A Comprehensive Change Strategy – and a Powerful Parent Leader – Emerge out of a Co-Design Way

February 1, 2024 at 9:29 AM |
Posted by:
Michelle Martin
Michelle Martin

The Human Services Department, including Child Protective Services, in Rock County is advancing a partnership with the community to build a system of support that will eliminate racial disparities in family separation. Rock County is addressing its racial disparities which show up most deeply with the Black community in Beloit. With support from Alia, this work focuses across multiple coordinated centers of effort including: 1) advance a wellbeing and supportive culture across Rock County Human Services, 2) shifting CPS practice toward a Family First approach, and 3) bringing forth an empowered Black network to support growth and stability for families in Beloit.

Our work today is driven by an Idea Book, which was co-designed in 2022 with Rock staff and a team of Black parents from Beloit who have been impacted by CPS in the past. This team came together in reconciliation, which started with a statement of apology from Kate Luster, the Rock County HSD Director. This apology, along with an intentional process centered on the voice and wellbeing of the parent co-design team, set the tone for a new way of working together. 2023 was a year of digging in and beginning to implement solutions from the IdeaBook, which led to an expanding group of staff and parents continuing to work together to put into action what began out of vision and relationship.

When we started this co-design process, I could see the potential for societal liberation at the most local level – a rural, largely white county with its Black community in Beloit. County leadership ready to see historical harm for what it is – and reconcile it. A resourced effort with a project team ready to support action. And, a community leader, LaMikka James, willing to stand in her power and enlist her peers to join the effort. KeSheke Marsh, joined the BeeHive – the co-design parent team – as an unlikely participant. Ten years ago, during a mental health crisis, she lost parental rights for five of her seven children. She’s retained the feelings of trauma and loss related to CPS over the years. Yet when asked to participate in co-design in 2021, she decided to re-engage.

KeSheke’s quiet participation has been catalyzed into a deeply felt sense of purpose. In a co-design meeting with Rock key stakeholders, KeSheke gave voice to the process. She described the impact the process has had on her:


In our co-design process, we use a series of guiding principles, our Pillars for Engaging Lived Experts to create a space where KeSheke could feel heard by the very people who represent the system that earlier terminated her parental rights. Intentionally creating spaces – meetings, processes, gatherings – that work for the parents, shining a light on internal strengths, seeking feedback and taking action on it, and allowing the process to unfold at the speed of trust helped create a pathway for a productive engagement for both the parents and CPS staff involved with the process.

Being intentional to shift the power dynamic and create a place for CPS workers and parents to show up as humans and co-create a new way for child welfare to work is a labor of love. As child welfare leaders, we are set up every day to function in compliance with the system and with an adversarial starting point – investigation. In co-design, we join our hearts and our minds with the parents – fully and completely, despite all obstacles – to demand the system bend to the way of the people it’s supposed to be there to support. We speak risky apologies into the space, we give extra attention the even the quietest parent voice in the room to equalize power. And over time, the barriers fall away and the human connection and liberation from the past leads to seeing new solutions. Ones that meet people where they are to see and elevate their unlimited potential.