From Adoptalk 2022, Issue 2; Adoptalk is a benefit of NACAC membership. 

The QIC-EY will be partnering with six to eight states, tribes, or territories on this exciting initiative to transform how child welfare agencies involve children and youth in all levels of their work. To learn more about the QIC-EY’s work and the resources it develops to support systems change and improve practice in engaging youth to achieve permanency, visit the website at qic-ey.org. You can find the literature review at https://qic-ey.org/products/

The new Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency (QIC-EY), funded by the Children’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a five-year project aimed at advancing child welfare programs and practice to ensure that they are authentically engaging and empowering children and youth in child welfare throughout the US, especially in relation to permanency. It is expected that the work of the QIC-EY will bring about systemic changes in how children and youth are authentically engaged as reflected in intentional policy, practice, and culture shifts in the pilot sites. NACAC is proud to be one of the national partners in the project, working with Spaulding for Children—the lead organization—along with the University of Washington School of Social Work, the New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners and Directors, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center on Children, Families, and the Law.

As part of the QIC-EY’s initial work, the team conducted a literature review on how child welfare workers and court staff promote and achieve child and youth engagement. The review identified several valuable insights that can help guide this engagement work, including common competencies for child welfare workers who conduct meaningful child and youth engagement. (All of the quotes below are from conversations QIC-EY team members have had with people who experienced foster care firsthand.)

Nine Competencies

Seeing themes across the relevant literature, the QIC-EY team identified nine competencies of child welfare staff achieving authentic child and youth engagement (outlined below). These competencies can be useful for everyone involved in child welfare work as they seek to strengthen practices for engaging children and youth in meaningful ways.

Partnering with children and youth

The ability to partner with children and youth was the most frequently mentioned competency for workers throughout the relevant literature, highlighting the importance of workers’ ability to form equal, respectful partnerships so children and youth have a voice. As one article defined it, partnerships between youth and adults are “relationships in which both youth and adults have the potential to contribute to decision-making processes, to learn from one another, and to promote change.” 1

“They included me in on everything, so I feel like they helped me achieve my permanency.”

Several dynamics are crucial in partnering with children and youth, including:

  • setting clear expectations and defining roles and responsibilities,
  • having workers acknowledge the inherent power imbalances in the relationship,
  • ensuring shared responsibility for success, and
  • continuing to check in with each other to make changes to how the worker and youth engage with each other in order to partner together effectively.

“It helps me honestly, when he’s able to break it down or put it in a way that my mind processes and not just his.”

Communication and listening skills

More than 70 articles reinforced that having open, honest, and respectful communication was a key approach for being effective at engaging children and youth. Using humor and understandable, common language are helpful ways to have meaningful communication. In addition to communicating effectively, the literature highlights the importance of good listening skills and techniques, actively seeking to hear and understand what children and youth are expressing.

Building trusting relationships

Having the ability to build trusting relationships with children and youth is another crucial skill for workers seeking to engage in meaningful ways. Taking time, creating a sense of safety, meeting children and youth where they are, and being authentic are all key components of being able to build these trusting relationships. In addition, it is important for workers to set clear boundaries in the relationship, so children and youth know what they can and can’t expect from their worker.

“I had a relationship with my social worker, so I did feel respected. I did feel heard.”

Strength-based approach

Using a strengths-based approach rather than a deficit-based approach helps workers recognize the abilities and strengths that children and youth have and enables workers to see that children and youth have important expertise in their own lives. By being strengths-based, workers can help children and youth see and continue to develop their own strengths and define their role in discussions and decisions about their life, including about permanency.

“My social worker really helped me in explaining all my permanency options.”

Prepare and inform

Taking steps to help prepare children and youth to be involved in discussions and decisions is an important part of engagement. Workers who engage children and youth effectively help them:

  • understand and have clear expectations about planning conversation,
  • develop skills to participate in discussions, and
  • practice sharing their thoughts.

Workers who effectively engage children and youth also provide information to them about their case and their permanency options so they can make informed decisions for themselves.

