Twenty Years of Collaboration for Change: A University-Community Partnership to Support Rural Kinship Families

Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 29, Number 2

By Jennifer A. Crittenden, Elizabeth Armstrong, Travis Bryant, and Bette Hoxie

The benefits of university-community partnerships are well documented in the literature and include a range of impacts, from learning opportunities for students to advances in policy-making, outreach, and funding (Buys & Bursnall, 2007). In child welfare, university-community partnerships have led to the development of effective, evidence-based services for families and enhanced training opportunities for child welfare staff (Drabble, Lemon, D’Andrade, Donoviel, & Le, 2013; Fox, Mattek, & Gresl, 2013). However, it should be noted that such partnerships require an ongoing innovation and exploration mindset as they tend to be open-ended, characterized by partner motivations and strategies that change in response to pressing contextual dynamics related to funding, programming, and political will (Buys & Bursnall, 2007; Strier, 2013). This article details a rural university-community relationship spanning nearly 20 years. Of particular relevance is the interplay between a statewide kinship network co-led by a grassroots family services organization and course-based student research projects to facilitate policy change for kinship families.

The Partners
Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine (AFFM) began in 1997 as a grassroots effort led by foster and adoptive parents and community members. AFFM opened in a one-room space staffed by volunteers and within two years was awarded a state contract to provide larger-scale support to Maine families. AFFM now operates statewide, serving a client base that numbers over 5,000 per year. Over time, AFFM has expanded services to meet the needs of all resource parent groups (including kinship, adoptive, and foster parents) by providing training and education, non-judgmental listening, allegation support, mentorship, support groups, referrals, family events, and material goods assistance.

The University of Maine Center on Aging (CoA) is one of 16 interdisciplinary research centers within the University of Maine (UMaine). With an extensive track record of community engagement, CoA activities focus on research and evaluation, education, and service. CoA’s mission is to promote strategies that maximize quality of life for older adults and their families in Maine and beyond. Taking a lifespan approach, CoA aims to sensitize students and workforce personnel to the economic, social, psychological, and physical challenges confronting Maine’s older adults and their families. Early in its development, CoA leadership recognized the importance of supporting grandparents raising grandchildren and began planning collaborative efforts in this area.

CoA maintains a close relationship with the University of Maine School of Social Work (SSWK) as CoA director and several affiliated faculty hold academic appointments within the school. The SSWK offers fully accredited BSW and MSW degree programs, both rooted in a generalist practice framework and designed to provide students with a well-integrated academic and practical education in preparation for the professional roles they will serve in rural communities. The MSW research methods sequence centers on the development of a community-engaged research (CER) project. The ideal CER project realizes a shared leadership model, characterized by final decision-making at the community level rather than with researchers, a commitment to bidirectional trust, and outcomes that positively impact community wellbeing (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). The course runs for two consecutive semesters, with groups working with community partners to design the project, collect and analyze data, and report their findings.

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Jennifer Crittenden is an assistant professor at the University Maine School of Social Work and the Associate Director of the UMaine Center on Aging. Her research interests span a range of topics, including grandfamilies/kinship families and how to best educate and support professionals who serve kinship families.

Elizabeth Armstrong is an assistant professor at the University Maine School of Social Work where she teaches courses on research methods and human behavior in the social environment. She is a social worker and sociologist by training whose research focuses on relationships between social services systems.

Travis Bryantʼs passion for supporting others started as a young boy when his mother and father became foster parents for several years. He later received his undergraduate degree in Mental Health and Human Services from the University of Maine Augusta, where he secured his internship with AFFM. After graduating, Travis started working for AFFM and obtained his MSW from the University of New England.

Bette Hoxie is the former director and the current Kinship Supervisor for Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine Inc. and the Kinship Program (AFFM). Bette was a foster parent and kinship caregiver for 30 years, caring for over 150 children. Bette is a strong and passionate advocate for children and their families.