results. Mockingbird’s youth advocates will also play a critical role in incorporating the insights of their peers into their policy priorities for the upcoming 2022 legislative session. In future iterations, we’ll strive to include young people at all levels of the survey and interview design. We believe the report card will be most effective if it’s created by young people, for young people. Accountability and end user experience are key factors when making recommendations for systems improvements. This report card creates an avenue for those most impacted to share their experiences and ideas for improvement, where historically their voices have been filtered or completely absent.

Q: What are the major takeaways from the report card?

A: In many ways, this initial pilot of the report card confirmed that Mockingbird has been on the right track with our legislative priorities for years. Time and time again, we’ve heard anecdotally from young people about the challenges they face due to high caseworker turnover and caseloads. Mockingbird advocates have pushed for mandatory LGBTQ+ training to ensure that caseworkers are able to compassionately support LGBTQ+ youth, as 40% of youth in care identify as LGBTQ+. These anecdotes have led our advocacy work for years, and now the collective voice from the report card project provides evidence that this experience is universally shared. Future iterations will allow us to develop a more expansive understanding of the issues impacting young people; namely, those in tribal foster care, the juvenile justice system, and those with developmental disabilities. Not every young person is able to engage directly in our youth programming, but any young person can be a part of sharing their experience through the report card research project. In this way, we hope to continue capturing and responsibly advocating on the behalf of the 9,000+ young people who experience foster care in Washington state each year.

Q: How will the report card help further The Mockingbird Society’s goals and mission?

A: Our work is to transform foster care and end youth homelessness through relationship-based engagement strategies that promote civic engagement and leadership development. Our youth programs rely on building relationships, community organizing and leadership development through skill development, and public speaking and advocacy. However we realize it leaves out young people that can’t directly engage in our programming. So in order to connect with the experiences of more young people, particularly those that are most marginalized by our systems, we wanted to develop a feedback mechanism and understand what is or isn't working in our state systems of care. By reaching a broader group of young people, we can hold ourselves and the state accountable as we work to transform foster care and ending youth homelessness.

Q: What makes The Mockingbird Society different than other foster care and youth homelessness organizations?

A: Everything that Mockingbird does stems from the experience and leadership of young people experiencing foster care or homelessness. Our youth-adult partnership model has achieved national recognition. We have over 20 years of impact, resulting in 57 major policy reforms—several of which have gone on to become the national standard in child welfare practice. Our successes are rooted in amplifying the voices of those who’ve been impacted. Many of our partners provide direct services to young people experiencing foster care and youth homelessness, which is very important, but our goal is to transform the systems themselves, so that regardless of individual circumstance, all children and young people grow up with an equitable opportunity to thrive.

Q: What can people do to help?

A: Foster care and youth homelessness are issues that impact all of us. Whether or not one has a personal connection to this experience, young people and families are a part of your community. We encourage folks to learn more about foster care and youth homelessness as it impacts your home city or state, and to get connected with us to learn more about advocating for change.

Here are a few things people can do to learn more:

  • Check out the Annie E. Casey Foundation FAQ for a “foster care 101” type resource
  • Read our blog and The Mockingbird Times—our quarterly newspaper written by young people who have experienced foster care or homelessness
  • Research your state’s child welfare system and the different agencies and nonprofits working together to provide support for young people and families

Q: What is giving you hope these days?

A: COVID-19 has shed light on the power of engaging young people through virtual platforms. At this year’s Youth Advocacy Day, incarcerated young people were able to participate and meet with their legislators for the first time. This would’ve been unimaginable prior to the pandemic. So, we have a lot of hope for what this next iteration of our Youth Programs can bring in terms of accessibility and inclusivity. We’re also hopeful because thanks in part to advocacy by our young people, the MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY (TM) foster care model continues to expand and thrive in Washington and around the world. Mockingbird Families are unique because they use an extended family model to provide community, stability, and support to parents and children. It has been proven to ensure that foster parents continue to foster, fewer children experience placement disruption, and more children find permanent stable families through adoption, reunification, or kinship care. We have hope because we know the problems of our systems are imminently solvable—the answers are right here, with us, in the experiences of young people. This work can reach the finish line in our lifetimes. And that knowledge is exciting, and inspires us to keep pushing this work forward.

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