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Getting in the right mindset to successfully engage youth in finding permanency 

A young person talks to adults.
A teenager explains to a group of adults.

Children and youth ​​want agency and control in their lives, which can be hard to come by in foster care. Young people should have a say about their future, including their permanency plans. We all share that point of view, at least in theory. But it sometimes still takes a reminder or a mental reset to embrace authentic youth engagement. Below we explore some tips and resources to help us get in the right mindset. 

Recognize children and youth as the leading experts in their own lives

Children and youth know themselves and the people around the​​m in a more nuanced way than professionals do. They can help us find a family for them if we just ask, listen, and remain open to their expertise. As youth advocate Kim Stevens explains during the webinar In Their Own Words: Lifting Up Youth Voices to Promote Permanency for Older Youth, children as young as five or six know who they relied on and who kept them safe in their lives. She adds, “Our job is easier when we work in partnership with youth.”  If you are working on a profile or narrative about a child, who better to ask than the child themselves? They know what they​​ like, what they need, and who they want to be. Learn more in the article Engaging youth in writing photolisting narratives

Take time for the relationship

True engagement happens when there is a relationship between the young person and the professional. Of course, building relationships takes time. You may need to slow down and work on getting to know each other before you get to the business at hand. And, like with all relationships, you have to be honest about what you’re doing and share some of yourself too. Let the young person ask you questions ​​about you and your life even as you ask them about theirs. Finding common ground helps you build the rapport you need to let their expertise out. Learn more about building relationships with young people in this video from the Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency (QIC-EY).
It’s also important to give young people time to think and react—​​whether to the overall idea of finding a family or about specific options or obstacles they face. Big decisions can lead to big fears that may take time to address. If your agency isn’t giving you enough time, explain to leaders why you need it. You can become an internal advocate for effective youth engagement. 

Be empathetic and authentic

Child and youth in foster care have lost so much—their families and their old lives, of course, but often also their normalcy and a sense of stability and safety. ​​Going into each meeting with a young person with a sense of empathy and understanding can make a huge difference in true engagement.  Jennifer Rhodes, who spent many yea​​rs in foster care, advises in In Their Own Words: Lifting Up Youth Voices to Promote Permanency for Older Youth, “Be genuine, be real … help us figure out who we are.” Deborah Wilson, trainer and consultant, also shares her experience (on the QIC-EY website) about how a lawyer helped her find her own advocacy voice by ​​allowing her the time and space to share her story. When we start from a willingness to listen attentively, young people are much more likely to trust and engage with us.

Give up control

Think about where you can give the young people you work with power. Then think again and see where the limits really are. Can they decide when or where you meet? Will you promise to share their ideas clearly in court? Can they decide which relatives you​​ reach out to first? Can they write the narrative and choose the picture you use for recruitment? Do they get final approval of any recruitment materials? The more you can share power, the more successful your youth engagement efforts are likely to be.

Be up front about what you’re doing

As Tyler Helbach explains in the article Engaging youth isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a path to permanency, “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.” As part of this, professionals need to clarify what their role is, what the youth’s role is, and how the partnership will work. Setting expectations for how you will work together is important to an effective partnership.  

Be positive

It’​​s crucially important to start our work with the idea that there is a family for every child, and every child has many strengths. Some days, we may need to remind ourselves to see the good and to focus on the progress a child or youth is making. And if we’re not seeing those strengths, it may help to remember that the young person is the expert—they know what they are good at and what they enjoy. Ask them what they are proud of or what they would lik​​e to teach others. Another idea that helps us be strengths based is to include positive information in the child’s case file, documenting growth and milestones along with the challenges we’re more often used to including. Learn more in this QIC-EY video

Be inquisitive

Honoring youth as experts doesn’t mean that professionals can’t explor​​e why a young person thinks the way they do. For example, we often have to be ready to ​​gently question why a child may not want to be adopted or is worried about a particular placement. As 17-year-old Molly explained, “I didn’t know that I wished to be adopted. I knew I wanted to be loved and I wanted a place to live, but I was too scared to open​​ my heart one more time. That’s why I changed my permanency plan from adopted to extended foster care. Adoption seemed unreal to​​ me. I was too unlovable.” In Youth Voices: Why Families Matter, Erin Bader of Child Welfare Information Gateway shares tips gathered from young people like Molly and explains: “They might be resistant in the beginning, but it’s important that these are ongoing conversations that you have to educate them about their options, but to also listen. It’s really important to listen to what their questions might be and any concerns they might have.”

We know that many young people have a reluctance to consider adoption, perhaps because they fear being rejected or feel it would be disloyal to their birth families. When seeking a family for a child, professionals should come from a place of inquiry so they can explore the reasons behind the reluctance and see if there is​​ a way to allay concerns and still achieve permanency. Learn more in Families Rising’s article Unpacking the No: Helping Young People Explore the Idea of Adoption.  

See yourself as an advocate

Once you’ve heard what the child or youth has to say, you owe it to them to explore if what they want is possible. Sometimes, you’ll need to be an advocate to help them be heard by others or to overcome obstacles. As Jamole Callahan of the QIC-EY explains in this video, when court didn’t go the way a young person wanted, the worker asked the youth ​​what they thought could have been different. Before the next hearing, the worker and young person identified all of the youth’s concerns and were ready to present a new plan that the youth was ​​on board with. 

Embrace others with lived expertise as partners

What if ​​your engagement efforts aren’t working? Perhaps it’s time to turn to other experts for help. Adults who were in foster care as children can help us improve our engagement efforts and even partner with us as we talk to the young people in our care. For example, hearing from others who have a shared experience may make young people feel safer and can help us unpack the no and explore new options. As Catherine Monet, who was adopted from foster care as a teen, notes, “At one point in time when I was in the system, I didn’t trust my DSS social workers. I think that one way to build this necessary trust is to invite youth to the table. Involve us in decision-making​​. Invite us to participate in round tables. Give us opportunities to mentor kids in care and offer advice to foster parents. I believe that it’s critical for systems to have input from people who have experienced foster care, not just studied it.” 

Once we are in the right frame of mind, youth engagement is easier and more successful. An​​d, in turn, engaged young people challenge the status quo and help professionals think outside the box, creating new opportunities for permanency. 

Learn more

Check out other videos, tips, and resources from the Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Children and Youth in Finding Permanency.   

AdoptUSKids also has many resources on youth engagement