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November 2020Vol. 21, No. 8Lived Expertise: Youth Empowerment and Permanency

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

Engagement and empowerment of youth in foster care can have powerful positive results for young people seeking permanency. Working toward legal permanency (i.e., reunification, adoption, or kinship care) and relational permanency (i.e., a relationship or connection with a caring adult) for older youth is an important goal for child welfare agencies (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019a). Such relationships provide a sense of belonging and support that contribute to a greater sense of security and self-assuredness in adulthood and buffer the effects of trauma (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019a,b).

The strategies below can help child welfare agencies empower youth to take the lead in their own permanency planning.

Help Youth Understand Permanency

To set a foundation for empowerment, child welfare staff need to collaborate with youth to help them understand what the concept of "permanency" means and what it can mean for them. The term can be confusing, so staff should offer clear definitions, explain various permanency options, and intentionally identify opportunities to strengthen understanding over time.

Share Power With Young People

Young people are the experts in their own care. It is important for child welfare agencies to work with, not for, young people on permanency planning as soon as developmentally appropriate for the youth (Center for States, 2020; Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2020a). This engagement of youth should be ongoing, not a one-time effort.

Child welfare staff can partner with young people in permanency planning by engaging youth in (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2020b):

  • Sharing their needs, goals, and comfort level with various types of permanency
  • Discussing any questions or concerns they may have about permanency
  • Providing information about relatives or other adults they might want to involve in the process

Child welfare staff should actively collaborate with and support youth through engagement and planning processes and work together to explore the best permanency options for them.

Meet Youth Where They Are

Sometimes, young people may hesitate to pursue permanency because they don't see the lifelong benefits of such relationships or because of their feelings of loyalty for their family members (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2020b). Youth may be weary of the process of seeking permanency if it has gone on for a long time (Center for States, 2020). Youth may also be understandably reluctant to make themselves vulnerable to additional loss by expressing openness to adoption or other permanency options. Staff can help young people by offering empathy and understanding of their lived experience, supporting permanency planning at a pace that is comfortable for the youth, explaining that permanency doesn't mean cutting ties with family members, and providing information about what permanency may mean for their current life and future goals.

Provide Opportunities for Young People to Share Their Stories

Speaking with youth formerly in foster care about their experiences with permanency may make some young people see permanency as a positive outcome worth pursuing. Child welfare agencies can support young people by providing opportunities for them to meet foster care alumni who have achieved permanency, hear their stories, and learn about the challenges they faced (Center for States, 2020). Agencies also can provide forums for young people to share their own stories through meetings, speaking engagements, dedicated websites, or social media. These forums can help young people share their experiences with foster or adoptive families and raise public awareness about the challenges youth face in seeking permanency.

It is important to authentically engage youth in permanency planning to ensure that they have stable families and permanent relationships that can support them throughout their lives. Child welfare agencies can best help youth work toward these goals by validating their feelings about permanency, exploring permanency options with them, and empowering them to own important decisions throughout the process.

For more information on empowering youth in the permanency planning process, see:


Center for States. (2020). "Youth engagement and Empowerment - An Adoption Call to Action community of practice virtual event." [Webinar].

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019a). Promoting permanency for older youth in out-of-home care. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019b). Belonging matters—Helping youth explore permanency. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau.