Eight Youth-Centered Principles for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice

Posted February 6, 2022
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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