Written by the Division X Technical Assistance Team
The child welfare field continues to make strides toward involving youth and young adults to inform, guide, and lead systems improvement and change efforts. As agencies launch these change initiatives and incorporate youth and young adults into the decision-making process, what are the lessons learned, opportunities, wins, and challenges?
Youth advisory boards (YABs) can play an essential role in informing the development and enhancement of child welfare policies and practices. The Louisiana YAB (also known as LEAF) was redesigned in 2019 to become more youth led and informed. Antonica Frazier, chairperson of LEAF's policy committee, engaged in brainstorming policy-related opportunities with other youth and young adults. The team included adult supporters, like Christy Tate, who was at the time a child welfare manager 2 and oversaw transitioning youth and the state's extended foster care program. Christy partnered with the YAB to inform, guide, and support a foster youth bill of rights and, ultimately, the legislation development effort.
The team researched existing bills of rights and reviewed current policies of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. Using the research and their lived experiences, the YAB created a multipage document highlighting the rights of young people across various topics, including placement, religion, familial rights, and the right to be more informed about their placement and care plans. The idea arose to formalize these rights through legislation, and with the support of Christy and her experience working and advocating with the state legislature, the Louisiana Foster Youth Bill of Rights became law. We asked Antonica and Christy about their engagement with each other, what productive engagement looks like, their lessons learned, and the advice they have for the field.
When reflecting on the value of youth engagement in child welfare, Antonica said, "I engage with child welfare agencies to help improve the livelihoods for youth and young adults, to advocate for their rights as individuals...and to help increase youth voice." Christy added, "Engagement is a necessary component of a successful system. There is no better person to help you understand the needs of a service or system than those who have lived within it."
Partnerships are critical because they empower young people to be the driver in shaping their lives and directing their futures. As Antonica notes, collaboration can also "bring youthful perspectives and ideas to the table." However, like with any relationship, there are challenges to overcome. From the agency perspective, it can feel difficult to capture those youthful perspectives at the right moment in time. According to Christy:
"I think one of the biggest challenges is that youth, due to their age, are not always available long term. This is a stage of their life that will not last forever. The key is to ensure you have strong youth and staff working together to develop other youth along the way. Sometimes when people come and go, momentum can be lost, but if you have other strong youth involved, you can always keep moving forward."
For those looking to launch or enhance their youth engagement initiatives, the partners from Louisiana had some advice. Antonica provided insight for youth involved in the building process, saying, "It is okay to be nervous and have some fears. This is a new relationship…and will take time to get better. Some of the partnerships will lead to making a difference for youth and young adults in child welfare, which is the reason why we do this work."
Christy added the staff perspective to Antonica's advice, suggesting that agency staff should "be authentic and put time into it. Start with an open slate and be prepared to really listen and hear all their stories and all their needs. From there, find some quick and easy things to partner [on] for success so that everyone can see you are there to support their work and that you are committed to the success of their work. Also, compensate them for their time, their lived experience, and partnering to improve the system."
Effective youth engagement calls for deliberate practice improvements. According to Antonica and Christy, the following are some strategies that child welfare staff and young adult advocates can use to encourage the formation of authentic partnerships:
- Pulling teams together in group settings on a regular basis and dedicating the time to engage in deep planning
- Building relationships and getting to know one another by creating space for team building and free time to eat, laugh, and talk
- Celebrating the small, early successes that are critical for the vision and partnership and that reinforce the importance of the work
- Coming to the work with a positive attitude and a passion for empowering youth and young adults
- Sharing a joint mindset and goal for making a difference in the agency
Division X Technical Assistance is funded by the Children's Bureau to partner with public child welfare agencies and enhance their youth engagement programs and initiatives. More information is available on the Division X Technical Assistance webpage