Approximately one in ten children globally live with kinship caregivers—relatives and family friends who step in to care for a child when parents are unable to do so. When families take on the role of informal kinship care—care of a child outside of the child welfare system—they often do so without financial assistance and advice in navigating the systems of support available to them. This is the unique role of kinship navigator programs in the U.S: to provide kinship caregivers a single point of entry for connecting to needed resources such as financial, health, housing, and legal assistance.
To the best of our knowledge, our team conducted one of the only participatory evaluations in which kinship caregivers were involved in all stages of evaluating a kinship navigator program—from designing the questions, to collecting and analyzing the data, to reporting the results. Black kinship caregivers took on decision-making power leading this formative evaluation of a kinship navigator program within one nonprofit organization in a Southeastern state.
In this paper the authors reflect on their process and offer lessons learned from engaging in participatory evaluation that may apply to the field of kinship care and across social service delivery more broadly. They focus on (1) ensuring the nonprofit’s commitment to the study, (2) maintaining engagement through building relationships and facilitating a culture of learning within the study team, (3) sharing decision-making power so that people with lived experience have the authority and ownership to lead the evaluation, (4) developing team members’ skills, confidence, and sense of belonging, and (5) increasing the likelihood the nonprofit will act on the study findings.
Through this process, we learned that participatory evaluation is a feasible and useful approach both to understanding the experiences of kinship families and to improving the supports in their lives. We hope this paper will inspire others to draw on the strengths and capacity of people with lived experience to engage in participatory evaluation. Greater recognition of the value of this approach in social change and increased funding to carry out the process are both needed.