What makes LifeSet different? 6 questions with Linda Dixon of Connecticut DCF
Interview with Linda Dixon, Ph.D.
Administrator Transitional Supports and Success
Connecticut Department of Children and Families
1. Why did you bring LifeSet to Connecticut? What is your overall goal?
I am part of a division that oversees adolescent practice within a consolidated child welfare agency. The division’s line of sight has been consistent over the past few years, and LifeSet™ fit comfortably into our frame. In a nutshell, this team works in partnership with others to 1) Eliminate disconnection of transitional age youth (TAY) from their families, communities, school and jobs; 2) Accelerate justice for TAY; and 3) Promote and scale up best practices. When I heard about LifeSet, I knew it was a seamless addition.
Connecticut has been able to develop a rich array of supports for all ages of youth we serve. We also have a highly skilled and well-trained workforce. Our agency has achieved many successes through prevention and in keeping youth families within their communities. However, the outcomes for young adults leaving our care were sobering. We had to do something different and raise the sense of urgency around this population. I’d say adding LifeSet was part of our general shaking up of the status quo. Our overall goal is to help every young adult become civically engaged, have a career, maintain important connections and become lifelong learners.
2. As a result of implementing LifeSet, what impact have you seen within your state? What creative approaches have you taken to maximize the impact of LifeSet within the state?
I consider LifeSet to be a ‘door opener’ for conversations about young adults in child welfare. During the implementation phase, I started to hear genuine interest and questions from stakeholders who hadn’t worked with this population before. Overall, LifeSet team members are helping us shine light on the needs of young adults in our care.
We surveyed staff who referred youth to the program, and we heard that the young adults are more engaged with their supports, with work and in school. We’ve also seen youth getting tangible things they need such as driver’s licenses. We are hearing stories of youth planning for things they never thought were in their reach, such as college, buying a house in the future, etc. Sharing survey results has helped raise awareness of the service.
We have supported youth created videos to spread the word about LifeSet, and we have young adults who help to promote the service to peers as well.
3. What do you think makes LifeSet different than other programs?
I like that this is designed for older adolescents. It’s not a program designed for younger teens with an adaptation that allows us to veer from the model. It’s not a program for younger teens. Young adults deserve nothing less than that.
I also appreciate the commitment to rigorous engagement. LifeSet doesn’t have a heavy-handed focus on securing compliance. Adolescent work isn’t for someone who’s going to give up right away, and I find LifeSet staff are flexible and meet youth where they are at.
4. What initiatives has DCF taken to support young adults?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that the child welfare system was set up and designed to serve transitional age youth. Until relatively recently, this cohort just never seemed to be top of mind in the body politic. It was time to start approaching the work differently because the pressures were rising, and the outcomes were stagnant.
For example, the pressure on young adults in COVID was impossible to ignore, and there was at least one study showing that young adults were the hardest hit cohort by loneliness. Our executive team charged our division to work with youth and our regions to create a new consolidated practice approach. There were literature reviews, data analyses and focus groups across the state. The resulting approach is based on youth voice and choice, and it gives youth progressively more control over their planning. There is a strong focus on navigating challenges around housing and employment, education and on building financial capability. Relationships also are a central focus. We like to think that we started a supportive system that is youth directed, is informed by developmental research, and advances inclusion and justice. We recently launched a new training package for our workforce on this, and we created a host of resources for young adults.
There also were a lot of partnerships with our fiscal team throughout the process. We worked to tweak the way we invested our resources so we could remove barriers facing our most vulnerable young adults and fund supports they needed. We made intentional efforts to support things that are important in a young life. For example, we support individual “milestone events” for each young adult. Whatever the milestone may be, we fund two individual celebrations for the young adult with important people in his/her/their life. These are cherished experiences every youth deserves.
Longitudinal research and NYTD (National Youth in Transition Database) data show the outcomes for adolescents leaving foster care are stubborn. However, if you add LifeSet to a host of other efforts and operate with the promise of every single young life at the center of planning, I’m confident outcomes will advance.
5. What is your future vision for LifeSet in your community or program array?
We hope to work with Youth Villages about forming a partnership that allows us to maximize expertise in our staff and theirs. We hope to offer this to all the young adults who come to know us. One possible avenue is to have an increase that this is included in our agency’s budget and that will require some work with lawmakers. Demonstrating good outcome data will arm us for those conversations. There also may be other agencies serving young adults that we could talk to about the benefits and that would expand the reach of the service.
On a personal level, I’d like to make sure that federal dollars allocated to support transitional age youth (specifically, through Chafee Transition to Adulthood) increase every few years to account for higher cost of living and other factors. The support has declined over the past several years and, with fewer adolescents in care, that has been understandable. Now, though, the transitional age youth remaining in child welfare have extraordinary needs. It’s incredibly expensive to live in the northeast and maintain any independence without having a college degree in hand. To develop the best plans for our youth with providers, we need predictable long-term funding. That would help us make sustainable plans with providers like Youth Villages.
6. What would you say to other child welfare agencies considering implementing the LifeSet program model?
Find organizations with deep local roots who hire adults with lived experience. Make sure you’re partnering with agencies that employ diverse staff at every level. Don’t be afraid of honest, brutal feedback.
The last thing I’d say relates to launching new efforts in social and human services. There are always barriers and some healthy skepticism. There were many challenges rolling out something new through the pandemic. My suggestion is this: Even if the conditions aren’t perfect, build yourself a coalition of the willing, provide the support needed and trust that coalition to get the job done.