Abstract: Authentic Youth Engagement: Definitions, Benefits, Barriers, and Recommendations from the Child Welfare Workforce (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Authentic Youth Engagement: Definitions, Benefits, Barriers, and Recommendations from the Child Welfare Workforce

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Encanto A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Lori Vanderwill, Ph.D., Research Scientist, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Sierra Wollen, MSW, Research Scientist, University of Washington, WA
Angelique Day, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Background/Purpose: The child welfare system is designed to prioritize protecting children, often at the expense of understanding and engaging them. By focusing on protecting youth, child welfare and court staff may decide “what is best” on their own, rather than working with youth to determine what will help them thrive. Ensuring youth are authentically engaged, particularly in permanency decisions, requires a paradigm shift in how the child welfare system views youth in care. The Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency (QIC-EY) has sought the expertise of the workforce to understand their experiences engaging youth.

Methods: QIC-EY utilized a Workforce Advisory Council to recruit workforce experts (N=15) for individual interviews regarding authentic youth engagement. Workforce experts represented both private (47%) and public (53) child welfare agencies across several states. Workforce experts held roles as child welfare supervisors (n=5), case managers or child family specialists (n=4), executive leadership (n=4) and child welfare administrators (n=2). Individual interviews occurred in the first months of 2022 and were approximately 60 minutes in length and completed virtually utilizing Zoom. The interviews were then transcribed verbatim and analyzed using a framework analysis approach (Goldsmith, 2021) in Dedoose by three reviewers.

Results: Findings indicate the level of youth engagement varied by age with ages 12, 14, and 16 being key timepoints in which policy dictated the type of engagement required. The most frequent description of authentic youth engagement during case planning was the use of teaming or conferencing with the youth and their permanency team. Workers indicated the benefits of authentic youth engagement included promoting a sense of personal empowerment for youth, improved wellbeing of the youth, and improved staff knowledge which helped them manage cases effectively while minimizing youth resistance. The Workforce identified agency policy and norms as a barrier to authentic youth engagement. This included time constraints due to large caseloads, worker turnover, and managing policy/agency requirements. Worker mindset was also cited as a barrier as some workers believe they “know best” and follow a culture of safety/protection over authentic engagement.

Conclusions and Implications: Authentic youth engagement benefits both the child/youth and the agency by increasing efficacy of case management and improving child/youth well-being. The workforce understands the importance of youth engagement but feel that the time and space is not provided in the current structures of child welfare to engage youth truly and authentically in permanency planning. Many policies surrounding engagement are age based and largely do not consider youth under the age of 12 as active participants in their permanency planning. It is recommended that more training is needed for both workers and supervisors to support this shift in mindset. Funding and supports to reduce worker turnover and increase time allocated to each youth is also needed to build youth engagement opportunities.