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March 2019Vol. 20, No. 2Honoring Youth Voice

Written by Marc Cherna, director, Allegheny County, PA, Department of Human Services

While those of us in child welfare all strive to be respectful of the individuals we serve, we often struggle with how to best do right by them, be respectful of their unique stories and circumstances, and work alongside them to help them achieve their goals. In Allegheny County, we deeply believe that youth (and families) often know best what they need, and our job is to assist them with sufficient supports and resources. Over the course of our 20-plus-year history, this input has not only secured individual successes but also has led to systemic improvements in the array and quality of programs and services offered.

In 2008, we were so committed to listening to our youth, engaging them on their own terms, and improving their outcomes that we embarked on a grand experiment: we hired four young adults who were recovering from their own traumatic pasts—having had lived experience in child welfare and/or behavioral health—and paired them with challenging teens. The approach was unprecedented in the country and, while the early years were not without many bumps and lessons learned, it proved incredibly successful.  It was so successful that we now have more than 40 youth support partners (YSPs) working with more than 400 youth per year. They ensure that—both individually and collectively—youth voices, values, and preferences are heard and represented; youth are supported to become self-reliant, self-advocating, and responsible for their own actions; those involved understand legal mandates, court sessions, and respective roles and responsibilities; and youth are appropriately connected to resources and natural supports. YSPs serve as a voice and advocate for youth involved in the child-serving systems at the county, state, and federal levels and have themselves benefited from meaningful professional development that has helped them learn to be punctual, follow dress codes, understand boundaries, work within a structure and in a team, and manage caseloads.

The benefits of YSPs are recognized by judges (who often insist that a YSP be identified for a youth appearing before them), legal advocates, human services professionals, parents, caregivers, and youth. Our YSPs have provided critical mentoring and advocacy for thousands of young people facing the demands of adulthood. 

We also have a youth advisory board, Systems Improvement Through Youth, that was established in 2009. It assists with our planning processes and provides us with a youth-centric sounding board for program ideas, methodologies, and public relations campaigns.

More recently, we've formalized and accelerated the surveying of our youth by using a wide array of platforms and technologies that appeal to them. This has helped us gauge their perspectives—both quantitatively and qualitatively—on important areas, such as out-of-home placement, their challenges regarding participation in typical youth activities, and youth who identify as LGBTQ. These surveys not only assist us to better understand the experiences of the youth we touch, they help guide future planning and program development.

Honoring youth voice has had immeasurable benefits for the young people we serve. To have one's perspectives, opinions, and preferences valued and sincerely heard is something we can all appreciate. Collectively, these perspectives have been invaluable in assisting us to improve our ability to help our youth transition more securely into the future.