Missouri’s first Family Impact Seminar (FIS), a national program aimed at educating lawmakers on family policy issues, was held Jan. 16 in Jefferson City for legislators and aides, and the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis took a lead role in bringing the forum to the state.
The Brown School’s Melissa Jonson-Reid, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Violence and Injury Prevention, and Patricia Kohl, PhD, associate professor of social work, traveled to the state capital a few days into the start of the 2013 legislative session to conduct the forum. They were joined by collaborator Sue Stepleton PhD, director of the Brown School Policy Forum.
“It was a neutral, nonpartisan information session for legislators and their top aides only,” Stepleton says. “No media, no lobbyists, no outside personnel were allowed in the room.”
Based on a national model developed at the University of Wisconsin, FIS is a series of seminars, discussion sessions and briefing reports that provide state policymakers — legislators, aides, governor’s office staff, legislative service agency staff, and agency representatives — with nonpartisan, solution-oriented research on family issues.
“It was great to see policymakers from urban and rural areas of the state as well as from both parties not just listen, but interact with national experts around issues they wanted to understand better,” Jonson-Reid says.
A key aspect of the FIS model is that these seminars are responsive to policymaker interests. Missouri’s first seminar was conducted on child welfare, but future seminars will be based on legislator choice and could cover any number of topics from children’s health insurance, to early childhood care and education, to juvenile crime or other topics bearing on the well-being of families.
Each year, legislators will be surveyed about their choice of topics for the following seminar. The FIS leadership, in collaboration with a general steering committee comprised of state agency directors, representatives from foundations and organizations focused on family issues and faculty at other universities, will then work to develop and evaluate the seminar.
“We were told it was typical to expect seven or eight for a first seminar, and we had 15 legislators from both chambers and both parties,” Stepleton says. “Remember, it was very early in the legislative session — and that was by design. The participants were very engaged and asked questions from the get-go.”
After Washington University was admitted to the Policy Institute for Family Impact Seminars (PIFIS), Kohl and Stepleton attended training sessions at PIFIS at the University of Wisconsin to implement the program in Missouri. PIFIS provides training and ongoing technical assistance to admitted organizations. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia are currently conducting or planning to conduct Family Impact Seminars.
“The goal of these seminars is to promote the dissemination of information about best practices and evidence-based practice related to families to state-level policymakers,” Jonson-Reid says. “Rather than trying to influence a particular agenda, the idea is to build a culture of expectation on the part of our representatives that there is a way to interact with research in a user-friendly, non-partisan way.”
The Brown School’s goal is to conduct one to two seminars per year, with the next one being planned for January 2014. To learn more about the national model of the Family Impact Seminars, visit familyimpactseminars.org/.