For support services for foster, adoptive, and kinship families to be truly helpful, they need to be aligned with families’ needs. They also need to be relevant and delivered in ways that parents, caregivers, and youth find useful.
One of the best ways to ensure services are well-designed to meet families’ needs is to have families help shape the service design and delivery approaches. By engaging them in this process, you will also deepen their engagement and demonstrate that you recognize and value their perspectives and experience and see them as partners in improving outcomes for all children and families.
The continuum of engagement
Engagement of families and youth can take many forms with varying depths. Stakeholder engagement falls along the continuum below, with active participation and two-way communication beginning with “involve” and increasing toward the right side of the continuum.
Inform → Consult → Involve → Collaborate → Empower
Whether you are already engaging parents, caregivers, and youth in your service planning or just getting started, you can use this continuum to help communicate clearly about what level of engagement you are seeking and identify ways to move toward deeper engagement. Steps include having families and youth help set areas of focus and agendas for meetings and discussions; giving them decision-making authority, and empowering them to lead planning and program design.
Key considerations for meaningful engagement
Authentic, meaningful engagement requires a thoughtful and intentional approach and a commitment to listening to diverse perspectives. As you invite parents, caregivers, and youth to share their thoughts and ideas, be sure that you and your colleagues ground your efforts in these concepts.
- Hear from multiple parents, caregivers, and youth as you create or change support services. Go beyond having input from just one or two, so you hear diverse perspectives and preferences.
- Value the lived experience and expertise that families bring. They know their own needs and have meaningful insights into how they and their peers need to access services. Trust them!
- Be family-centered in developing ways for families to provide input into service design (just as you should for service delivery), rather than expecting families to shift to meet agency schedules.
- Be transparent about how you are using input from families. At a minimum, share broad information about feedback themes and suggestions you receive from families and address whether and how you’re applying that input.
- Engage deeply whenever possible. For example, have parents or youth on your staff or advisory boards. Can you create other avenues for ongoing involvement rather than one-off opportunities?
Tips for engaging parents, caregivers, and youth
- Ask them how they would prefer to provide input in service design and improvement. Using the best ways and times for engaging them will likely increase the value of what you hear.
- Provide a wide range of ways for people to provide input. Use a mix of methods such as individual surveys after service delivery, open opportunities to share feedback at any time through online forms or emails, periodic surveys and focus groups, community needs assessments, and other communication channels.
- Hold focus groups—in-person or virtual—with high-quality facilitation and pay participants for their time and expertise by providing gift cards or a stipend.
- Actively request new ideas that may not relate to existing services or programs. Families may have creative ideas that don’t fit within any of your current activities but that may spark new approaches for services and service delivery.
- Make engagement accessible by thinking through the logistics. Consider family members’ schedules, communication options, and transportation needs. When scheduling meetings, focus groups, or other events, plan times based on what is convenient for parents, caregivers, and youth—recognizing they may need to participate outside of their work or school hours. Meet in locations that are on public transit lines and have free parking.
- Provide options for parents, caregivers, and youth to provide feedback anonymously if they prefer. They may have concerns about providing honest, critical feedback to staff who are providing ongoing services to their family.
- When inviting families to participate in meetings, service planning teams, and other activities where they will be meeting with staff, provide families with clear information ahead of time about the purpose of the meeting and the areas in which you are seeking their input and participation. Preparing them to participate and providing clear information helps parents, caregivers, and youth know what to expect and how to engage effectively in the discussions.
- Make communication accessible by avoiding jargon and acronyms and stating ideas plainly. Identify a support person to check in with caregivers and youth to make sure they understand everything and see if they want to ask any clarification questions in private. When communicating in writing, aim for no higher than a 6th grade reading comprehension level.
- In meetings, show your appreciation and make sure parents, caregivers, and youth feel valued. Make it clear this request for input isn’t just a box you are checking off.
Specific ideas for engaging youth effectively
Successfully engaging youth requires changing your approaches and considering what will help youth feel comfortable, safe, and valued.
- Use a facilitator who likes and respects youth and is experienced working with them. Ensure that the facilitator is not editing the words that youth use when sharing their input, even if those words are not appropriate for public dissemination. If some editing will be needed for making reports or other summaries, explain this respectfully to the youth ahead of time.
- Provide opportunities for youth to provide their thoughts while being separated from their parents and other adults of influence in their lives (social worker, CASA volunteer, advocate, attorney, etc.) so you can have unfiltered conversations and youth can feel more comfortable being honest.
- Believe what youth tell you. Often when youth share input that is difficult to hear, adults try to soften or refute what the youth shared. Even if you have different perspectives or know the facts to be different, it’s important to recognize the way the youth perceived an experience and validate that their feelings about it are real.
- Do something fun and include food as well as distracting items. Things like table toys, coloring, and fidgets allow youth to contain nerves and focus on the discussion.
- Engage youth both individually and in a group setting. Being part of a group allows them to bounce ideas off one another, find validation and hopefulness, and be braver about speaking out.
- Make sure youth are compensated for their time, expertise, and experience. If adults are being paid, youth should be paid as well.
Parents, caregivers, and youth have incredibly valuable and nuanced insights into what support services families need and how to deliver those services effectively. As child welfare systems seek to have family support services effectively improve child and family and outcomes, one of your key strategies should be engaging families in initial planning and ongoing improvements in your support services.