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Strengthening Fed Policy & Practice to Maximize Foster Youth Engagement: The FYA Network’s Perspective

By Matt Rosen, Foster Youth in Action

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LA Foster Youth Leaders discussing the County’s Child Welfare System in May 2018

Since March 2019, FYA has been engaged with representatives at FosterClub, Juvenile Law Center, National Foster Youth Institute, Foster Care Alumni Association of America, and the office of Congresswoman Karen Bass to consider what could be changed in federal legislation and practice that would make a difference with respect to foster youth participation and engagement. In keeping with our commitment to constituent voice, FYA reached out to its broad network of foster youth led groups and councils across the US to weigh in on this important question.

GATHERING INSIGHTS — OUR APPROACH

FYA’s Eddye Vanderkwaak (Lead Organizer), Matt Rosen (Executive Director) and Anna Gennari (Director of Programs) shared assessment duties, collectively conducting 10 interviews, leading discussions with six youth leaders and adult allies, and distributing online questionnaire to our partners through a few of our channels. This assessment took place in April and May 2019.

We wanted to know what their vision for youth engagement was; what they’ve learned doing the hard work of youth engagement, and what we should be focusing on in an effort to improve federal policy and practice.

Across the different methods employed by our team, we engaged at least 25 youth leaders and staff supporters from FYA partners in North Carolina (SaySo), Colorado (Project Foster Power); Florida (Florida Youth Shine); Oregon (Oregon Foster Youth Connection); Indiana (Indiana Youth Advisory Board); Vermont (Forward); Wisconsin (Wisconsin Youth Advisory Board); California (Youth Advocacy Project of Oakland as well as California Youth Connection); Idaho (Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board); Minnesota (Minnesota Youth Leadership Councils); Georgia (Georgia EmpowerMEnt); and Iowa (Achieving Maximum Potential). Those we reached included adult supporters and youth and young adults with experience in care who are all directly engaged as leaders or advocates with foster youth led groups and councils in FYA’s national network. Some of the adult allies were also alumni. All young people were directly involved as advocates, organizers or advisory board members at local and state levels. Those we spoke to represented groups that are independent of government agencies, as well as advisory boards or councils to state child welfare agencies.

Each team member did their own analysis, and raised up threads and themes emerging. Matt Rosen, FYA’s Executive Director integrated team members’ findings, using quotes or specific examples in some cases to illustrate points.

FINDINGS — WHAT WE LEARNED

Invest in youth engagement at the community level: We consistently heard that youth participation at county or regional levels offer more meaningful and concrete opportunities for participation than state level experiences, as it facilitates relationship and network building. Local issues that directly impact young people’s day to day lives are more likely to engage young people. Some who participated in our assessment recommended that local government agencies and their contracted independent living providers have clear expectations and requirements regarding youth participation and engagement.

Pay attention to program design: How programs are designed, staffed, and structured makes a great difference in the quality of participation and the representation of participants. Some described how a traditional youth advisory council structure — with a reliance on a small group of young people to represent the voices of youth — doesn’t capture the collective voice of youth in a county or state and that different approaches are critical.

Move beyond “telling your story”: Youth leaders and supportive adults were frequently critical of the over-reliance on “telling their stories” as the core approach to foster youth engagement. While all recognize the power of storytelling, what we heard was that well-meaning adult supporters frequently confused story telling with advocacy skills or effective leadership development, and often limited youth engagement to “strategic story-telling” around pre-selected issues. Some young people and staff supporters lifted up the downside to this sole focus on “input” and telling their story” as the primary means of engagement, noting that in hindsight they felt used and tokenized, and the narrow view of engagement as telling their stories meant they were not taken seriously.

Take a comprehensive approach to youth preparation and training for leadership and advocacy roles. Young people and staff urged greater investments in their leadership capacity; their knowledge of child welfare systems, administrative decision-making and power more generally; and their ability to collaborate with peers to identify and push for changes they believe are needed. In particular, some respondents urged a stronger focus on helping young people know “the reality of the child welfare system”, including its history (bad and good), and who really has the power to make changes.

Educate adults. In a related concept, we heard strong recommendations around training and professional development for adult supporters inside or outside government agencies. Training, they argued, was needed to change culture around youth engagement, build adult skills and knowledge necessary to support youth participation, and help organizations develop and maintain structures for implement high impact youth engagement.

Ensure youth-driven agendas: A number of participants we interviewed argued forcefully for independent, autonomous youth groups at the county or state level as central to improving youth engagement and in particular, raising up the issues most vital to youth. With this strategy — in contrast to an advisory board or council that is housed within and/or fully funded by the state agency — independent groups are more likely to 1) identify issues that are solely determined by youth constituents and not influenced by government agency agendas and priorities; and 2) be able to hold agencies accountable without feel of reprisal or elimination of funding. We heard deep concerns about funding driving the issues and agenda of young people, as well as a call for agencies to challenge themselves by giving up power and control so that youth engagement could truly flourish.

Expand the table. A consistent theme for those commenting on how to improve engagement within systems was on expanding the menu of options for participation throughout a particular department or agency. Examples given included youth as trainers for staff and contracted providers, or hiring youth to serve in decision-making and leadership roles in the agency .

Remove financial barriers. “How can you expect a youth to volunteer their time when they aren’t able to pay their bills?” This young person’s sentiment was heard repeatedly in our research, with most youth and adult supporters pleading for deeper investments in funds to cover stipends, youth wages or transportation costs. Beyond stipends, some we spoke to reminded us that basic well-being supports, like child care, housing and decent pay need to be in place first for youth engage more deeply.

Address gatekeeper challenges. Lack of awareness, interest or support for youth participation by caseworkers or other frontline workers are significant barrier to increasing foster youth participation. Several individuals we spoke with highlighted how access to older youth in care depends in no small part to the interest, cooperation, support, and buy-in by caseworkers or their managers at the provider and county level, and that the fear of liability, lack of buy-in, and overall disinterest by those in these critical gatekeeper roles are real challenges to engaging new young people currently in foster care. Two interviewees felt like mandates were necessary to ensure that case managers and supervisors encouraged youth in their care to participate. One interviewee who was a former youth leader in his group describes how group homes used to be the primary means for recruitment, noting how shifts towards family placements for older youth made recruitment even more difficult. He noted that standard recruitment strategies are much less viable, and local youth advocacy groups need to rely increasingly on caseworkers to convey opportunities for youth people placed with families.

Reframe youth engagement. Young people we spoke with or who responded to questionnaires repeatedly highlighted how these experiences were transformational, and therefore should be far more broadly available. One former foster youth noted that quality engagement can “change the trajectory of their life, goals and outlook”, while others noted that “youth who participate are more successful in all areas of life.” These and other similar comments align with generally accepted research on the impacts of youth civic engagement, and suggest that youth engagement should be seen as a central — not secondary — services strategy for older youth and those who are transitioning out.

NEXT STEPS

As FYA partners with national stakeholders to examine options and strategies to improve the representation, quality and impact of participation by young people with lived experience, we are committed to continue to engage our constituents (youth leaders and youth organizers along with their adult supporters across our national network) to draw on their direct experience informing systems, pushing for change, and holding decision-makers accountable. We welcome new insights, experiences, and feedback on the findings we’ve generated to date, and will seek new groups and new opportunities to both gather additional insights and present these findings for feedback and critique.

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