November 2019Vol. 20, No. 9Empowering Youth to Share Their Voices and Be Heard
Written by the Capacity Building Center for States
"When youth are engaged in decisions around their own care, they are more likely to feel empowered and feel like they have some control over their situation."—Child welfare professional formerly in foster care
The 2019 theme for National Adoption Month is "Youth Voices: Why Family Matters." With it, the Children's Bureau challenges child welfare communities to engage with youth and listen to their voices about what family means to them and why it matters. (To explore strategies for having conversations about family with youth in care, see Keeping the Family Conversation Alive [3,600 KB].) Enabling youth to share their voices—both to inform permanency planning in their own cases and provide input in the larger child welfare system—can help young people in care realize their strengths, assess their options, and feel empowered to make decisions about their futures. The strategies and resources below, most of which were suggested by young people formerly in foster care, can help agencies and young people work together to empower youth voices in child welfare.
At the Individual Level: Help Youth Develop Self-Advocacy Skills
An important part of empowering youth is developing their capacity for self-advocacy. Self-advocacy refers to the ability to speak up for oneself, make decisions about one's own life, learn where and how to get necessary information, and find mentors (Center for Parent Information & Resources, 2018). Helping youth become self-advocates means more than "offering them a seat at the table" at a case-planning meeting, for example. Rather, it may mean allowing the young person's individual goals to inform the direction of the meeting; ensuring that they have the necessary preparation, information, and support; and actively encouraging them to share their perspective with others.
Young people sharing their stories in a safe, meaningful way is a crucial part of self-advocacy. Many youth need encouragement and coaching to be able to articulate their experiences in a way that is relatable to others and appropriate for the audience and context. Caseworkers and other child welfare staff may need training on asking for young peoples' perspectives and working with them in an individualized way. (See the publication Strategic Sharing [393 KB] for an example of how to teach youth to tell their stories.)
At the Agency Level: Build a Culture That Actively Values and Incorporates Youth Voice
An essential part of creating an agency culture and climate that prioritize youth voice is recognizing young people as experts on their own needs, strengths, and goals. Youth in foster care have valuable perspectives on their own lives that can help child welfare staff understand how and when to help them and when to stand back and let them take independent action.
Incorporating youth voice when making and evaluating agency practice and policy also can help agencies better understand the needs and concerns of youth and implement programs to help youth thrive. With supportive policies and workforce training and supervision that promote self-advocacy, agencies can better ensure that young people are encouraged to share their perspectives, needs, and goals and that their input will play a significant role in agency decisions. The resources at the end of this article can help agencies build a culture and climate that engage youth at all levels.
At the Community Level: Partner With Community Organizations to Empower Youth
Community organizations, including faith-based, nongovernmental, and philanthropic organizations, are important partners in engaging and empowering youth in foster care. Community organizations (e.g., religious community, school, sports team, volunteer group) can offer youth opportunities that preserve social connections, build relationships, and provide mentoring and peer support. They also can create environments in which youth feel supported and can develop their identities. Child welfare agencies and their community partners can work together to support youth in self-advocating and openly disclosing their strengths and needs. Then, they can identify and provide appropriate services and resources that further empower youth to grow and succeed as members of their communities. The resources listed below include additional strategies for finding and working with community organizations.
Empowering youth voice at the case, agency, and community levels is critical to building youth self-esteem, growth, and ability to form social connections (Annie E. Casey Foundation, n.d.). By consulting with youth in foster care regularly about their lived experiences and goals, caseworkers and other staff let young people know that each of their stories and voices matters and that these can be sources of strength in their own futures. Empowering youth voice at the agency and community levels allows agencies and organizations to improve their youth services and programs and invest in the future of their communities.
The following Capacity Building Center for States resources provide additional information and strategies for engaging with youth in a way that prioritizes their voices and experiences:
- Building a Family-Focused System Series: https://capacity.childwelfare.gov/states/topics/foster-care-permanency/family-focused-system
- Embracing a "Youth Welfare" System: A Guide to Capacity Building: https://capacity.childwelfare.gov/states/topics/youth-development/youth-welfare-guide
- Engaging Partners to Achieve Timely Permanency for Children and Youth Waiting to Be Adopted Series: https://capbuildcollab.prod.acquia-sites.com/states/topics/achieving-permanency/engaging-partners
- Youth Engagement Blueprint Series: https://capacity.childwelfare.gov/states/focus-areas/youth-development/blueprint-series/
Annie E. Casey Foundation. (n.d.). Authentic youth engagement. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/work/child-welfare/jim-casey-youth-opportunities-initiative/areas-of-expertise/authentic-youth-engagement/.
Center for Parent Information & Resources. (2018). Priority: Best practices in self-advocacy skill-building. Retrieved from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/priority-selfadvocacy/.