Strategies for Engaging Foster Care Youth in Permanency Planning Family Team Conferences
Studies overwhelmingly report youth perceive limited opportunities to participate in decision-making while in foster care. When given the opportunity, youth do not feel prepared, do not fully understand the issues under consideration, and do not believe their wishes were heard; however, they consistently state a desire to have “a voice” in decision-making. From a human rights perspective, youth have a legal right to participate in decision-making. From an empowerment perspective, youth gain information about their options and rights, develop an understanding the decision making process, develop decision-making skills, and gain a sense of control in the process. From an enlightenment perspective, youth provide up to date, relevant information about their experiences that can lead to more comprehensive and better-informed decision-making.
This study examined the strategies FTC facilitators used to engage youth, ages 18-21, in child welfare decision-making in the context of Permanency Planning Family Team Conferences (FTC) held in a large urban area. Family team conferencing is a strengths-based, family focused intervention designed to engage family members, foster parents, caregivers, community members, and child welfare professionals in decision making related to child safety, permanency and well being. FTC's are facilitated by a trained facilitator.
Methods: The qualitative method employed in this study is focused ethnography; characterized by relatively short-term field visits, intensive data collection and intensive data analysis. Data collection included observations of permanency planning conferences (n=18), followed by in-depth interviews with young people (n=18) and FTC facilitators (n=17). Grounded theory conventions for data analysis, including initial coding, focused coding, theoretical coding, and analytic memos, were used. Data analysis focused on gaining a deeper understanding of how youth were incorporated into decision-making, including a comparison of youth and conference facilitators’ perceptions and experiences, and the specific strategies facilitators used to engage youth in decision-making at the FTC.
Results: Findings revealed two different facilitation styles. Some facilitators, described as “adult-centric” placed adults at the center of decision making by failing to engage youth, silencing the youth voice, adopting the adult or professional narrative, and going through the motions. Other facilitators, described as “youth centric” placed youth at the center of decision making by establishing trust, encouraging youth to speak, adapting the youth narrative, and demonstrating genuine care and concern. These facilitation styles will be demonstrated through case illustrations and examples.
Conclusions and Implications: Findings offer policymakers, administrators and practitioners recommendations and strategies for improving policy and practice focused on engaging youth in child welfare decision-making focused on permanency planning and transitioning to adulthood.