Advocate for children and youth

More than 30 articles noted the importance of workers being advocates for the children and youth they are working with and seeking to engage. Researchers found that youth who perceive their workers to be helpful were more likely to engage in planning efforts.2 Workers can advocate for children and youth and demonstrate that they are allies in multiple ways, including connecting them with resources, advocating for their wishes, and addressing barriers as they arise.

Knowledge of adolescent development

Understanding adolescent development and the ability to understand and support youth as they go through the developmental stage of adolescence is critical for workers to engage well with youth. Beyond just individual worker level, having an understanding of adolescent development allows agency leaders to design programs that align with youth’s developmental needs, including language and interpersonal connections.

Trauma-informed care

As workers engage children and youth who are in foster care, it’s important to have an understanding of the impact of trauma and to use a trauma-informed approach. Workers need to recognize how the impact of trauma on the child or youth’s developmental stage may affect how the worker needs to engage and interact with them.3 In addition, staff need to create a safe physical, social, and emotional environment for the children and youth they are working with.

Cultural humility

Another theme in the literature was the importance of cultural humility when engaging children and youth. Workers must be able to effectively engage with people with diverse backgrounds (race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, etc.) by:

  • valuing youths’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives,
  • having an awareness of their own biases and how their own backgrounds can affect how they interact with children and youth, and
  • doing ongoing self-assessment.

Additional Essential Elements

In addition to the competencies identified through the literature related to child and youth engagement, the QIC-EY’s Workforce Council (a team of training and workforce development experts from around the country) identified two additional essential competencies: demonstration of empathy and authenticity.

A Call to Action

Having the competencies and characteristics described above provides a strong foundation, but, to benefit children and youth, workers and agencies must put them into action. In summarizing the themes from the literature review related to the core competencies and characteristics of workers seeking to engage youth, the QIC-EY identified three main responsibilities of workers: informing, eliciting, and partnering.

For staff who are wanting to engage children and youth in meaningful, authentic ways, it’s crucial to see these responsibilities as fundamental and interconnected.

Informing

For children and youth to be able to engage in discussions as well as in planning and making decisions, they need to understand what is happening, why it is happening, and what their options are. Workers need to keep children and youth informed—communicating with them in clear, developmentally appropriate ways—on an ongoing basis. They also need to check to see that children and youth understand what they are being told and understand how to consider their options.

Eliciting

Being informed helps children and youth understand what choices they have in front of them and how to think about their options and preferences, but workers also need to work actively to draw out young people’s thoughts and perspectives. Eliciting their ideas, questions, and opinions requires focusing on the children and youth, giving them time to process their thoughts, and helping them trust that it is safe for them to speak up and share their thoughts honestly.

Workers can’t rush this process if they want it to be effective. They must take the time and go at a pace that allows children and youth to be active participants and offer their thoughts and feelings to the conversation.

Partnering

By partnering with children and youth, workers can help move the children and youth’s preferences and choices from thoughts into action and enable shared decision-making. Recognizing and acknowledging the imbalance of power that exists in the relationship will help the worker to be an ally and advocate for children and youth.

Putting These Insights to Work

Engaging with children and youth in meaningful ways is, of course, not simply the application of specific steps or skills. It requires a paradigm shift in how the child welfare system understands and views their involvement in decision-making. Children and youth need to be seen as competent, knowledgeable individuals who are partners in decisions about their lives, especially related to permanency—legal, cultural and relational. Knowing what characteristics and competencies are most widely known to support and enable effective child and youth engagement is one of the first steps needed to make this paradigm shift.

Notes

  1. Mitra, D., Lewis, T., & Sanders, F. (2012). Architects, captains, and dreamers: Creating advisor roles that foster youth-adult partnerships. Journal of Educational Change, 14(2), 177-201
  2. Park, S., Powers, J., Okpych, N., & Courtney, M. (2020). Predictors of foster youths’ participation in their transitional independent living plan (TILP) development: Calling for collaborative case plan decision-making processes. Children and Youth Services Review, 115, 105051. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2020.105051
  3. Salazar, A., Spiers, S., & Pfister, F. (2021). Authentically engaging youth with foster care experience: Definitions and recommended strategies from youth and staff. Journal of Youth Studies, 24(8), 1015-1032. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2020.1792863