• May 2010
  • Vol. 11, No. 4

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Finding the Youth Voice in the Permanency Process

In 2005, the Children's Bureau funded nine demonstration projects through an Adoption Opportunities grant, "Improving Permanency Outcomes by Developing Services and Supports for Youth Who Wish to Retain Contact With Family Members." The following article draws on lessons learned from these Youth Permanency projects about engaging youth and listening to the youth voice.

Youth who have spent a long time in the foster care system—sometimes, much of their lives—may be understandably dubious when a new worker invites them to participate in their own permanency plan. Until that point, they may never have been given a chance to control their own future.

Engaging these youth and giving them some control over what happens to them is part of the goal of the nine Children's Bureau-funded Youth Permanency projects. The projects offer new hope to youth who are in danger of aging out of the foster care system with no permanent connection to a caring adult. The projects' permanency workers have found a number of ways to help the youth overcome their past trauma and disappointment so that they are open to new permanency options.

One way to gauge a teen's readiness for permanency and to open the discussion about permanency options is through the use of a written scale. The It's Up to Me ReConnect Project developed an instrument to assess feelings and attitudes at various points in the permanency process. When youth first enter the program, they complete the Openness to Permanency Scale, which assesses issues of family loyalty and self-esteem in order to measure their willingness to be adopted. The scale is administered again 6 months and 1 year later, as well as when the youth leaves the program, so that changes in attitude can be followed and discussed. The instrument not only provides insight to the permanency worker and caseworker, but it often helps the youth articulate feelings that may have remained unexpressed until that point. The scale can help youth realize that their feelings are normal and are shared by many others in their situation, and it may provide a springboard for the youth to talk about feelings about permanency.

Discussing with youth how they feel about permanency is the first step toward engaging teens in that process. Giving them some control is another way to increase their involvement and to build their comfort level. For instance, permanency workers found that teens were responsive to these kinds of questions:

  • How would you like to maintain connections with your birth family—with which members and in what ways?
  • What would be the best way to initiate contact with kin or other potential connections—phone calls, letters, emails, or face-to-face visits?
  • How would you like to "market" yourself to potential families, for instance, through events, photolistings, or other activities?
  • Where and when would you like to meet an interested prospective family, and what should be discussed and shared at the meeting?

Giving teens options and respecting their choices can build their confidence and participation in their own permanency process. Some of the other ways that the Youth Permanency projects are able to give youth a voice include:

  • Holding family team meetings or family group decision-making sessions where the youth's voice can be heard by workers, family members, attorneys, and others
  • Sponsoring weekend retreats, camps, or other gatherings where youth in similar situations can share their experiences and learn from each other
  • Including youth panels as part of training for workers and/or foster parents, so that the trainees can hear the youth stories firsthand
  • Recruiting youth to be speakers at conferences, presentations, and media events

Ultimately, youth in foster care are like any other youth teetering on the brink of adulthood. They are learning to make their own decisions, but they need loving adults to guide and support them. The Youth Permanency projects are able to engage youth by giving them choices about their permanency options while providing them with guidance and support so that they leave foster care with permanent connections to loving adults.

For more information about Project ReConnect, including all of the tools developed for the project, and the other Youth Permanency Projects, visit the National Resource Center for Adoption:

[Editor's note: This link is no longer available.]

For an overview of the work of the projects, view this PowerPoint from the Children's Bureau's 2009 Agencies and Courts conference:

[Editor's note: This link is no longer available.]

 

Many thanks to Dona Abbott, Director, and Mary Banghart Therrien, Evaluator, from the It's Up to Me ReConnect Project, who provided the information for this article.
 

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