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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