Five Ways Child Welfare Agencies Can Empower Young People

Posted June 14, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

A young girl in a blue shirt and long dark hair sits behind the wheel of a vehicle. An older woman sits next to her and appears to be helping the girl learn how to drive.

Young peo­ple with fos­ter care expe­ri­ence know best what they need to heal, grow and thrive. As a result, it’s crit­i­cal for child wel­fare lead­ers to enlist youth as inte­gral part­ners in address­ing their needs and plan­ning for their future. 

Staff from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive®, work­ing with its Jim Casey Young Fel­lows, have iden­ti­fied five ways that child wel­fare lead­ers can build and sus­tain an envi­ron­ment of youth empow­er­ment. Their advice includes: 

1. Pro­mot­ing authen­tic youth engage­ment and collaboration

Child wel­fare agen­cies are often the lone source of sup­port for young peo­ple in fos­ter care. This fact under­scores why agen­cies must hire social work­ers who can con­nect with young peo­ple, treat them as experts in their own lives and active­ly engage them in deci­sions about their future. Such work­ers also rec­og­nize that authen­tic youth engage­ment builds indi­vid­ual lead­er­ship skills, fuels mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships and dri­ves effec­tive solutions. 

View Casey’s resources on authen­tic youth engage­ment and the impor­tance of help­ing young peo­ple in care feel respect­ed, involved and heard. 

2. Pri­or­i­tiz­ing racial and eth­nic equi­ty and inclu­sion practices

Racist struc­tures have laid the foun­da­tion for — and still influ­ence — today’s child wel­fare poli­cies and cul­ture. Rec­og­niz­ing this, child wel­fare agen­cies should embrace racial and eth­nic equi­ty and inclu­sion prac­tices to ensure that all young peo­ple in and tran­si­tion­ing from fos­ter care expe­ri­ence equi­table outcomes. 

Read Casey’s Equi­ty Con­ver­sa­tion Guides to learn about facil­i­tat­ing con­ver­sa­tions on dis­man­tling racism with­in youth-serv­ing systems.

3. Equip­ping old­er youth with finan­cial skills and experience 

The mon­ey allo­cat­ed to young peo­ple in the child wel­fare sys­tem is often with­held and used on their behalf — either by the sys­tem itself or by fos­ter par­ents. This approach can make it dif­fi­cult for a young per­son to devel­op the skills need­ed for finan­cial inde­pen­dence and secu­ri­ty. To help young peo­ple grow these skills, child wel­fare agen­cies should remove bar­ri­ers and spe­cif­ic require­ments that lim­it allow­able expenses. 

Learn about Casey’s Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port pro­gram, which helps adult allies work with young peo­ple on man­ag­ing their finances, inter­act­ing with the bank­ing sys­tem and sav­ing to secure and build assets. 

4. Ensur­ing that youth learn prac­ti­cal skills as they begin to tran­si­tion out of fos­ter care

Between the ages of 14 to 24, most young peo­ple are explor­ing and affirm­ing their iden­ti­ty while busi­ly acquir­ing skills, rela­tion­ships and expe­ri­ences that can help thrive in adult­hood. Youth fos­ter care, how­ev­er, often miss out on these seem­ing­ly ordi­nary — yet crit­i­cal — opportunities. 

Accord­ing­ly, child wel­fare agen­cies should be delib­er­ate about prepar­ing young peo­ple for life after fos­ter care. This includes help­ing youth obtain a driver’s license, secure sta­ble hous­ing, land an intern­ship and oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn, expe­ri­ence, grow and build their confidence. 

Casey’s Road to Adult­hood and com­pan­ion resources, Brain Frames, dis­cuss how to pre­pare young peo­ple for adult­hood. The pub­li­ca­tions recommend: 

  • Assist­ing young par­ents in pur­su­ing self-suf­fi­cien­cy, healthy lifestyles and pos­i­tive relationships.

5. Acknowl­edg­ing trau­ma and pro­vid­ing a safe space for healing

Young peo­ple in or exit­ing fos­ter care may feel that the world is against them. Social work­ers should lead by exam­ple — exhibit­ing empa­thy — and sup­port these youth in learn­ing how to man­age their emo­tion­al well-being and cope with trauma. 

No one wants to be the doer of wrong, espe­cial­ly harm to chil­dren and youth, but we must acknowl­edge that it takes place and allow for young peo­ple to express and address those harms,” says Jas­mine A. Snell, a Jim Casey Young Fellow. 

Casey’s Heal­ing Comes First encour­ages child wel­fare agen­cies to pro­vide a space for heal­ing and growth to help young peo­ple rec­og­nize trau­ma, func­tion nor­mal­ly in the face of risk and ulti­mate­ly over­come dif­fi­cult con­di­tions that are often beyond their control.

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