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May 2019Vol. 20, No. 4Creating a Vision Together: Engaging Families and Youth for Better Outcomes

Written by the Children's Bureau's Capacity Building Center for States

"When we meet with you to discuss services, we usually start by telling you what's already available. This time, let's start with you telling us what you need, and then we'll talk about how we can make that happen."—State agency leader, when opening a meeting with youth and family stakeholders

Agencies cannot serve families and youth effectively without including their voices in all areas of practice and planning. Identifying, engaging, and working with families and youth help agencies gain a better understanding of their needs and identify practical strategies for improvement. At the same time, families and youth who collaborate with agencies can play a significant role in the decision-making processes that affect the direction of their cases and agency policies.

The Importance of Engaging Families and Youth

Engaging families and youth at all levels of a child welfare system provides clear benefits to everyone involved. When families and youth are consulted about their own care and throughout agency projects, they can add the following:

  • The voice of lived experience within the child welfare system, which may bring attention to inconsistencies, communication gaps, and service needs not readily apparent to agency staff and leaders
  • A unique perspective on policy and program development
  • Innovative ideas with the potential to improve outcomes for families and youth
  • Accountability and transparency to the process

As a result of engaging with families and youth receiving child welfare services, agencies are better equipped to deliver services that better meet youth and family needs.

Collaborating With Families and Youth

To collaborate meaningfully with diverse families and youth to design a system that serves their needs, agencies may do the following (Capacity Building Center for States, n.d.):

  • Conduct community outreach to identify families and youth with a variety of perspectives to encourage discussion of multiple approaches to a challenge and include the voices of various communities being served by the agency
  • Make resources available to support family and youth participation (e.g., stipends for participation in agency activities, transportation to meetings)
  • Provide coaching to staff to support dialogue with families and youth around potentially challenging topics

When planning meetings with families and youth, planners should make it as easy as possible for them to participate by being open about the level of effort required and using technology for communication and meeting purposes.

Agency staff can help prepare and support families and youth participating in meetings in the following ways:

  • Before the meeting—Inform participants about what to expect and provide related materials to review well in advance of the meeting.
  • During the meeting—Create an environment that encourages open discussion, respectful feedback, and perspective sharing by all participants.
  • After the meeting—Provide opportunities for families and youth to share feedback with meeting organizers and inform participants about how their feedback may be used and about the outcomes of any initiatives in which they were involved.

Consistent engagement with families and youth is more sustainable when an agency's culture and climate values their voice and prioritizes their feedback. For example, agencies can include family and youth representatives at policy meetings and as copresenters in staff training.

Working with families and youth at all levels is not a single event; rather, it is an ongoing process. As modeled in the quote above, agencies that regularly engage families and youth in conversations about their needs and ideas for improvement can better serve them going forward.

Additional Resources

The following publications offer information, strategies, and tips for incorporating family and youth voice at all levels of a child welfare system.


Capacity Building Center for States. (n.d.). Change and implementation in practice: Teaming. Retrieved from