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March 2019Vol. 20, No. 2Importance of Engaging Youth and Family Voice in Systems Improvement

Written by Jeremy Long, policy advisor to the Children's Bureau Associate Commissioner

When you ask someone working for an agency that serves youth and families whether they feel it's a priority to have youth and family voice integrated into their system improvement efforts, more often than not their answer will be yes. When you ask them about the success of this integration or if they feel like youth and family perspectives are equally represented at the table, however, the response is overwhelmingly less positive. That leaves us asking the same old question: why? Why—if we know the value and positive impact that engaging the voices of those with lived experience has on improvement strategies and also have the data and research to back it up—do we continue to make excuses when identifying the underlying causes behind the unsuccessful engagement of those we need to engage the most?

There is no one individual, group, or agency that takes the blame. We know that although youth—and families—want to be engaged, that process comes with its own set of unique challenges. It's because we don't have standard practices across the board that allow them to be engaged in meaningful ways. The goals of the child welfare system for young people in foster care are to provide them with safety, permanency, and a sense of overall positive well-being, and sometimes those objectives are hard to achieve. Neither the stretched capacity of the social worker and agency nor the flooded docket of the juvenile court judge should be acceptable barriers for lack of active youth participation. It would be difficult to find a young person currently in or formerly in foster care who doesn't wish to have an opinion on the direction of their lives. The unfortunate reality is that all too often the agency decides what's in the best interests of that young person, with little to no input from the individual these decisions impact the most.

Harts Ladder of Young People's Participation provides a useful visual of how young people can be engaged. When visualizing a ladder, there are steps (literally) that must be taken to accomplish the task at the top (like changing a lightbulb). Many times, agencies are stuck in the middle of the ladder where youth are tokenized for their stories. Here they are more often informed about what's happening instead of finding themselves on the top step where they're seen as equal partners and are sharing in decision-making. We know where on the ladder we need to be, but we often find it easier to stay safe toward the bottom or in the middle.

The Children's Bureau strongly believes that the experiences of parents and youth are the ultimate metric of how well a child welfare system is performing and that it is the voice of parents and youth that should guide and inform our work. Parents and youth should be design partners in a reimagined child welfare system. They can be full participants in crafting the 5-year Child and Family Service Plans and the Child and Family Services Reviews Program Improvement Plans by helping identify what types of services and supports are most needed and helpful. The system and its workforce must be driven by a common vision of empowering and respecting youth and families and helping them to secure a pathway to well-being and success. Simply inviting youth to the table doesn't equal meaningful engagement, and if young people don't feel like they have a reason to be present or don't feel like their voice is making an impact, the odds of them remaining engaged are minimal.

Another contributing factor to full engagement that is often overlooked is who's extending the invitation to the young person. We know they're more likely to engage if invited by a peer versus an agency. The best recruiters of young people are other young people, especially when they can share the value and impact their voice has had on systems change. You've heard the saying "Nothing about us without us," and that's the absolute truth. If you want young people to be authentically receptive to change that directly impacts them and their families, their presence must be infused from the beginning, not as an afterthought when a box needs to be checked on whether decisions were influenced by those with lived experience.

We have a tendency to brush off the opinions of the young people we serve because of their age, their experience, or the perceived challenges of managing them. These are tendencies that must be eradicated within youth- and family-serving agencies. There isn't a single decision an agency makes that doesn't impact the families we exist to serve. Families rely on us to provide services and supports to reduce hardships they're experiencing and help eliminate barriers they face. If we continue to attempt this task without their input and direction, we will fail time and time again to equip them with the tools needed to become strong, healthy, and thriving families.