Methods: Youth were recruited in child welfare court to participate in the Texas Youth Permanency Study, a 5-year mixed-methods study. In year one, 108 youth completed an online survey and 54 youth participated in interviews. Participants were 14 to 20 years old (M= 16.5 years, SD=1.35); 59% female; 65% Hispanic; 46% White, 16% Black, and 19% multi-racial. Survey questions explored the frequency of attending court, speaking directly with the judge, and feeling heard; support by caseworkers; and participation in placement decisions. Multiple regression was used to identify factors associated with participation in decision-making. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gain a deeper understanding of youth’ experiences. Interviews were transcribed verbatim; analysis was guided by consensual qualitative research.
Results: Results of a multiple linear regression model controlling for demographics suggested that frequency of attending court, speaking directly with the judge, and feeling heard by the judge explained 21% of the variance in youth participation in placement decisions (F(8, 63)=2.07; p=.05; R2=.21). Youth’ perception that the judge was listening to what they had to say, was significantly associated with participation in placement decisions (B=.39; t(71)=2.89; p=.005), however the mere frequency of attending court and speaking with the judge were not significantly associated. A second model examined the added effect of caseworker support and explained 37% of the variance in youth participation (F (9, 62)=4.08; p=.000; R2=.37). Caseworker support was significantly associated with participation in placement decisions (B=.51; t(71)=4.03; p=.000).
In interviews, youth highlighted the importance of receiving timely and transparent information from caseworkers prior to attending court, which helped them feel prepared and included in the process. More than anything, youth not only wanted to have a voice, but know that their voice was being used. Attending court was an empowering experience when judges met with them in chamber, considered their perspective, and explained difficult decisions. In these instances, judges became positive authority figures that provided needed guidance.
Conclusions & Implications: Our findings demonstrate the critical importance of youth voice in case planning, especially at the transition to adulthood. Beyond encouraging youth attendance in court, youth engagement in decision-making requires that adults involved in the legal case listen actively, are transparent about the process, share information in a timely manner, and provide options. Training for judges and caseworkers on eliciting youth voice and working collaboratively with youth could improve decision-making and empower youth at pivotal moments in their lives.