Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

June 2020Vol. 21, No. 5Lifting Up Youth Voices: Storytelling as a Conversation Starter for Systemic Change

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

"Stories make, prop up, and bring down systems. Stories shape how we understand the world, our place in it, and our ability to change it."—Ella Saltmarshe, 2018

June is National Reunification Month. The 2020 theme is lifting up youth voices and recognizing the people that help families stay together. By lifting up the voices of youth currently and formerly in foster care and by encouraging them to share their stories and expertise, agencies can help keep families together.

Research shows that storytelling (when paired with data) is a powerful tool for changing beliefs and behavior, because a compelling story engages the viewer through imagery, engages audience emotions, and brings the theme into focus (Braddock & Dillard, 2016; Green & Brock, 2000; Neimand, 2018). Hearing someone's story doesn't create change by itself, but it is part of the perspective that informs the expertise of young people working to change policy and practice in child welfare.

These insights are foundational to the work of organizations like Voices of the Commonwealth (VOC), a Kentucky youth leadership council comprising current and former youth in foster care who share their experiences with agency staff, court personnel, state officials, educators, caseworkers, foster parents, and other child welfare system stakeholders.

VOC members work to share their experiences in the foster care system with caseworkers, foster parents, and others, which can lead to better understanding the challenges faced by foster children and youth. Joshua Degnan, president of VOC and a foster youth alum, observes that for caseworkers, it's sometimes "easier to make that decision to remove a child from a situation, because you think that's going to be the safest thing...[but] you don't really think about the impact it's having on that child who's being removed from his family. Bringing your voice to the table, it makes that real for people" (personal communication, May 17, 2019). By sharing the perspectives of young people currently and formerly in foster care, VOC members help caseworkers understand that, if at all possible, it is better to keep children at home and offer the family support through services rather than remove the child from the home.

According to Degnan, hearing the perspectives of young people in foster care can help child welfare stakeholders gain a better understanding of the experiences of child welfare recipients, learn about effective practice and areas that need improvement, and get recommendations for change that are informed by experience. The perspectives that VOC participants provide serve as the foundation for youth-adult partnerships that create opportunities and spaces for youth to be heard and their ideas to be considered.

One of these partnerships is with the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services (DCBS). VOC members often participate in DCBS meetings concerned with child welfare policy, where they use their unique perspectives to provide input into policy change. In Degnan's own words (personal communication, May 17, 2019), at policy meetings:

"I've heard [the Commissioner] just pause the entire meeting...and ask the [VOC member] who's been...there [for their input], because he genuinely wants to know, from their experience and what they've seen happen in the past, what would be the best option in their opinion to be able to make a positive change."

In early 2019, Joshua Degnan was invited to share his story and policy recommendations with members of the Kentucky Legislature as they were debating House Bill 158, which includes the Foster Child Bill of Rights. He and other VOC members had one-on-one meetings with Kentucky legislators where they shared policy recommendations for the Foster Child Bill of Rights based on their experiences and expertise. The Foster Child Bill of Rights, which recognizes foster youth as part of a professional decision-making team, was signed into law in June 2019.

An important goal of VOC work is increasing the diversity of the foster care youth and alumni with whom officials come into contact so that their input and perspectives can inform the policymaking process. As Degnan notes, VOC aims ultimately to "have one member of the VOC, at a minimum, in every committee or in every region across the state. So, by having one member from every region across the state, we get a very diverse background," including racial and cultural diversity (personal communication, May 17, 2019). He also observes that youth in foster care have had a range of experiences and that it is important to share a variety of stories from different perspectives, not just one representative narrative.

To learn more about using storytelling in child welfare, see the following resources:


Braddock, K., & Dillard, J. P. (2016). Meta-analytic evidence for the persuasive effect of narratives on beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. Communication Monographs, 83(4), 446-467.

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 701-721.

Neimand, A. (2018, May). How to tell stories about complex issues. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Saltmarshe, E. (2018, February). Using story to change systems. Stanford Social Innovation Review.