Method: A comparative case study was conducted across three youth serving systems: child welfare, juvenile justice, and disability services. Each of these areas has established structures that provide potential resources to support youth civic engagement but also operate within institutionalized structures that can limit opportunities for full inclusion. For each area we conducted a review of the empirical literature and policy frameworks to explore the research questions: (1) What federal/state policies support youth civic engagement in each system? (2) What programs and interventions are utilized in each system? (3) What are commonalities and differences across the three systems? The literature search examined relevant databases using the search terms “civic engagement” AND “child welfare”, “juvenile justice”, or “youth with disabilities”. Data were analyzed using comparative thematic analysis.
Results: Four key areas of comparison were identified. (1) Macro/systemic factors that disempower young people in these systems include the school-to-prison pipeline (juvenile justice), lack of family support (child welfare); race/ethnic/class biases; cultures of “control” and “safety”; lack of sufficient funding support; (2) Policy review identified each systems’ relevant policy guidance on civic engagement (e.g., Foster Care Independence Act); (3) The three systems used various strategies for supporting civic engagement: youth advisory boards, youth organizing, volunteering, and political advocacy, for example. Some strategies are more common in some systems than others (e.g., youth advisory boards are well established in child welfare; among youth with disabilities strategies are closely tied to the educational system). (4) Each system offered unique observations not shared by others. For example, “independence” is a strong value within disability services systems; hence, civic engagement strategies are closely tied to skill building for independence.
Implications: This analysis identified some systemic barriers that must be addressed as well as arenas of opportunity for building civic engagement. Both “within” system opportunities (e.g., advocating for rights of foster youth) and external opportunities (e.g., serving on a community youth board) are needed, but serve different functions for youth. Additionally, school systems, with a universal mission (serving all young people) provide a mechanism for inclusion. Much of the impetus for civic engagement efforts in schools derives from educators however social work, with its emphasis on social justice, has a particular role to play to ensure marginalized youth have opportunities to engage in civic life. Given the documented benefits of civic engagement for young people and communities, and the evidence suggesting unequal access to these opportunities, this research contributes to understanding opportunities and barriers for system-involved youth.