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Laurie Powers
Laurie Powers

Self Determined Success

Helping people with diverse disabilities and youth in foster care chart their lives

Emeritus social work professor and past associate dean for research and director of the Regional Research Institute for Human Services (RRI), Laurie Powers has devoted her career to researching ways to enhance the self-determination of marginalized youth and adults by identifying approaches to give them a voice and tools for directing their lives and services.

People with disabilities and young adults exiting foster care share the challenge of others sometimes thinking they are "not capable of taking charge of their lives," Powers says, "but most can direct or learn to direct their lives and the services they receive. We look for ways to support that, rather than just taking care of people."

For example, Powers and her colleagues have conducted four experimental studies to help young people in foster care and special education or with mental health challenges achieve goals that increase their high school success, establish careers, live independently, and go to college. 

One of these projects, Better Futures, is part of Pathways to Positive Futures, a major research and training center at the RRI that seeks to improve the lives of young adults with serious mental health challenges by incorporating the youths' perspectives into every project. 

In addition to her work with youth, Powers has conducted a line of self-determination research on ways to support women and men with disabilities to increase their safety from abuse and she is currently collaborating with an earlier career investigator in investigating ways to successfully support Autistic adults in skilled employment 

And she has had several projects focusing on a new service approach called Brokerage that allows people with disabilities to flexibly use funds to pay for services they identify as important rather than participating in programs that provide predetermined services mostly directed by professionals. This work led to establishment of a statewide brokerage system for adults with developmental disabilities.

RRI is the oldest, and largest, social and behavioral research institute at PSU, with 40 projects ongoing at any time and an annual budget of about $7 million.

"We're heavily engaged in the community," Powers says, "and one of our major goals is to provide opportunities for consumers of social services to have a voice in our research and their services." This means giving control over decision-making as well as accountability to the person most affected by those services, she says.

RRI researchers work with many partners, including non-profit organizations such as Outside In, Native American Rehabilitation Association, the Oregon Department of Human Services, and Portland Public Schools.

"Our researchers respond to what communities and constituents need," Powers says. "We love to share knowledge and learn from our partners, which leaves everyone with a higher level of competence and expertise."

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