Abstract: Ensuring Authentic Youth Engagement in Child Welfare Case Planning Efforts: Voices of Youth with Lived Experience (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Ensuring Authentic Youth Engagement in Child Welfare Case Planning Efforts: Voices of Youth with Lived Experience

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 benefits of youth engagement in permanency planning have been demonstrated with research, however, current child welfare practice is not centered on youth voice or engagement (Saunders & Mace, 2006). This is partly due to a focus on safety, which leads child welfare workers and court staff to decide what avenue is best for the youth. The Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency (QIC-EY) has sought the expertise of the youth with lived experience to understand their experiences with engagement in permanency planning.

Methods: QIC-EY utilized a Youth Engagement Advisory Council to recruit youth with lived experience (N=15) for individual interviews regarding authentic youth engagement. Youth with lived experience ranged in age from 18 to 26 years and represented nine states. Five of the youth aged out of care, five were adopted from care, three experienced reunification, and two were placed with kinship guardians. Age at the time of exiting care ranged from 6 to 21 years. Individual interviews occurred the first months of 2022, were completed virtually on Zoom, and averaged 60 minutes in length. The interviews were then transcribed verbatim and analyzed using a framework analysis approach (Goldsmith, 2021) using Dedoose software by three reviewers.

Results: Youth described varying situations of their placement and exit from care. The uniqueness of each case further justifies the use of youth engagement to understand each need. While some youth reported a positive engaging experience with their workers, others described not feeling heard. Youth stated they often did not understand what was happening, felt their desire for a permanency plan was dismissed, were fearful of speaking up for themselves, and were reduced to providing yes or no answers. Those who had positive experiences stated workers listened to them, talked them through the process, provided information and options, and advocated for their needs and preferences. Youth recommended reducing caseloads to allow workers time to authentically engage, training workers to get to know the child and their story, ask clarifying questions, and be honest and transparent with the process and situation. Youth want to be involved from the beginning, even when things must move quickly, and want workers to take the time to explain what is happening.

Conclusions: The experiences of youth in care vary widely. As such, engaging youth from the beginning in permanency decisions will help the youth feel more secure throughout this traumatic time and allow the worker to fully understand the situation. Workers must elicit information from the youth on their desires, discuss options, and be transparent about barriers and processes. Youth want to be engaged, be listened to, and have their responses be reflected in the conversation around permanency planning, even if their desire is not possible. To make this possible, workers need to have smaller caseloads and training on how to elicit, inform, and partner with youth.