Meet Rachel Kuhr: Permanency Scholar, Mentor and Advocate
By Heather Britton
As we look forward to this summer’s Pennsylvania Permanency Conference, we invite you to get to know 2021’s Permanency Professional Award recipient, Rachel Kuhr. If you’ve ever been to a SWAN conference, statewide meeting, or central region quarterly meeting, you know Rachel. If she’s not sharing her knowledge as a presenter, she is listening intently – usually while crocheting – and asking all the right questions to achieve clarity and improve service delivery for children in out-of-home care. As the director of adoption and foster care at Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Greater Harrisburg, Rachel embodies SWAN’s mission to achieve timely, lasting permanency for every child and support the families providing that permanency.
JFS Permanency Coordinator Bryna Sherr nominated Rachel for this award and described her as “a relentless advocate for children. She won’t stop at anything to help a child” and ensures the most vulnerable get the highest level of care. SWAN RTA Tami Swartley agreed, saying Rachel “has endless energy as a child advocate.” PAE Coordinator Alfredo Gonzalez called Rachel a “change agent” who never misses an opportunity to make things better for children in care. All three are thankful for Rachel’s forward and solution-focused thinking. Tami added, “Rachel thinks outside the box” and “inspires others to set the bar higher” in pursuit of permanency.
Rachel advocates with equal fervor for her fellow SWAN affiliates. She is a powerful voice for change at SWAN meetings and events and on the Units of Service Rates Workgroup and the Post-Permanency subcommittee. She also lent her expertise to drafting the Act 101 Bulletin and reforming Finalization and service withdrawals. SWAN RTA Division Manager Tammy Hendrix said, “Rachel has been a leader and effective advocate on behalf of SWAN’s affiliate agencies. Her curiosity, advocacy, and tenacity have improved the lives of many.”
In her work, Rachel emphasizes education and strong clinical practice. She believes clinical expertise “leads to better work, better placements and better permanency for kids.” She has a keen interest in attachment theory and relationship-building and studies these topics avidly. She explained, “When we talk about kids, potential adoptive families, placements, and even managing workers, it’s all about relationships: how do you develop that relationship [and] learn to trust each other, and how does that change things?” Rachel works primarily on Family Profiles and Matching and finds attachment theory coming into most conversations. She said it’s important to ask, “What is each child’s capacity to trust adults [and] ability to use those relationships to change their neurological and cognitive pathways [so they do not repeat unhealthy patterns]?”
Bryna said Rachel takes the answers to these questions and models how to meet children where they are and build from there. Bryna, through Rachel’s tutelage, also embraces clinical expertise, particularly in relation to trauma and children’s resulting behaviors and mental health needs. She shared the story of a child who blocked out an entire year of events and how, using Rachel’s training, she was able to guide the team to help this child.
Rachel’s colleagues celebrated her unique ability to develop employees. JFS Post-Permanency Coordinator Kim Kupfer noted how hard Rachel works to educate herself and others. Rachel herself said she supervises “by leading by example, never asking my staff to do something I wouldn’t do myself and doing things with them.” This approach helps her better understand their experiences and challenges. Bryna expressed gratitude for Rachel’s part in creating a “collaborative, nurturing and positive” environment at JFS. She said Rachel supports professional development and added, “she also doesn’t harp on people who make mistakes. Mistakes are for learning.” Kim agreed, saying, “As a supervisor, Rachel supports you and helps you feel seen.”
Steven Schauer, Executive Director of JFS, said, “Rachel is one of those rare professionals…whose passion and commitment to excellence for the children and families she serves never wanes. It only increases and spreads to inspire everyone in her sphere.” The praise from all who work with Rachel Kuhr makes it clear why she received the Permanency Professional Award. While she is grateful, she is not looking for accolades; she just wants to get the job done right. After 35 years in child welfare, Rachel hopes that she has inspired others to challenge boundaries, ask questions, and share ideas freely to solve complex problems. She hopes her legacy is simply that when her colleagues are working out a solution to a problem, they will think of the wisdom she has shared over the years and say, “We should do that.”
Heather Britton is a SWAN LSI coordinator who has been a member of Rachel Kuhr’s fan club for over a decade. Prior to joining the SWAN prime contractor in 2009, Heather worked as a high school English teacher and a litigation paralegal on pro bono cases in education rights, marriage equality, and asylum. She also has several years’ experience with domestic violence and family law clinics where she supported victims of abuse and their advocates.