Connecting systems, connecting families

Connecting systems, connecting families

Fellow Andrea Dencklau, Senior Policy Associate, Youth Policy Institute of Iowa

This post shares Andrea's journey as a fellow in the first cohort and was first published in September 2019. Andrea continues to work on this issue as part of the second cohort of fellows. 


Andrea had spent a year facilitating the process for central Iowa stakeholders to develop a plan to address youth homelessness and wanted to continue to bring people together to have conversations that led to systems change. The fellowship came at a perfect point.

Her initial focus was on youth homelessness, but at the messaging training with Topos Partnership, she realized she needed to narrow her focus to make her issue clearer to others. Conversations with Rick Kozin, a mentor to the fellows, helped her center on ensuring young people have solid connections to people they can count on for support and nurturing as a strategy to prevent youth from aging out of foster care and to prevent homelessness.

Then, a few months into the fellowship, Andrea had two opportunities: 1) Congress passed The Family First Act, providing states with the opportunity to use federal funds to prevent children and youth from entering foster care, and 2) Results Count formed as an initiative to bring public and private partners together to address race equity in a changing child welfare system. Andrea seized the chance to support these efforts and provide resources as the child welfare and justice systems implemented new policies. Her goal is to make sure the state implements best practices to keep youth connected with whom they consider family.


While talking with young people in group care, Andrea remembers hearing a case worker ask about one youth: “Is he ready to be with family?” Andrea was shocked to hear that question. The better question, she says, should be: “Is the family ready for him? Do they have the tools and supports they need to provide him with love, nurturing, and support? And what’s our role in that?”

“All kids need families. But we have to pay particular attention to kids in foster care,” says Andrea. “They need to be connected to people who love them and have a sense of belonging if their lives are going to improve in other ways.”

When they are in foster care, young people can struggle to stay connected to family or other people important to them. For example, when a child moves into group care or a shelter, often their connections with family, job, or school are disrupted. In addition, African American family members may be more quickly dismissed as unsuitable to provide care because of cultural differences and bias.

“I realized what kind of shift would need to occur for our system to truly invest in the health and well-being of our children and youth,” Andrea says. “It’s not just resources. There’s a real philosophical shift that needs to take place.”


Andrea found an important role to play as a connector among providers, families, young people, and stakeholders. Her strength is to ask questions and listen to those who have experienced the system.

“You have to set aside your ego as a professional that we have the answers,” she says. “I have a graduate degree in social work, but that doesn’t mean I have all the answers. When you listen to people who have experienced these things and they are telling you—‘We’re actually the experts. We’ve experienced what you’re talking about’—you may not always understand the solutions, but that’s actually what needs to change.”

For example, in meeting with individuals who review cases involving African American families in the Department of Human Services (DHS), she heard that they were concerned about whether DHS was considering culturally responsive evidencebased practices as it implements the Family First Act. Andrea encouraged the group to turn their concerns into action and helped them develop formal recommendations they have now submitted to DHS leadership.

“I think the fellowship has given me the confidence and the backing to speak up,” she says, recognizing that not everyone in the room is thinking the same thoughts. As a result, she has been asked to participate in more meetings where decisions are made about the child welfare system. The fellowship also has allowed her to be a valued partner in facilitating conversations, with a budget to host discussions and commission focus groups.

Her organization convened stakeholders to discuss the barriers and solutions to family identification and engagement practices, and through these meetings, the group created a process to identify and track family connections, including a tool Andrea developed that is now being used by some organizations to identify, from the youth’s perspective, who is important to that youth and get them connected.

Andrea also has presented at two Children’s Justice Initiative conferences and created two cards for juvenile court judges to use to raise the importance of supportive connections to improve permanency for older youth in care. After her first presentation, the majority of judges indicated that they would ask youth to be in the courtroom or have direct conversation with youth and ask more questions about what support they need.

“She’s been able to see the big picture and know where opportunities are and how to feed the right voice to inform those opportunities,” says Suzanne Mineck, president of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation.


Andrea gets frustrated by the large shift that must happen to have a system that better supports youth in foster care. Having time and space to listen has been important, especially to build relationships with and inform people who are creating policies or providing direct services to youth who don’t have time to mull over how to do things differently. She’s also learned the value in making connections with many people, not just the one person in charge, realizing that people make decisions at many points in a system.


Having ownership of her budget allowed her to spend on what she felt was important to drive the work, such as hosting a summit or commissioning a study. “The loose structure was super liberating to me,” Andrea says, “but at the same time, nerve wracking because what if it doesn’t work? What if it makes no strides for kids? It’s hard to quantify the difference you’re making, because it’s not measured by how many kids are served.”


Andrea has commissioned a kinship study that will capture interviews from families, social workers, young people, and caregivers to better understand the role of the caregiver in accessing the services and support needed to make kinship caregiving successful. She hopes the study inspires new policies at the state level and will work to publish the study. She also is planning a skillsbased workshop for DHS and providers grounded in healing-centered engagement and is participating on the Coalition for Families and Children Vision Team to imagine a better child welfare system.

In August 2019, the city of Des Moines was awarded a $1.8 million Youth Homeless Demonstration Grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) based on the initial community plan that Andrea facilitated. Andrea will continue to work with stakeholders to elevate the needs of foster youth and ensure new policies and programs are centered on partnerships with young people.

“I think Andrea is the perfect example of not needing any teaching on how to do advocacy or why it’s important,” says Suzanne. “The fellowship was about watching her step in to lead and lead in a really powerful way.”

Andrea sees the future work as immense but critical: "Our society seems to dismiss how important healthy, nurturing relationships are to the foundation of 'health' and 'well-being.' We have to get back to basics and support these critical connections so young people can thrive. So many problems families face are due to social and economic barriers that are pressed upon them. What if we removed these barriers and helped level the playing field from the start? Maybe we can prevent kids from entering these broken systems in the first place."