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Engaging youth isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a path to permanency

A Northwest Adoption Exchange staff member working on an In-Depth Profile with a youth in Michigan.
A Northwest Adoption Exchange staff member working with a Michigan teen on his In-Depth Profile.

Every youth in foster care has a story to tell—their own.

At Northwest Adoption Exchange, that belief is what led us to launch our In-Depth Profile project in 2017. Now, more than three years later, the work is expanding to other states through the Family Finding and Engagement Initiative funded by the Children’s Bureau, as part of the national Adoption Call to Action.

This year, some amazing youth in Michigan started creating In-Depth Profiles by collaborating with our staff and the staff at the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange. You can see their profiles by visiting their 20 in 2020 In-Depth Profile site.

At their core, In-Depth Profiles are creative storytelling projects where teens have the opportunity to answer two questions: “What do you want to share with potential adoptive families, and how do you want to share it?” The resulting content gives teens the opportunity to tell their stories, share their hopes, and give potential families insight into their personalities. These stories can be shared through videos, photos, podcasts, narratives, artwork, or anything else that helps give an authentic snapshot into who they are. No two In-Depth Profiles are the same, because no two youth are the same.

The value of engaging teens in this work isn’t just about what content ends up in the final draft. Just as important is the journey and the collaboration it takes to get there. When youth are engaged in their profiles, how they will be shared, who will see them, and what happens next, they’re granted the opportunity to make a difference in their own lives.

Lessons learned

With three years of In-Depth Profile work under our belts, we’re more confident than ever in the value and effectiveness of this work. Teens talk about the empowerment they feel when they’re welcomed into the recruitment process, and more families come forward in response. Since we’ve started our In-Depth Profile project, teens with an In-Depth Profile see an average 200 percent increase in inquiries from families, compared to when they had a traditional photolisting profile. Engaging youth isn’t just the right thing to do, it might also be their best path to finding permanency.

So, what have been the key takeaways from our In-Depth Profile work with teens? Here are some of the top things we’ve learned that can be integrated into any recruitment effort.

Don’t be afraid to engage remotely

COVID-19 has made it more challenging to engage with youth in person, but it’s also made engagement more important than ever. We’re all feeling isolated these days, and that’s especially true for youth in care. Getting everyone on the team involved in supporting a youth-driven project can be a great way to help youth feel more connected to the adults in their lives and let them know that even through the uncertainty of current events, they have adults who care about them and want them to find the permanency they deserve.

Remote engagement is possible because it doesn’t always demand professional equipment or on-site collaboration. An involved foster parent and a borrowed smartphone, voice recording app, or photos of things that matter to a youth can all set the stage for great content and engagement. Some of our favorite projects have come out of something as simple as planning and recording a Zoom call with a teen. Even though you might not be there in person, there are still adults who are and who will be excited to team up to make the youth feel involved and proud of a project to share with families.

Give youth ownership over the process

When we ask youth if they want to create an In-Depth Profile, we always present it as a choice: “Do you want to be involved in this?” When youth have ownership and agency over their involvement, they are far more likely to be invested and engaged. The opportunity to decide whether or not they want to participate shows youth that they are an important and equal partner in this process.

Youth in care regularly report that they experience a lack of decision-making power in their lives. That makes it especially important to use recruitment as an opportunity to give them a seat at the table. Even if a youth says “no” when you ask about sharing their story, they’ll remember you asked for their input and may even revisit the conversation later with a different perspective on participating.

Create content that inspires pride

In our experience, youth are most engaged in the recruitment process when they can be proud and excited about their In-Depth Profile. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that any content you create with a youth is strength-based. When youth feel good about what’s being presented to families on their behalf, they’ll be more excited about the process and more open to exploring ideas about permanency.

Sometimes, getting youth excited about the idea of creating content for potential adoptive families takes more time than we as professionals would like. That’s okay though, as this is a creative process and brainstorming and creating content can take time. If a youth needs multiple conversations to come up with creative ideas or to process the idea of participating in recruitment, make the time to have those conversations. Often it can be a sign that they are not taking the opportunity lightly.

Youth engagement isn’t one-size-fits-all

Just as every youth’s story is different, so is the way they want to share it. Not every teen might want to participate in a Wednesday’s Child segment or make a video for families. While we’ve found that many youth want to creatively incorporate video into their In-Depth Profile, it’s only one tool within a variety of options. Don’t be afraid to think of out-of-the box ideas for how to be creative. The best ideas are individualized and youth-specific. Think about what kind of content might best fit how that teen wants to participate. Podcasts, photography projects, poetry, artwork, cooking tutorials, music recordings—just about any option is doable! Our job is to let youth know that the sky is the limit and any idea that gets dreamed up can be explored.

Talk with youth about recruitment

One of the biggest challenges to our work is when we meet with youth who haven’t been told what’s being done to find them an adoptive family. For so many youth in foster care, no one has taken the time to have honest and consistent conversations about what adults are doing on their behalf. Every teen should be able to ask the adults in their lives: “What are you doing to get me adopted or help me find permanency?” And every professional should be able to answer that question.

When you have those conversations with youth, strive for a response that includes optimism and lets the youth know how dedicated you are to championing them no matter what. And remember that just because they haven’t asked, it doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it. Often times when we don’t have these conversations with youth, at best they will have wild misconceptions about what we’re doing to find them an adoptive family. At worst, think we’re doing nothing at all.

Finally, remember that the benefits of partnering with youth carry over to staff as well. Collaborating with youth to tell their story is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have. It helps us understand their experience and allows us to better connect with the youth we serve. It creates opportunities for discussions with youth where we can clearly tell them that we believe they deserve an adoptive family and that we’re excited to work together to find one. And it reminds us that youth are the heroes of their own stories and that our role is to do whatever we can to help them along the way.

To learn more about In-Depth Profiles, contact Tyler:

Tyler Helbach

Tyler Helbach

Tyler Helbach is the director of the Northwest Adoption Exchange, a program of Northwest Resource Associates.