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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Redefining "Child Welfare Expert"

Written by Jaquia Wilson, youth advocate and community engagement coordinator, SaySo (Strong Able Youth Speaking Out), Fayetteville, NC

At 15 years old, I never said, "I want to go into foster care and see how it works out." Despite my situation, I didn't want to navigate life with resources instead of a family. After all, those resources had a time limit.

When faced with this path, I chose to own my experience and adapt to it. But while experiencing the transition out of foster care, I quickly realized important changes were needed for the well-being of youth, like me, who unexpectedly entered the child welfare system. I also realized that I had something to say and that I could make space for other young leaders to create change.

With the help of SaySo, an association for youth ages 14 to 24 who are or have been in the out-of-home care system, both young experts with lived experience and professionals are now spearheading this change by urging leaders in the field to not only share the microphone but pass it on and listen.

So, how does this exactly create change? It begins with pondering this question: Who is a child welfare expert?

Some may think a traditional expert in child welfare is a social worker, service provider, or educator. Who's missing in that list, though? Those with lived experience, the real experts in the matter of serving families that our society has excluded. But after all this time, how do we now incorporate these experts into the child welfare system? Well, it's simple.

As discussed in a recent Institute for Family webinar series on the unlearning of child welfare, a concept we're all familiar with puts it in perspective: Businesses consult with their customers to hear feedback about a product or service in order to continuously improve their customers' experiences and/or meet their needs. This exact practice is what's underutilized in our child welfare system. There's a need to encourage stakeholders to engage in honest, safe, and transparent reviews of services provided to those who receive them.

The shift in the way we think makes all the difference in how we serve. Imagine needing glasses, for example. You visit a doctor who says, "Here's the pair you need." You need clear vision, so you take them. But as you go on, you bump into things and hurt yourself because you still can't see.

Eventually, you go back to the doctor and they give you another pair. You leave and the same thing happens. Frustrated and still unable to see clearly, you return to the doctor with little trust they will actually meet your needs—but you try one more time. This time, they finally ask a question: "What do you need in a pair of glasses?" The doctor begins to treat you as the expert in your vision and works with you to find the perfect pair for you.

This scenario is an example of the relationships and experiences most youth aging out of the child welfare system have. Although their needs are unique, a one-size-fits-all level of service is provided. Service providers often wait until a child walks away with the wrong pair of glasses before inquiring about their needs. We, as a child welfare system, need to value the power of experience and be a better service provider to youth by asking them—the experts—what their needs are and meeting them the first time.

Truthfully, change has always needed to occur within our child welfare system. The traditional practices we all know have resulted in youth in foster care transitioning out just as fast as they come in. In fact, 39,210 youth between the ages of 16 and 20 transitioned out of the foster care system in 2018, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center. Outdated policy and practices have contributed to youth staying in care longer than ever intended.

According to the Child Trends article by Dana Dean Connelly and Elizabeth Jordan, 5 Things to Know About the Transition From Foster Care to Adulthood, "The transition from childhood to adulthood is a challenge in the best of circumstances...It takes a network of strong and stable connections with family, friends, and community to help young people learn and grow into healthy adults, and to support the incredible brain development that occurs during this time." 

Then, they ask the question, "But what about young people who have spent some or all of their childhood in foster care?"

Youth are most vulnerable when they are in transition. Most youth may experience additional trauma, such as trust issues, displacement, abandonment, neglect, and confusion—just to name a few. According to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, from 2015 to 2018 we saw a decline in the support transitioning youth received for things like mentoring, special education, academic support, room and board financial assistance, career preparation services, and more.

When they age out with little to no support, they're still expected, under these circumstances, to survive and thrive as healthy humans contributing to society. We cannot expect resilience from our youth while not treating them as the expert voices in improving their own experiences.

Now's the time for stakeholders to change their way of thinking to better serve our youth in vulnerable and transitional areas of life. There's no room for tokenism, adultism, inaction, classism, judgment, or anything that can be an extra barrier to children getting what they need.

There is room, however, to make those we serve the experts in their own experiences—and join them as partners. We can do this, together, by having the much-needed conversations within our communities that help combat the things there's no room for. We can do this, together, by empowering and learning from the youth who are often never named in a room when their stories are told. We can do this, together, by equally supporting one another, stakeholders and families included, to successfully serve the youth in transition.

After all, if they're not at the center of our focus, then who are we really serving?