“It Takes One to Know One”: The Need for Alumni Leadership in Child Welfare

“You’re an orphan, right?  Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist?  Does that encapsulate you?”

The above quote from the movie Good Will Hunting took place between a therapist, played by Robin Williams, and a brilliant but bitter foster care alumnus, played by Matt Damon. It vividly portrays the gap in understanding that separates a confused former foster child from the sensitive but inexperienced therapist trying to help him.

The therapist’s take on his ability to understand this angry young man is both brilliant and humble. “How in the hell,” he likely asked himself, “am I qualified with no more than my academic training to know how to help such a complex person from such a traumatic background?”

Clearly, he realizes that he can’t just regurgitate what he’s learned from college courses, conferences, seminars, books or other “second-hand” sources, that he must learn all he can about this particular young man’s painful childhood before he can even begin to know how to help him.

But since he has not personally experienced foster care or worked with foster kids, he has no perspective to draw upon.

This poignant movie scene “encapsulates” the foster care dilemma: Very few non-alumni professionals understand us, and even fewer know how to help us.  It also sums up why alumni must be at the forefront of training non-alumni professionals about what programs, policies and practices serve the needs and protect the best interests of at-risk youth.

Who else could include more “first-hand” experience in their training than former wards of the court that also bring with them the added dimensions of both studying and then working in child welfare? This level of expertise provides the unmatched insight required to teach non-alumni professionals what they need to do to truly serve and protect the vulnerable young people in their care.

Put simply: “It takes one to know one.”

Client-led training is considered a “best practice” in other social services, so, clearly, it is appropriate, even desirable, for consumers of their services to play a professional development role in the agencies and organizations that are designed to serve them. But not in child welfare.

Instead, non-alumni teach other non-alumni what they think is in our best interests. Some of them may, indeed, get it right. But how many of them are flat-out wrong? More importantly, how many kids suffer for want of precise information?

Social work based on guesswork is not only illogical and ill-conceived; it also condemns itself – and its dependent clients – to failure.

The failure of the current child welfare paradigm is its obvious omission of client involvement throughout its system of services, including alumni training non-alumni professionals how to help kids currently in foster care resolve the very same issues we experienced and then mastered.

African-Americans, not Caucasians, provide community organization training for the NAACP and the Urban League. Women, not men, lead feminist workshops for NOW.

Members of these groups understand the difference between trainers who have – or have not – personally experienced the subject of their training.  Valuing “first-hand” information, after all, is no more than common-sense.

Why, then, do non-alumni train other non-alumni about issues they had the good luck not to experience?  This is not common-sense; in fact, it is non-sense, and foster kids suffer because of it.

Perhaps the child welfare professionals involved with young Will Hunting might have helped him resolve his anger issue, had they received training from an alumnus who both experienced and then mastered the same problem?

There just is no substitute for personal experience.

Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.

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