Eight Youth-Centered Principles for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice

Posted February 6, 2022, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Two young, Latino women walk together outside. They smile and gaze at each other; each young woman has an arm draped around the other.

Child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems must do more to ensure that the ado­les­cents they serve will thrive, says a new report urg­ing prac­ti­tion­ers to adopt prin­ci­ples of pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment, racial equi­ty and com­mu­ni­ty belonging.

The report, Inte­grat­ing Pos­i­tive Youth Devel­op­ment and Racial Equi­ty, Inclu­sion and Belong­ing Approach­es Across the Child Wel­fare and Jus­tice Sys­tems, intro­duces STRENGTH, an eight-part frame­work for child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice that builds on young adults’ assets, address­es their devel­op­men­tal needs, and advances com­mu­ni­ty-based solu­tions that reduce or avoid fam­i­ly separation.

Devel­oped by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, the non­prof­it research cen­ter Child Trends and con­sul­tant Child Focus, the STRENGTH frame­work is part of a mul­ti­year effort to equip child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems to col­lab­o­rate as they retool ser­vices using prin­ci­ples that will help them do more good than harm for adolescents.

While the Foun­da­tion has worked for years to invest in pub­lic sys­tems reform, this recent focus acknowl­edges that com­mu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ment sys­tems have assets that help young peo­ple thrive but need tools to align their work across a com­mon youth-cen­tered frame­work,” the report says.

The STRENGTH Framework

STRENGTH is an acronym for the eight youth-cen­tered prin­ci­ples addressed by the framework:

  • Sys­tems integration; 
  • Trust­wor­thy and safe;
  • Rela­tion­ships;
  • Equi­ty, inclu­sion and belonging; 
  • Needs met holistically; 
  • Growth, lead­er­ship and oppor­tu­ni­ties to fail and learn; 
  • Train­ing and edu­ca­tion; and 
  • Heal­ing.

Even when sys­tem involve­ment is nec­es­sary, there can be last­ing neg­a­tive effects, the report says. This affects espe­cial­ly fam­i­lies of col­or, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed in both child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice, and youth who must trav­el through both systems.

The report’s research team reviewed recent ado­les­cent brain research and sur­veyed best prac­tices on pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment. They also sought input from young peo­ple as they devel­oped the STRENGTH framework.

Youth who expe­ri­ence loss and sep­a­ra­tion and who lack car­ing, trust­ed adult guid­ance strug­gle to make healthy, suc­cess­ful tran­si­tions to adulthood.

We heard from young adults in the child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems that they face a dual chal­lenge as they grow toward inde­pen­dence,” says Felipe A. Fran­co, senior fel­low for young adult prac­tice at the Casey Foun­da­tion. These sys­tems lim­it their abil­i­ty to con­nect to oth­ers with­in their fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty and devel­op a sense of belong­ing, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly forc­ing inde­pen­dence on them with­out pro­vid­ing the heal­ing and long-last­ing rela­tion­ships they need.”

The frame­work empha­sizes that it is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems to pri­or­i­tize heal­ing for the youth they serve.

All youth deserve uncon­di­tion­al car­ing and those who have expe­ri­enced mal­treat­ment, neglect, trau­ma, or vio­lence need this car­ing to form healthy, last­ing rela­tion­ships,” the report says. 

Pos­i­tive Youth Development

Pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment is an approach that focus­es on young people’s strengths instead of their deficits, and fac­tors that con­tribute to and improve their resilience, well-being, health, edu­ca­tion and employ­ment. For sev­er­al decades, it has been suc­cess­ful­ly imple­ment­ed with school-age youth. It has great poten­tial for sup­port­ing young adults involved in the child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice systems.

The report calls on the gov­ern­ment sys­tems serv­ing young adults to view their mis­sions as sup­port­ive, not con­trol­ling. Also, their pro­grams must explic­it­ly pro­mote equi­ty and address sys­temic racism that con­tributes to dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of chil­dren of col­or enter­ing both systems.

The next phase of the effort col­lects feed­back, which will be used this year to devel­op a tool kit to help sys­tems and com­mu­ni­ties sup­port young adults. 

Iden­ti­fy­ing the STRENGTH prin­ci­ples and devel­op­ing the tool kit are part of a recent com­mit­ment by the Foun­da­tion to ded­i­cate at least half of its invest­ments over the next decade to improv­ing the well-being of youth and young adults,” the report says. By work­ing with young adults and com­mu­ni­ties, the Foun­da­tion seeks to ensure that all young adults have the fam­i­ly con­nec­tions, rela­tion­ships, con­nec­tions to com­mu­ni­ties, and edu­ca­tion and employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties they need to thrive by 25.”

The Foundation’s Thrive by 25® focus is a 10-year com­mit­ment to invest in young peo­ple and the sys­tems that can make a dif­fer­ence in their lives. Young adult­hood — the peri­od from ages 14 to 24 — is crit­i­cal for devel­op­ing one’s iden­ti­ty and learn­ing the social and emo­tion­al skills nec­es­sary to build healthy rela­tion­ships and suc­ceed as an adult.

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