This article is part of a series featuring Centre College’s 2019 John C. Young (JCY) Scholars. Centre’s JCY program, now in its 29th year, is designed to serve highly motivated seniors, allowing them to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing.
Centre College first-generation student and John C. Young (JCY) Scholar Liz Chavez ‘19 (Dallas, Texas) explored the policies and factors that facilitated the involvement of child welfare services and the barriers parents faced in meeting case permanency plans during her yearlong JCY project, titled “A Qualitative Analysis of the Barriers to Family Reunification in the Foster Care System.”
Throughout the course of her research, Chavez interviewed social workers in the area, as well as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers, to uncover the resources that may be missing from the community and what circumstances might make reunification difficult for families.
Chavez prepared for her community engagement through Assistant Professor of Sociology Kaelyn Wiles’ research methods course, where she worked with the Agency for Substance Abuse Policy (ASAP) to examine barriers to recovery in Boyle County. She then decided to continue that line of research and take Wiles’ advanced research topics course for which she conducted a semester-long interview-based research project with women in recovery from substance abuse disorders, that provided the inspiration for her JCY project.
“I think having this research preparation was great scaffolding in order to be able to then take on a project of this magnitude,” she said.
As a result of her research, Chavez found that people experiencing poverty or substance abuse disorders were likely to come under scrutiny by service providers who questioned their ability to parent.
“Additionally, these parents were expected to fulfill certain goals in order to regain custody rights, yet they were not necessarily offered resources to aid them in fulfilling their case plans,” she explained. “The pervasive conflation of poverty, neglect and abuse in a welfare system that is both under-resourced and over-worked creates really difficult situations for some families.”
During the course of her JCY project, Chavez was mentored by Wiles.
“The first week of the project, I explained to Dr. Wiles that I was nervous about starting my project, because I really wanted to do this complex topic justice,” Chavez explained. “She took out a purple sheet of paper and wrote, ‘It’s not going to be perfect,’” and signed it off with a smiley face. She then told me to put that up in my room somewhere as a reminder that as researchers, we are never going to get things ‘just right,’ but that the importance of research lies largely in the process.
“I have looked at that sheet of paper every morning as I get ready for the day, and it has taught me to be much more forgiving of myself and to immerse and enjoy myself in the process of research,” she continued. “Through that, not only was I able to become a better researcher but also a happier person.”
Chavez said working with Wiles this year as a JCY scholar has been the most transformative experience during her time at Centre.
“She was extremely supportive throughout the process, from data gathering to the final analysis,” Chavez added. “I never once felt alone in the process, because I knew I could always count on her advice. She pushed me as a scholar while also encouraging me to be realistic about my own expectations for the project. With her help, I learned to trust my instincts as a researcher. It was really amazing to work with her, and I can’t thank Dr. Wiles enough for her consistent encouragement.”
Chavez said the research process was both challenging and rewarding, as she feels her engagement with this topic will open up a path forward in thinking about how service providers and the state can better serve families who are going through challenges.
“While I have learned that social research is such a complex science, I have also learned that I really have a passion for it and would like to continue this kind of work in the future,” she said. “I have learned about being able not only to be a receiver of knowledge in the classroom but to also become a creator of knowledge and the huge responsibility that comes along with that. I also was able to explore the kind of researcher that I want to be and how my training in the classroom has informed those aspirations.”
After graduating from Centre, Chavez will pursue a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago.
by Kerry Steinhofer
May 2, 2019