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Engaging youth in writing photolisting narratives

Adult and teen talking
Adult and teen talking.

Involving children and youth in creating their photolisting narratives is the right thing to do—and the best way to inspire potential parents.


  • Because it is their story—and their life! It’s that simple. Would you want someone telling your story without being involved?
  • The profiles are more accurate and compelling. Involving youth in the creation of their narratives ensures that their profile communicates information that they want to share with prospective parents. It also helps ensure you have details, quotes, and stories that can help prospective parents connect with the child.
  • It gives youth some control and builds their self-advocacy skills. As a social worker, you are in an inherent position of power. And you know that children in care often feel powerless. Authentically engaging youth in creating their photolisting narratives gives them a sense of control and empowers them to make decisions about this aspect of their lives. It also increases their trust in you.
  • It can make youth more interested in participating in their case. In the words of the foster care alum: “I wasn’t always committed to working on my case. I felt helpless and hopeless, and that there was no point. Once I realized that there were adults who cared about me, I felt empowered. I got more engaged. And I got happier, which led me to move toward adoption.”

Principles of youth engagement

Like many areas of social work, engaging youth in telling their story is relational casework. You are a trusted partner, supporting and empowering a young person to be the co-creators of their permanency plan.

But engaging youth in crafting their narratives is often complicated by the fact that they frequently don’t have a full understanding of what’s happening in their lives. Our job is to help them fill in the missing pieces.
In order to get the full picture of a youth—and give a youth clarity about their permanency options—it is critical to spend enough time with them to help them understand their story and how they want to tell it.

The ENGAGE model is one successful approach to involving youth in their permanency planning:

  • Explain what permanency means.
  • Not a one-time conversation but an ongoing discussion.
  • Give the youth an opportunity to explain feelings about adoption.
  • Ask the youth whom they feel connected to. The majority of children who achieve permanency do it with someone they were previously connected with.
  • Give youth a voice so that they can practice self-determination. Their choice might not be the same that we would choose.
  • Explain their options and help them understand logical consequence of their decisions.

As you do this work, issues of grief and loss are bound to arise. The 3-5-7 model is one tool you can use to help youth address them. You can read about the 3-5-7 model on the North American Council on Adoptable Children’s website.

Strategies and practical suggestions for involving children and youth

You cannot create an accurate narrative if it does not include first-hand information about the child. If you don’t know the child well yet, work with other people in the child’s life to learn important details to incorporate into their narrative.

As you embark on the process of working with a youth to craft their profile, remember these guiding principles:

  • Make it a choice. While we want to involve youth in the process, we cannot force them to engage.
  • Transparency is critical. Let them know what information can and cannot be included in their narratives, and where (e.g., in their public or private narrative).
  • Start by asking young people what information they want to share with families.

Tips for engaging and building rapport

Relationships don’t happen without regularity. These are a few suggestions for learning about a child while strengthening your relationship with them.

  • Talk while doing a favorite activity—listening to music, playing a game, driving, going to the zoo, or eating! Be an active participant in the conversation, asking questions and sharing your experience and opinions. But don’t be so active that you aren’t listening and letting them guide the discussion too. Where they lead the conversation can tell you a lot about them.
  • Have the youth teach you something they are good at.
  • Sit with them while they are doing something they like. Observe what they like doing. For example, if you go to zoo, see what animals they like.
  • Show them narratives you like and see what resonates with them. Give them an idea of what a narrative looks like.
  • Have them review their narrative. Or, if they are old enough, have them write a sample narrative.
  • Have the youth do their own photo shoot. They could take their own photos or work with someone in their household to take pictures.
  • Encourage them to do artwork, poetry, audio recording of talking about something they love, and include those items in their narrative.
  • Ask questions—and more questions! But don’t make it an interrogation. Make it a conversation. Share your opinion and examples of what you do and don’t like.
  • Get details. A good practice is to start with simple “what” questions and then move into more complex “why” questions as the conversation progresses—or over several conversations.

Learn more!

This article is a summary of information that was presented in the webinar, Engaging Youth in Creating Strengths-Based Recruitment Profiles. In this 90-minute presentation, AdoptUSKids staff, a social worker, and a youth who had been in care discussed why it is important to involve youth and shared strategies and tips for engaging them successfully.